The fall and rise of plucky Steam-Yacht Gondola

"The most elegant little steam-vessel yet designed" -- That is how the Illustrated London News in July 1860 described Gondola, a brand new boat plying Coniston Water in Lancashire. The Furness Railway had recently extended a line "to within a short distance of the head of the lake," and the novel steam yacht was commissioned by this railway company "for the especial gratification of tourists to our beautiful English lakes."

The 85-foot boat, "having the elegance, comfort, and speed of an English steam- yacht, perfectly combined with the graceful lightness and quiet gliding motion" of a Venetian gondola, as the Illustrated London News put it, gratified thousands of tourists on Coniston Water up until 1939.

Then she was retired, this unusual boat with its wrought-iron hull shaped like an elephant's tusk, bearing the coat of arms of both the Duke of Buccleuch (who owned Coniston Water) and the Duke of Devonshire (who owned the Furness Railway Company): This mid-Victorian vessel with its two saloons cushioned and carpeted like a royal train, with its V-shaped, twin-cylinder engine and four-blade bronze propeller.

The engine and boiler were removed to power a sawmill. Then Gondola descended to being a mere houseboat. In 1961, after a cruel frost, she ignominiously sank at her moorings. Though immediately refloated, her fortunes by no means improved.She was blown ashore one night, and was left high, dry, and neglected. In 1966 her owner, no longer able to cope with this hulk, decided to sell her for scrap.

A sad end?

Not at all. On June 24 this year, I went along on the inaugural voyage of the newly refurbished Steam-Yacht Gondola. Since July 2, she has been making five 1 1/2-hour trips a day on Coniston Water, once again "for the especial gratification of tourists."

She has been recommissioned by the National Trust of Great Britain. Her new hull is twice the thickness of the old one and is designed to last 200 years. She has a crew of three, and can carry up to 86 passengers.

The story of her transformation from wreck to restoration has a fairy-tale quality. Instead of the scrap-merchant in 1966 she was bought by an enthusiast who had foresight, determination, and a strong digging arm, Arthur Hatton. "I decided," he says, "to bring the Lake to the Gondola [still high and dry] by digging her our myself with a spade." From 1966 to 1969 he dug three different trenches three feet deep and a hundred feet long in an effort to refloat her. He eventually succeeded.

But the very extensive repairs Gondola needed went far beyond the financial means of Mr. Hatton. Fortunately, the National Trust stepped in at this point. What was left of Gondola was refloated by the trust in 1977, at Coniston Hall (an ancient manor house now also owned and restored by the trust) on the lake's northwest bank. In all, repairs and refurbishings have cost close to L225,000 (

Arthur Hatton was present for the launching of the rebuilt vessel on March 25 , 1980. The great-granddaughter of Felix Hamill, the boat's longest serving master, launched her, and after a technical hitch which called for a diver to free some bogies jammed between the rails of the slipway, the ship slid into the lake at 2 p.m. "with all flags flying and fully afloat."

and then came June 24, the great day in Gondola's revitalized career. This was the day of the inaugural voyage (actually four of them, due to the number of us eager to be included) -- a day of ceremony and celebration and dignified British fun.

It is a beguilingly preety but also unexpectedly slow drive to Coniston from Windermere via Ambleside, which is why I was only just in time to witness the first inaugural voyage of Gondola, with the Duke of Devonshire on board. Rushing down the bank from the car park at Coniston Hall, scattering miscellaneous poultry en route, I was just in time to see her part company with the jetty and hear a voice announce "THREE CHEERS FOR GONDOLA" over a loudspeaker.

The boat moved with amazing quietness out into the lake, and slowly glided round a headland. A kilted Scottish piper wheezed out "Over the Sea to Skye" from the end of the jetty -- strangely moving in spite of the overstatement involved: After all Coniston is an inland lake and only five miles long. The party on shore obediently cheered three times.

Over to the right some men from Holker Hall (a country house open to the public some way south of Coniston, near Grange-over- Sands) started to billow out a blue-striped balloon by filling it with hot air: Balloon ascents were advertised as one of the day's entertainments.

A Victorian steam organ started up with its unrelentingly insistent, continuously cheerful loudness.

Near where I was standing a lady remarked to a friend, "If the wind gets up, I shall take off, I think." She was referring to her costume -- a voluminous crinoline. Guests had been invited to come dressed as mid-Victorians, and a surprising number had obliged. Drefancy dress turned out later to be competitive, the winners being a Mr. and Mrs. Cowcill: He had shaved off his moustache, steamed the brim of his top hat, and made himself as nearly as possible a living replica of Brunel, the engineer and inventor.)

The balloon showed no signs of leaving the ground, so I took the opportunity to chat with Margaret Holden-Jones, a woman with fond memories of riding on the Gondola during its prime.

"When I was a child," she told me, "I once rode all down the lake on the neck of that serpent. It was most uncomfortable, and they were afraid to tell me to get down until the end of the journey!" She has photographs of herself with friends and family (including her Persian cat) sitting in Gondola in about 1916. Now, in 1980, she was thrilled to be invited to the inauguration of the new Gondola.

I was on the fourth voyage. This time the piper came along for the ride. The hot-air balloon at last managed a brief flight, heading northward up the lake while Gondola headed south. The chief engineer took to a motorboat to take photographs of Gondola, while another gentleman in a top hat stoked the wood-and-coal-fired boiler. The V-shaped engine is so balanced that it makes scarcely any noise, and the whole trip was smooth and graceful and steady.

We steamed past Brantwood, a large house that once belonged to John Ruskin. The notable writer and critic is supposed to have traveled in Gondola, in spite of his distaste for a steamm yacht, to a hotel, while his house (which is now open to the public) was being spring cleaned.

Gondola was also mentioned affectionately by the historian and essayist, Thomas Carlisle; and by Arthur Ransome, the author of the children's classic "Swallows and Amazons." It is thought to have inspired Captain Flint's houseboat in that story.

However, this is in dispute. On Lake Windermere there is a steamboat museum ("a unique collection of boats in working order") and in this museum is a steam yacht called Esperance. This, the museum says, is known as Captain Flint's houseboat. The National Trust opts for a compromise. "Ransome's stories," an official told me, "are a mixture of both Coniston and Windermere. The houseboat in 'Swallows and Amazons' was inspired by both Gondola and Esperance."

The Windermere Steamboat Museum certainly boasts some fascinatingly historical boats, including Steam Launch Dolly, the oldest mechanically powered boat in the world (1850), and even Beatrix Potter's rowing boat. But one prize the museum doesn't own is Gondola, now rescued, refurbished, and restored to something which must come very close to her former plush glory.

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