Saturday, 14 January 2012

A tragic tale of speeding and a sweltering old man

This is the body of water which claimed the life of Donald Campbell. 

At 5 miles long, half a mile wide and up to 158 feet deep, Coniston is the third  largest lake in the Lake District; a ribbon lake, ideally suited for attempts to break the water speed record. 

On August 19th 1939, the record was set at 141.74 mph, by Sir Malcolm Campbell in the boat Bluebell K4.
His son, Donald, developed a hydroplane, Bluebird K7. His first successful attempt on the record was set on Ullswater in 1955 where he reached a top speed of 202mph. He broke the record a further six times in locations around the world, the final record being set at 276.33mph in 1964.

For a while, Campbell turned his attention to the land speed record, but then in January 1967, he made an attempt to break 300mph on water. That attempt happened here, on Coniston.

His north - south run was successful, hitting a top speed of 315mph, but on the return leg, Bluebird's nose lifted out of the water and the craft flipped over. Travelling in excess of 300mph, the boat immediately disintegrated and sank. Campbell was killed instantly. Both man and boat remained in the water for over twenty years, until the 'Bluebird Project' succeeded in recovering them; Bluebird in October 2000 and the body of Donald Campbell in May 2001.

Between them, Donald and his father, Malcolm, had set eleven water speed records and ten on land.

Towering above the lake is the Old Man of Coniston. At 2,634 feet high, it is the twelfth highest peak in England.

When we lived in Manchester (and before children), Pete and I drove up to the Lakes for the day, specifically to climb the Old Man. We made it to the top, but only just! The weather was sweltering; one of those late May days when the sun is burning hot and there is nowhere to hide. We'd taken lots of water, but by 2/3 of the way up, we were struggling and considering turning back.

Fortunately, mid afternoon, light cloud began to form and the patches of shade it provided made all the difference. The walking suddenly became relatively comfortable and we made the top with time to sit and admire the view before needing to begin our descent.

Post script: I'm back up in the Lakes again today; round trip to deliver a mended laptop. As I have no work 'til mid-week, I'm staying over a couple of nights. Ironically, we almost walked up the Old Man today, but the short days meant that there wasn't really time to fit it in after my long drive up, so we did a closer peak instead. It'll probably be a few days before I post, but I think I captured some decent shots. Watch this space :)


  1. What a place! How long does it take to walk up, on a day that isn't sweltering?

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for the history lesson. Appropriate description in view of the story "A body of water"....