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TRAVEL: Sampling the delights of wonderful Windermere

The impressive Macdonald Old England Hotel and Spa dominates the waterfront
The impressive Macdonald Old England Hotel and Spa dominates the waterfront

As a gentle antidote to the rigours of daily life – and the busy streets outside – taking afternoon tea in the sedate lounge of a luxurious hotel, watching people below messing about in boats on England’s largest lake, takes a bit of beating.

There’s a lot of waterborne activity to be observed over cuppas, neatly cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones and other treats, in this tranquil spot in the heart of the Lake District’s most popular tourist destination, Bowness-on-Windermere.

Around 10,000 boats are said to be registered in the town, which lies halfway down the eastern shores of the 10-and-a-half-mile-long lake, amid the rugged scenery of this world-famous part of north-west England.

As the nearest access point to the waters for its conjoined village of Windermere, Bowness developed rapidly after the railway line from Oxenholme and Kendal reached there in 1847 and the Victorian influence is still evident everywhere. Successful businessmen from Lancashire built imposing homes overlooking the lake, many of which have since been converted into hotels.

Bowness-on-Windermere is a peaceful haven in the heart of the Lake District popular with sailing and water sports enthusiasts

The oldest part of the town, Lowside, is a charming tangle of winding streets, dating back to the days before the railway arrived. In its midst is St Martin’s Church, built in 1483 and one of the area’s most interesting buildings. The hugely atmospheric Hole in t’ Wall inn, which dates to around 1650, is also well worth a visit.

Bowness is busy with visitors for much of the year, with people travelling there for sailing and watersports and walking expeditions, as well as just to enjoy its scenic setting and atmosphere. It has become one of the main centres of outdoor activities in the UK.

It is also home to the World of Beatrix Potter, a family attraction filled with interactive exhibits celebrating the life and work of the author of children’s classics including Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin.

Steamers and launches operate from Bowness Bay to Waterhead at Ambleside at the northern tip of the lake and Lakeside at the southernmost end.

At Lakeside, steam train enthusiasts can enjoy a trip back in time through the wonderful scenery on the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway. The route is a section of what was once a longer line, owned by Victorian industrialist Henry Schneider.

Mr Schneider, whose grand mansion overlooking the lake at Bowness is now one of those converted into a hotel, would breakfast on his steamboat, the SL Esperance, as it made its way to Lakeside, then travel in a private train carriage to his steelworks in Barrow. The Esperance is now preserved at the Windermere Steamboat Museum.

No visit to the area would be complete without actually taking to the water. And sailing in the direction of the Lake District’s higher peaks on the way to Ambleside aboard the MV Tern, again stirs echoes of the Victorian era. The oldest working cruiser on the lake, the vessel, operated by Windermere Lake Cruises, was originally built as a steam-powered yacht, then converted to diesel power in 1956.

It is a one-mile walk from Waterhead Pier to the quaint streets of Ambleside. Like Bowness, the small town has become a major tourist destination, with shops, a wide selection of eating places and pubs, a cinema and a range of accommodation options.

A further short ferry ride away is Brockhole, the Lake District National Park Visitor Centre. Set in 30 acres of gardens, it offers boat and bike hire, a tree-top trek, laser clay-shooting and archery and a variety of family events.

Sailing slowly back into Bowness Bay on the return leg of the Windermere cruise provides an excellent view of the imposing four-star Macdonald Old England Hotel and Spa – scene of the afternoon tea referred to earlier – dominating the waterfront, among mature landscaped gardens on the water’s edge.

The 106-bedroom hotel was a luxurious and tranquil base for a two-night stay, particularly with a super-deluxe room overlooking the lake and its busy ferry berths.

Boasting two AA rosettes, the hotel’s restaurant gives diners the same fine views and serves a contemporary menu featuring quality local produce and organic ingredients. Light meals and those afternoon teas are served in the Terrace Bar and Lounge.

The Old England’s modern leisure centre features a fully equipped gym and a 20-yard swimming pool. A range of treatments, focused on helping guests rejuvenate, relax and revitalise, are available in the Windermere spa.

As a way of countering any lasting effects of afternoon tea over-indulgence, a few energetic lengths while watching the sun set over the lake through the pool’s glass wall also take a bit of beating.

As with many activities in the Covid-19 era, a bit of pre-planning is now needed to bag some time in the leisure facilities, with booking essential for the spa, pool and gym to ensure social distancing. It is one of an extensive range of measures in place to safeguard the health and safety of guest and staff throughout the hotel and Macdonald’s 40 other establishments around the UK under its Safe and Sound Charter. Full details of the charter are available on the group’s website.

  • Macdonald Old England Hotel
  • 23 Church St, Bowness-on-Windermere LA23 3DF
  • Call: 0344 879 9144
  • Visit:
  • Rooms start from around £200 per night on a B&B basis