Rob Beale: Windermere, the highway

One of the many beautiful and long-lasting lake steamers illustrated by Rob Beale was Swift of 1900. Rob is skipper of her 2019 successor

A good crowd of CRSC members and friends was in attendance on Wednesday 8 February 2023 for Rob Beale’s much-anticipated survey of commercial boating on Lake Windermere. Introduced by CRSC president Robin Copland as ‘the young lad’, Rob gave a presentation that would have fascinated any audience, not just ‘steamer dreamers’ like us — such was the extraordinary history of the lake, matched by Rob’s delivery skills. Beneath Stuart Craig’s write-up you will find a video of the entire presentation.

In the early 19th century the lake developed into a highway for shoreside industries, with versatile barges for transportation

Rob Beale is a well kent figure in shipping circles. He is a regular attender at CRSC meetings (despite living in Kendal) as well as a participant on our cruises and charters — and he travels on Scotland’s ferries and inland loch vessels as frequently as he can.

Being a skipper of passenger vessels on Lake Windermere, he knows a thing or two about his subject, which quickly became clear from his well-structured presentation, delivered without notes.

He started by showing us the earliest evidence, dating back eight millennia, of human habitation on the shores of England’s largest natural lake. The Romans and the Vikings followed, and in time the lake became a ‘highway’ through Cumbria.

Tourism took off in the early 19th century and ‘viewing stations’ sprang up at six points along the lake. To access these, tourists needed boats — and thus the network of vessels and piers on the lake grew.

Scheduled sailings started to operate in 1836, and the first paddle-steamer (Lady of the Lake) in 1845. By this time the railway had arrived at Lakeside at the southern tip of Windermere – giving a further impetus to the nascent tourist trade.

One of the double-ended paddlers that made their presence felt on the lake in the 1850s

Rob gave us a roll-call of all the ships that had sailed on the lake, some of them built by T. B. Seath of Rutherglen. He started with Lady of the Lake, and explained the competition between the two main companies that operated in the 1840s and 50s.  Soon the pair amalgamated and were eventually taken over by the LMS. After railways nationalisation in 1948 came ownership by British Railways. An eclectic mix of smaller boats integrated with the big boys in 1993, when the company returned to private ownership – now known as Windermere Lake Cruises.

Among the most iconic ships that are still sailing are Tern (1891), Teal  (1936) and Swan (1938). The last two are almost identical but Rob gave us a clue to separating them – count the windows on the sides of the forward saloon! Today the fleet consists of 17 craft. The most recent addition is the large and spacious Swift, built in 2019 in Holland (some parts in Poland), assembled at Lakeside and skippered by none other than our guest speaker.

Rob evidently loves his job. He concluded his talk by giving us a virtual tour of his ship with the caveat that he was ‘not an engineer’. This was ably illustrated when he described the engines as a big green box’ and assured us that the control panel was not as complex as it looked: ‘Everything is okay if all the lights are at green!’

He finished with a welcome to us all: ‘Please come for a sail, and if you do, ask for me.’

So let’s do that – only let’s all go at the same time!

As soon as you start the video, please make use of the ‘full screen’ version by clicking on the small box in the bottom righthand corner. Thanks to Robert Newth and John Newth for technical support.

After his talk Rob Beale (third from left) was congratulated by (left to right) John Newth, George Beale, Robin Copland, Neil Guthrie and Robin Urie

Rob Beale has been a member of CRSC for 15 years. Are you a member of this friendly association of ship enthusiasts? Click here for your £10 introductory membership and you’ll get all the benefits, including CRSC’s highly prized colour magazine, the annual Review of west coast shipping and exclusive access to photo-rich ‘members only’ posts on this website.

Published on 10 February 2023