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History of Steam Yacht Gondola

Archive black and white photograph of the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston Water, Lake District
Archive photograph of the Steam Yacht Gondola | © National Trust

It may offer a little piece of Venice on Coniston Water, but the Steam Yacht Gondola is not simply a pleasant boat trip. To sail aboard Gondola is to take part in a long heritage of tourism, an activity which is at the very fabric and culture of the Lake District. Gondola is a moving part of the Lake District’s history, with her story rooted on Coniston Water.

The Venetian Gondola

It’s a sailing experience which takes you back as far as the late 18th century when the first Picturesque travellers were arriving in the Lake District.

The Venetian form of Gondola acts as a reflection of wider social and cultural events which were occurring at the time of her conception.

Sir James Ramsden, Director of the Furness Railway Company, had been to Venice in 1850 and recognised an opportunity to link a pleasure cruise to the Coniston railway line.

The design of Gondola was intended to take advantage of the growing mass of relatively wealthy working-class tourists born of the industrial revolution who could sail on Coniston Water and experience the elegance of European travel, previously a preserve of the aristocracy.

Sir James’ foresight proved to be accurate and tourists came in their droves on the first packaged tours, which involved epic journeys combining steam train, boat and carriage trips around the Lakes.

Passengers aboard the Gondola, a rebuilt Victorian steam-powered yacht, on Coniston Water, Lake District
A summer's ride on the Gondola | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

John Ruskin and the Lake District

John Ruskin (1819–1900), the eminent Victorian artist, writer and social reformer, lived at Brantwood on the east shore of Coniston. He wrote the ‘Stones of Venice’ in which he compares the Lake District and Venice as landscapes under threat from mass tourism.

His views inspired his friends Canon Rawnsley and Octavia Hill about the idea of landscape and nature conservation, which eventually brought about the birth of the National Trust.

A threat to Coniston?

There’s anecdotal evidence from local families that Ruskin did sail on Gondola during his lifetime. If so, he would likely have detested the black smelly smoke emitting from Gondola’s funnel, which now runs on environmentally friendly blazer logs. He may have viewed it as a threat to the clean air and natural beauty of his beloved Coniston.

In an ironic twist, Gondola ended up being saved by the organisation he inspired. Today the National Trust looks after this moving piece of the cultural landscape of Coniston so that everyone can enjoy an authentic re-creation of the Victorian tourism experience.

Passengers aboard the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston Water, Lake District, Cumbria

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Find out when the Steam Yacht Gondola cruises, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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