Ullswater is often described as England’s most beautiful lake and it’s hard to disagree with its top billing.
Not only does it boast stunning scenery with a mix of mountains, woodland and water, there are plenty of hiking trails and scenic walks for hardened ramblers and leisure walkers alike.
But by far the best way of exploring the lake is from the water and I’d strongly recommend a sailing or canoeing trip. So this weekend I took to Ullswater as part of the Swallow Boats Rally.
It was my first sailing trip of the summer. Swallow Boats hold rallies at different locations across Britain during the sailing season from Cornwall to Scotland.
As a novice sailor, this was my first ever rally so I was keen to join the jamboree and the flotilla of boats on the nine-mile trip around the lake.
It was also another first. Glenridding Sailing Centre was where I sailed for the first time last year when we bought our first boat – a Swallow BayRaider 17.
Back then, we were pretty inexperienced but enthusiastic sailors. We made a few mistakes but learned a lot too – like the importance of having an outboard motor in case of emergencies!
This time round, we were feeling a lot more confident about sailing the boat and dealing with Ullswater’s notoriously tricky and changeable weather.
Only days earlier Tony had been studying for his day skipper’s yachting qualification which I hoped would hold us in good stead. I’d also taken the precaution of packing my waterproofs and a change of clothing after the last trip when I fell overboard.
Ullswater is my favourite of the Lake District’s lakes. Wordsworth was inspired to write his ‘Daffodils’ poem here. He also wrote that it possessed “the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur which any of the Lakes affords”.
There are breathtaking views wherever you look with Place Fell dominating the east side of the ribbon-shaped lake and the Helvellyn ridge to the west.
Ullswater also has a fantastic boating tradition. Donald Campbell set the world speed record here in 1955 with his jet-propelled hydroplane Bluebird K7, hitting a speed of 202.32 mph.
For us, this was to be a much more relaxing affair even if we did plan to sail close to where Campbell set his famous speed record. We would be sailing at a mere 5 knots, around 5mph
On the water
Sailing rallies are a great way of getting on the water with a bunch of like-minded people with a passion for yachting. Plus the views at Ullswater aren’t bad either.
I’ve never sailed in a flotilla of small boats before so I was looking forward to joining the party.
On this trip there were three types of boat – the BayRaider 20, the slightly shorter BayRaider 17 and the Expedition which boasts a small but surprisingly spacious cabin. I have to admit that I developed a bad case of ‘cabin envy’ when the rain started.
Swallow Boats are a little bit special. They’re an adult version of the traditional wooden boats which you might remember if you were a fan of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The lovely Shuna – pictured below – is a particularly good example of a Swallow boat.
Our boat – Tripos – was one of the more modest yachts at the rally but was still a thing of beauty. She looked simply gorgeous.
She’s a 17 feet long yawl built in a traditional style that reminds me of a Dutch yacht without a cabin.
Tripos looks really pretty with its deep blue body, wooden masts and billowing, cream sails. Since our first trip (pictured below), we’ve added to her on board facilities with a picnic table, outboard motor and oars (just in case).
Swallow Boats produce high quality boats that combine – in their words – “traditional styling, innovative design and modern performance”.
They’re the perfect fusion of old and new if you like your boats with a retro feel and style. I love these boats because they have real class and authenticity.
As well as the boats at our rally, Swallow also make many more models including a Storm 17, which sounds like tempting fate, if you ask me!
High noon came upon us and it was time for the flotilla to sail and head down the lake towards Howtown about six miles away.
We launched our boat last and sailed at the rear of the bigger group – interestingly, we almost kept up with the faster and bigger boats.
There wasn’t much wind but the occasional gust and eddy helped us move along at a gentle pace whilst the lake was – to my great relief – as flat as a pancake.
Then came our first funny incident which from now on will be called the ‘strange incident of the cushion’.
I’d taken a soft cushion to protect my back bad but after we tacked for the first time, it seemed to have vanished.
Next thing, I spotted it floating away in the distance, Captain Tony having knocked it over the side as he steered the boat around. It was floating further and further away from us.
It was too late and tricky to go back and retrieve it. So much for home comforts on this trip then!
It was really great sailing along at such a relaxing pace. I felt at one with nature and the scenery.
A large family of geese with their ducklings swam past in their own flotilla whilst a buzzard hovered above on the thermals.
The Ullswater Steamer sped by every 20 minutes in each direction – and we managed to avoid getting into its path and running the gauntlet.
After a leisurely cruise lasting 50 minutes, we reached the bay at Howtown where we landed and hopped off for a picnic lunch.
But there was one drawback — it took ages and ages to navigate our way around the bay as we tacked and tacked again, time after time.
I was almost dizzy with the number of tacks it took to get the boat onto the slipway as we zigzagged slowly towards the shoreline.
Eventually we arrived one by one and enjoyed our packed lunch.
I had a quick wander around but discovered that Howtown is less of a town and more of a sleepy hamlet.
In fact, there are only two buildings, the Outward Bound Centre, a small hut and the jetty where the Ullswater Steamer pulls in to make its pick-ups.
After lunch, it was back on board for the return leg which was going to be much slower as the wind was against us and sometimes dropped to a whisper.
Trying to build up any momentum was really hard as the wind kept dropping and shifting by the minute.
But Captain Tony was in his element, trimming his sails and trying out technical adjustments, something that always worries me!
Hats off to our captain though because he sailed the boat really well in not entirely easy conditions even if we were last to return to the Glenridding Sailing Centre.
We’d learned so much more on our sailing voyage of discovery.
Exchanging sailing tips
Once back on dry land, it was time to exchange stories and sailing tips. Did you know that there’s a special widget device that you can get for your blah blah blah? And so on…
I never understand these sailing conversations but I am trying to work out what’s going on with the technical stuff.
After all, you never know when it might come in useful and save your life if you get into tricky waters!
We were greatly impressed by Anthony and Myf from Huntingdon with their boat, Emily. They had taken four years to make her from a kit, a bit like constructing a Morgan car.
They were kind enough to explain how everything had fitted together and how they’d built their boat in between leading their everyday lives, moving house and going on sailing holidays in Greece. It was no mean feat.
I saw a glint in Tony’s eyes and wondered if he’d hit on the idea of doing the same. The thought of having a boat built in our living room (we don’t have a large shed) was a bit worrying. It was bad enough when Tony caught the bug for building a canoe!
I managed to head off that idea at the pass, but I think he’s still tempted by a major boat construction project.
Everyone agreed that the rally had been a great success, even if the weather had been a bit calmer than we’d hoped for. Guess we’ll have to come back and do it again next year in different conditions.
Next day, the weather looked ominously dark and cloudy over the lake with only a few gusts of wind.
We figured that it mightn’t be ideal sailing weather but Captain Tony decided to head off on his own anyway whilst I stayed wrapped up warm in the camper van.
He launched the boat in the lashing rain and headed up to Norfolk Island in the centre of Ullswater. The others had sailed earlier and already they were making good progress up the lake.
After an hour of getting drenched, Tony decided to throw in the (very wet) towel and came back in. He was followed one-by-one by the rest of the Swallow boats. The weather had turned really cold and unseasonably wet for June.
It was time to exchange more top sailing tips and dreams of trips and rallies in sunnier climes like Southern France and Greece.
One couple told us about their favourite French “raid”, a super-big rally, like a festival of the sea, with hundreds of small boats making stops at different bays. Trips to posh restaurants and charming towns in Brittany are part of the event. Sounds like my sort of sailing vacation.
It’s great to listen to other more experienced sailors and the whole event made me realise that I must join a proper dinghy course!
I have been rebuilding my confidence too. It was the first time I’ve been back in our boat after an unfortunate capsizing incident last summer when I had to be rescued by the emergency crew from the murky waters of the Derwent Reservoir.
Despite a few jittery moments, I was OK with everything on this trip. I had been determined to get back in the boat and regain my confidence.
This was a great way to do it in style with a group of experts who know their boats like true sailors.
As we waved everyone farewell at the end of the weekend, I felt like this had been a really good way to spend a few days at Ullswater, with a mix of sailing and social activities thrown in.
Next time, we’ll try an excursion to the top end of the lake and sail up to Pooley Bridge for afternoon tea and scones at the charming Sharrow Bay Hotel.
Hey, we might even stock up on champagne for a cheeky glass of vino on board!
Tammy’s Guide to Ullswater
Ullswater is located at the top end of the Lake District in the north-west of England. The nearest towns are Glenridding and Pooley Bridge.
The Glenridding Sailing Centre is a short walk or drive from Glenridding village.
The sailing club runs classes and courses for all abilities and age groups. You can also hire a canoe, kayak or small dinghy. It’s a very friendly set-up with lots of experts who can help.
For those who don’t want the challenge of sailing their own boat, take a trip on the Ullswater steamer from Howtown to Glenridding. It’s a great way of seeing the scenery and wildlife.
Wrap up warm and take layers. The Lake District is well-known for its changeable weather – you can get four seasons in one day.
At Glenridding Sailing Centre you can launch your own boat or hire one of theirs – and even take a course of sailing lessons. It’s good value and the staff are very helpful.
There are plenty of places to stay overnight in Glenridding from large hotels like the Best Western and the Inn on the Lake to smaller B & Bs and camp sites.
We stayed at the Gillside Farm camp site at the back of Glenridding village which has a camping field and a motor home and chalet site over the way. The Travellers’ Rest is an easy five minute walk away and offers decent pub grub. So does the Glenridding Hotel in the village next to the sailing centre.