The best way to cross the lake.
Windermere Lake is split into two basins with a narrowing near the middle People have crossed here for as long as they have been able but today's quick ferry trip has a very interesting history.
For many centuries informal ferry crossings would have been available to travellers all along Windermere. An early service seems to have run from Miller Ground. Here is "Old Ferry House" a cottage, near the waters edge that had a built in roof bell, sounded to call the boat from the other shore. The tower still stands but the bell is long gone. This crossing would have taken passengers past the northern tip of Belle Isle, this seems like quite a wide place to cross the lake but looking at a modern map there are two "Old Hall Lanes" on opposite sides of the lake with, we assume, the old ferry joining them together.
By the 13thcentury informal arrangements had given way to a regular service joining the market towns of Kendal and Hawkshead via Bowness with a licence being issued. Owners of this licence have included the Curwens of Belle Isle.
The first Windermere ferries would have been wooden rowing boats. Old pictures show vessels with very long oars and room for people, horses and carriages on a flat wide deck. This sort of vessel would have taken a skilled two-man crew and been prone to drifting in windy weather or much worse on stormy days. A 10m x 3.5m example called "Mary Anne" is in the care of the Windermere Steamboat Museum (currently closed). Another one is reputed to be sunk in the bay behind Ferry House.

It was in one of these wooden boats that the 1635 ferry disaster occurred. On the evening of the 19thof October 48 people and 7 horses were crossing from a wedding and fair that had taken place in Hawkshead. The weather was poor and the boat overloaded. Half way across it sank and all aboard perished and are said to have been buried in "eight and forty row" in St Martins Churchyard, Bowness.
The industrial revolution advanced all aspects of travel and new technology was adopted for crossing the lake when, in 1870, George Dixon of Balla Wray created the first steam powered ferry. The boiler, engine and driving wheels were all on one side so the vessel tilted that way. The engine pulled the boat along a chain (later a wire rope) that trailed across the bed of the lake, secured at each landing. A guide wire was later added for security. This ferry crossed the lake for an amazing 45 years!
In 1915 Bruce Logan of Ferry House replaced the first ferry with "Drake" a shiny new steam powered vessel. Drake was built at Ferry Nab by a team of Scottish workmen who took a shine to the inns of Bowness. This time the luxury of covered areas for passengers and the boiler room were included in the design. It was able to consume a ton of coal a day. This ferry lasted for an even more amazing 75 years in various forms!
In 1990 "Mallard" the newest Windermere ferry was launched. Able to carry 100 people and 18 cars this is a roll on roll off diesel powered chain ferry. It was pre-fabricated in Wales and assembled at Calgarth near White Cross Bay from where it had a difficult birth before taking up it's current position.
Mallard technically forms part of the B5285 road as a moving road bridge. It travels about 460m or 1,500ft across the water. It had an inspection and refit in May 2009.
If the ferry is not working other arrangements are available with details at each landing site.
A ferry trip takes about 10 minutes on the water but cars may have to wait for quite some time to board in the summer months. To take the roads to the opposite landing is about 15 miles each way, via either the head or foot of the lake.
On the crossing you can see panoramic views of the lake and some of its islands. And it only costs 50p one way on foot! It also has its own web cam...
On the Bowness side is Ferry Nab with signs to tell drivers and passengers if the ferry is running. There are also sail makers, chandlers and boat hire businesses, housed in some very interesting buildings. Toilets are available in the near by car park.
The opposite side has a more interesting history and arguably better views of the lake. Ferry house next to the landing is now developed into luxury housing but used to be the head quarters of the Freshwater Biological Association. The area behind here is still used by the FBA with pools and tanks visible.
Once known as "Swines Ness" and then "Great Boat" this area once hosted regattas, Westmorland wrestling, sports and even cherry picking events. The Ferry Inn was replaced with the well renkowned Ferry Hotel in 1881 to where a girls school was relocated during WW2. The FBA took the building in 1948.
The island nearest to the eastern landing is called Crow Holme. The southern tip of Belle Isle is also nearby.
When the lake freezes over, as it has done in 1895, 1929, 1946 & 1963 the ferry has to keep a working channel across. The old steam vessels would continue crossing for 24 hours a day. Ice has to be bashed through and help is needed to keep this vital artery open. In 2010 just after an earth tremor Windermere froze partially in this area and the channel was open at all times. A digger on a work boat had to be used to bash a route out of Bowness Bay for other boats to use!