Ruskin, Ransome and Campbell - three famous names linked to Coniston

Exterior sign on the Ruskin Museum

Exterior sign on the Ruskin Museum - Credit: Archant

Victorian critic, thinker and artist John Ruskin knew precisely where he had retired to, when he spent his last decades in an estate overlooking Coniston Water. Brantwood, Lancashire, was the simple postal address he used up to his death in 1900. So it is fitting that the museum which bears his name is celebrating its connections with the Palatine county.

Signs to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston

Signs to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston - Credit: Archant

John Ruskin Museum, off Yewdale Road, Coniston, is helping celebrate Lancashire Life’s 70th anniversary this year by submitting artefacts for public vote for our History of Lancashire in 70 Objects project. The final 70 items will appear in the magazine later in the year.

The museum has put forward five contenders: speed ace Donald Campbell’s fateful Bluebird K7; Mavis the boat that became Amazon in Arthur Ransome’s famous children’s books, which were all based in Coniston; a wax model of the Tilberthwaite slate stone over Ruskin’s Grave; a violin built by self-taught maker Bert Smith, whose instruments were loved by Yehudi Menuhin; and a sample of Ruskin lace worked by Elizabeth Pepper.

It comes as no surprise that the most votes so far have gone to Bluebird.

There were many Lancashire connections to the boat which crashed at 300mph and killed the legendary hero of speed records. The main frame was built by Accles and Pollock of Nelson and most of the rest of it was made at Samlesbury Engineering between Preston and Blackburn, a subsidiary of the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation which became BAE. Bluebird’s original engine, the Beryl, was built at Metropolitan-Vickers in Trafford Park.

Sailing boat Amazon provided inspiration for Arthur Ransomes childrens classic Swallows & Amazons

Sailing boat Amazon provided inspiration for Arthur Ransomes childrens classic Swallows & Amazons - Credit: Archant

The lasting love for Campbell, who was trying to break his own world water speed record on the Lancashire lake on January 4, 1967 when he died so spectacularly, was demonstrated when hundreds lined its shoreline to mark the 50th anniversary earlier this year.

His daughter Gina Cambell, now 67, clutched his mascot Mr Whoppit as she laid wreaths both on the surface of the lake at the spot the crash happened and at his grave.

‘I have been humbled by the people who have turned out to pay their respects to my father. My dad would have been chuffed to see them all,’ said Gina, who now lives in Leeds, and attended all the events put on by the K7 club and Speed Records Club.

Also on the launch which took family and friends to the scene of the crash was Don Wales, nephew of Donald Campbell, and cousin of Gina, who was just six when Donald Campbell died but was inspired to become a record breaker himself, holding the speed record for electric cars among others.

The Bluebird Wing, Ruskin Museum

The Bluebird Wing, Ruskin Museum - Credit: Archant

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Part of Bluebird is on display at John Ruskin Museum. For 34 years the village followed the family’s wishes to leave it as a grave in the silt in the deepest part of the lake. But towards the turn of the millennium Gina became aware that diving technology had advanced and there was a risk the grave would be plundered.

So when Tyneside engineer Bill Smith came up with a plan to recover the boat and with it Campbell’s body, Gina agreed, saying ‘Find dad, so we can put him somewhere warm.’

This was achieved in 2001, with the stern being raised. Campbell was buried later in the year at Coniston cemetery.

The family and Mr Smith decided the Bluebird should be restored and displayed in the John Ruskin Museum, if they could create space for it.

Brantwood jetty by Coniston Water

Brantwood jetty by Coniston Water - Credit: Archant

Curator Vicky Slowe managed to raise £675,000 for the purpose-built extension and its fittings, completed in 2008.

The restoration of Bluebird itself has taken even longer with 80,000 rusty rivets removed and replaced. All parts were in imperial measure when most manufacturers had gone metric. A third of the boat has had to be built from scratch. The rest has had to be lovingly restored by volunteers. And Bill begs and borrows, mainly from the Lancashire aeroplane industry.

In 2015 about a third of the boat in volume, or a half in weight, was moved from North Shields to Coniston. The two restored spars, some of the fairings and replicas of the boat’s four-metre long sponsons now rest with the engine on the footprint of the whole Bluebird, in the museum extension.

‘They are relying on volunteers, who give their time when they can,’ said Ms Slowe. ‘They want to save as much of the original material as they can, but they are bringing back to life what most people would have thought of as scrap metal. They are determined to get it as near to perfect as possible. They don’t want to compromise.’

She thinks it could be 2018 or 2019 before the restored Bluebird is given one last run down Coniston Water before being permanently displayed in the museum.

That may or may not be before Vicky, now aged 68, retires. She moved from Abbot Hall, Kendal, where she was director, to the museum in 1993 to redevelop it and expand and improve the exhibition of the displays. She was coming to the end of that task when Bluebird and Campbell were retrieved from the lake and gave her and the museum a whole new dimension.

The museum itself was set up behind the Coniston Mechanics Institute and Literary Society which was inspired by Ruskin and his aide W G Collingwood. It opened in 1898.

Collingwood was befriended by Arthur Ransome who stayed with the family of his daughter Dora who had married Armenian Dr Ernest Altounyan. It was their children Tacqui, Susie, Mavis (known as Tittie), Roger and Bridget whose adventures as they learned to sail on Coniston Water inspired Swallows and Amazons.

This June 3 sees the 50th anniversary of Ransome’s death, and this year will also mark 100 years since the Russian revolution, recorded by Ransome as foreign correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, as it was then called.

He is believed to have become a British spy on the new communist regime and even married Leon Trotsky’s secretary, all of which is likely to feature in an Arthur Ransome Trust exhibition at the museum from May to September.

Ruskin, Ransome and Campbell are an inspirational trio of characters and help make this museum, tucked away in a corner of a village with a population of fewer than 1,000, a formidable attraction.

Need to know

Where it is: Coniston is in traditional Lancashire and sits at the head of the lake that bears its name. Key LA21 8EH into your satnav and you should be there.

Where to park: There is a large pay and display in the centre.

What to do: The Old Man of Coniston is a must fir hikers. For a more restful day, a trip on the steam yacht Gondola and visit the Ruskin Museum and Brantwood.

Where to eat and drink: Steam Bistro gets great reviews as does the Bluebird Café and the Swallows and Amazons Tea Rooms.

Where to stay: Plenty of choice. The Coppermines Lakes Cottages have several places to including the magnificent Gate House in Coniston, a five star gold Georgian property for eight. The Yewdale is in the village centre.