Ullswater is England's second largest lake, however, it is overshadowed by its near neighbour to the south - Windermere. Many ship enthusiasts will be aware of the classic railway "steamers" which have operated on Windermere for many years. My first journey with British Railways Sealink was on the Windermere "steamers" in the 1970s. Later the Windermere operation was privatised and as with the rest of Sealink passed to Sea Containers.
Sea Containers ownership even survived the Stena sale, though eventually, the Windermere then trading as the Windermere Iron Steam Boat Company was sold into local ownership in one of Sea Containers period bouts of asset disposals and now trades as Windermere Lake Cruises.
However, to the north of Windermere lies Ullswater, home of the grandly titled "Ullswater Navigation and Transit Company Ltd". Unlike the "steamer" operation on Windermere, there has been little in the way of change when it comes to ownership and long term continuity appears to have been the order of the day.
The original company was established to provide passenger, mail and freight transport services on Ullswater and dates back to 1859. In that year the P.S. ENTERPRISE entered service on the lake. She remained in service until around the time the present LADY OF THE LAKE was delivered in 1877.
In the early days of operation, with poor roads in the area the lake steamers provided the principal means of communication to the communities around the lake.
I "discovered" the Ullswater Steamers some years ago when browsing the web for shipping material. I had been aware of their presence before that, but being principally interested in sea going vessels I had not paid that much attention. Back in 2001 I completed the response frame on the company's excellent web site [Some large shipping companies could learn something from this!] and a leaflet duly arrived. However, I never appeared to get round to going up to Ullswater. The same happened in 2002 - a trip on the steamers remained on the "must see" list.
Then finally in April 2003, I decided to make the effort and point the car up the M6 and proceeded beyond the Heysham bound slip road my usual turn off point thanks to the strong attraction of the BEN-MY-CHREE! I am glad I made the effort.
However, my visit was nearly frustrated by lack of car parking space and I would recommend anyone visiting the steamers to get there early if they want convenient parking.
Being nearest to the M6 I headed to the Pooley Bridge terminal. The small car park is located a few hundred yards from the diminutive terminal building. However, despite it only being around 11:20 its was completely full!. No chance of road side parking - yellow lines.
So off down to the other end of the lake at Glenridding. The terminal and car park is located at the end of a long drive leading from the village. The car park is bigger than that at Pooley Bridge, however, it was also full, and it took a while before a space became vacant. Given the amount of open land nearby, it is a pity that the size of the car park cannot be expanded.
The terminal building and pier at Glenridding are of an interesting design. They also appear to be newly constructed or at least very heavily rebuilt. In fact the whole UN&TCo operation appears to display exceptionally high standards of maintenance both for the terminal structures and the vessels.
The terminal houses toilets, a coffee / souvenir shop with inside and outside seating on the pier as well as a booking facility.
The Ullswater Navigation and Transit Company operation appears to have well and truly embraced modern technology despite the great age of its fleet with ticketing computerised.
After a quick cup of tea MV Raven could be seen approaching the Pier on the 12:00 sailing from Pooley Bridge. She came alongside was made fast and the gangway was put in place. The Captain dressed in traditional captain's rig gave details of return sailings over the pa system. The crew carefully scrutinised everyone's ticket as they boarded.
I must admit the moment I stepped on board RAVEN I was impressed. Was this ship really 114 years old? To use motor trader vocabulary - she was in showroom condition. Exceptionally, clean, tidy and maintained to an obviously exceedingly high standard. To be honest there have been very few vessels I have travelled on which have been so well presented and that is no exaggeration. Passengers enter on the main promenade deck. They can decent to the open seating at the rear down one or two stairs each side of the funnel.
There is a good mix of seating on RAVEN. Open at the stern and on the foredeck. Semi open on the main promenade deck, with a canvas canopy. A staircase immediately forward of the funnel leads down into the well stocked buffet bar.
The bar has a range of beers - mainly canned, sprits and wine - including mulled wine, plus tea and coffee and soft drinks. A range of snacks is also available. My father and I shared between us a two large wholemeal rolls one containing beef and horseradish sauce the other smoked cheese and walnuts. At only £2.50 each they were very filling given the generous size and are probably the best on board sandwich / roll I have ever had on any ship!
To the aft of the bar is the Ladies toilet. Passing through from the bar into the main saloon there are comfortable side benches with well upholstered seat cushions. The saloon is divided down the middle by a partition onto which are fixed flaps, these can obviously be lifted to provide for a large table if required for special functions. However, these flaps were folded down and along side the ventral partition were small tables with additional stools.
A door on the port side of the saloon leads onto the foredeck. Immediately on the right is the Gents toilet. Again the very high standard of overall accommodation was displayed here too! From the foredeck a staircase leads up to the bridge, which is located at a slightly higher level than the main promenade deck. This staircase is reserved for crew use only.
Well varnished seating is also provided in the foredeck area. At the bow the anchor is stored.
Departure from Glenridding Pier was on time at 13:05. Crewmen standing in the bow and stern open areas during departures to ensure passengers do not put their hands over the side as the vessel accelerates away from the pier. Interestingly the crew wear sweaters of traditional sailor pattern, though all bear the company's web page address!
Once off Glenridding Pier a sharp turn to port is required to face up the lake. Steering on the RAVEN appears to be rather old fashioned with chain links visible leading down each side of the vessel to the stern. These are just visible in the seating area provided around the fine counter stern.
Away from the pier one is surprised by the very low level of noise and vibration from these vessels. I have travelled on quite a few small vessels and quite often noise and vibration can be a problem. However, RAVEN proved to be smooth running and quiet.
RAVEN appears to display a good turn of speed, once away from the pier she appeared to make progress quite quickly, proximity to the water probably accentuating the impression of speed.
A sailings to Pooley Bridge call at Howtown enroute. However short sailings are provided between Howtown and Pooley Bridge and Howtown and Glenridding. Some passengers were picked up at Howtown including some cyclists before RAVEN set off for Pooley Bridge.
The company's recently acquired passenger launch LADY DOROTHY passed operating a Pooley Bridge - Howtown sailing. Arrival at Pooley Bridge was five minutes early at 13:55. Pooley Bridge Pier is quite long and leads to a quaint, traditional terminal building which houses a booking facility and coffee shop.
There was a good change over of passengers at Pooley Bridge. One gets the impression that the Ullswater Steamers are used as a transport facility in their own right, rather than just a round trip circular tour.
I nipped ashore for a few minutes for photographs. Departure was prompt at 14:15. Again LADY DOROTHY passed heading back to Pooley Bridge from Howtown.
As we approached Howtown Pier LADY OF THE LAKE could be seen still on the pier, her 14:20 sailing to Glenridding obviously running late. She also appeared to be quite well loaded. The captain advised passengers that we would have to slow, and wait for the LADY to clear. After a brief wait at Howtown for disembarking passengers, the LADY OF THE LAKE having taken up those wishing to board we set off back to Glenridding, the LADY OF THE LAKE remaining visible a good distance in front. By the time we approached the Glenridding Pier, the LADY OF THE LAKE had already berthed.
Arrival at Glenridding was at 15:10 on schedule, the captain advising passengers from Pooley Bridge, that the 15:30 departure would be the last sailing that day from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge, though there would be a later sailing to Howtown. Soon after we arrived the LADY OF THE LAKE departed for another short sailing up to Howtown, still running a few minutes behind schedule. But when you are the oldest working passenger ship in Britain I suppose a little late running can be forgiven!
I stepped ashore pleased that I had discovered these historic little ships. I did contemplate waiting for the LADY OF THE LAKE to return and to take a short run up to Howtown on the 16:30 sailing. However, I decided against as I wanted to ensure I had a reason to drive beyond the Heysham / Lancaster junction again this year as I still need to take a trip on LADY OF THE LAKE! Instead I set off south to visit another place on my list of "must see" nautical venues - The Windermere Steam Boat Museum.
I would highly recommend a visit to the Ullswater Steamers for anyone interested in historic passenger ships. These are immaculately turned out little vessels, full of character, and large enough to be considered proper ships.
For full details of services which operate virtually all year [LADY DOROTHY operates in the winter service from November to March] you should visit the UN&TCo's web site at www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk . Frequency and timings vary depending on time of year