The iconic row boats are currently submerged in water close to the shore of Windermere, at Bowness, in the Lake District. It’s part of a traditional method called “swelling” which makes them watertight again after drying out in storage over the winter.

Historic row boats have “swell” old time ahead of Lake District passenger trips!

Published: 12th March 2024

They may look slightly sunk but Windermere’s historic wooden row boats are actually undergoing an age-old process to prepare them for carrying passenger later this month!

Windermere Lake Cruises has a fleet of around 55 wooden row boats and many of the craft date back to the 1930s. Traditional clinker-built boats have been a popular attraction on Windermere since Victorian times.

“We give them a lot of care and attention over the winter months to make sure they are preserved for future generations to enjoy,” explains Nick Thompson, Operations Manager at Windermere Lake Cruises.

“But that conservation work means they are out of water and in our work sheds where they dry out, the planks shrink and they develop leaks.”

Row boats stacked for winter in a shed and a Windermere Lake Cruises employee working on restoring them

“So, before they return to passenger duty for the main visitor season, we put them through this traditional process of ‘swelling’,” explains Nick.

“By submerging them in water the wood expands and naturally closes any gaps. They will be left submerged for about a week before we pump them out and see if the swelling has been fully effective.”

BBC Logo with photo of Nishma Hindocha from BBC Radio Cumbria

Did you hear us on BBC Radio Cumbria? Listen again to the interview with Nick Thompson & Nishma Hindocha from BBC Radio Cumbria

Once the boats are watertight and floating they are fitted with their floorboards, footrests and seating and finally checked by inspectors who licence them for operation.

Windermere’s wooden row boats are immensely popular with visitors to the Lake District – partly because of their long history.

“They used to be very much a first-class way of travelling on the lake,” says Nick Thompson. “Victorian ladies would be rowed across Windermere to the area known as Strawberry Gardens to enjoy an afternoon tea. In those days the boats were very plush with lovely cushions to make the ride extra luxurious,” explains Nick.

“We still call the buildings that house our information centre in Bowness Bay the “cushion huts” because that’s where the cushions used to be stored.”

A cople in a traditional rowning boat on Lake Windermere

The wooden row boats will be back in service on Saturday, March 23 when the full visitor season begins. That’s also when the company’s traditional historic “steamers” Tern, Teal and Swan return to full passenger service along with the full range of cruises on England’s largest natural lake.

Cruises can be combined with visits to other popular attractions like the Lakeland Motor Museum at Backbarrow with its incredible collection of 140 classic cars and motorbikes and 30,000 items of automobilia.

Did you see us on ITV Border? Watch the interview with Nick Thompson, Mark Fleming & Fiona Marley Paterson from ITV.

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