Boating museum is a breath of fresh air in the Lake District

Header Image

Words:
Isabelle Priest

Carmody Groarke’s Lake District boating museum has been a long time coming, but it’s been worth the wait

Apparently I’m not the only person who has been impatiently waiting for the new Windermere Jetty, Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories to open. According to its director Liz Moss, the £20m development was primarily funded through national organisations – the Heritage Lottery Fund, RDPE and Department of Culture, Media and Sport via the Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund – but the £3m that wasn’t came from local benefactors, patrons and individuals for whom the delay was an enormous frustration. Likewise, for the RIBA Journal, the building had been on the ‘verge of completion’ for two years, getting bumped from our list of upcoming building studies month after month. It wasn’t so much the subject matter of the museum that interested us, although the stories element in its name was curious, but Carmody Groarke’s design, depicted in drawings as a squat cluster of dark buildings looming over the lake surrounded by a deserted moody landscape.

Site plan.
Site plan. Credit: Carmody Groarke

That might sound like something from a sublime British 19th century painting but it looked more suited to Scandinavia, a private summer house on the fjord’s edge, than to the English Lake District, which for so long, beyond the priciest hotels, has belonged to a lovely but passé holiday experience of drinking milky tea and eating scones and ice cream under sopping parasols on the lawn outside a pitstop café waiting for the rain to stop. The new museum, which replaces the Windermere Steamboat Museum that closed here in 2006, is the first contemporary building of scale on the lake shore in more than 50 years too.

But the tempestuousness of the fictional scene caught up with reality and the project became beset by problems, including Storm Desmond in December 2015 which washed  away parts of the A-road from Windermere to Keswick only a month after phase 1 had gone into the ground. Havoc ensued, construction works had to stop and in light of the flood risk the Environment Agency ordered building levels to be changed and reed water filtration beds to be set further back among other structural alterations. Heavy vehicle access was disrupted as well.

Yet, now the building has opened, the local response has, Moss reports, been overwhelmingly positive – the vastness and quality of it. ‘There’s an understanding,’ she says, ‘of why it has taken so long. Anyone can see it is a complex design and build.’ And even though it seems like a cliché, on visiting the building on the dullest of drizzly mid-week days in early April, it is clear from the architectural perspective that it has been worth the extended wait too. Turn your back to the manicured Picturesque landscape of white cottages up the bank and the building feels of the cloudy slate-coloured water and surrounding flat top mountains currently dusted with snow. 

  • Five volumes are visible from the water, the first view for the many visitors who arrive on a pleasure cruise.
    Five volumes are visible from the water, the first view for the many visitors who arrive on a pleasure cruise. Credit: Christian Richters
  • The third gallery from the pier splays out from the entrance in plan.
    The third gallery from the pier splays out from the entrance in plan. Credit: Christian Richters
  • The conservation building includes an engineering room and workshop as and is part of the museum tour.
    The conservation building includes an engineering room and workshop as and is part of the museum tour. Credit: Christian Richters
123

Located along Rayrigg Road that runs nearest the lake by the town of Windermere, up from Bowness Bay, the new Jetty Museum is almost undetectable from the roadside, hidden by rolling pastures, spinneys and hip-height mossy dry stone walls. Pass through the boundary gate, however, and a deep forecourt sets the building back as far as possible, protected by a ring of local stone. There, it is laid out in two imposing parts coming forth from the lake: the larger, to the right, is a trio of connected industrial shed-like forms shifted at angles based on the waterline behind. Tarmac and concrete hard landscaping crosses the site through beds of gravel, contrasting with the shifting geometries of the building. 

The central volume thrusts forward, projecting out, while the far sides of the sandwiching elements have deep overhangs, which appear to sail over the water. To the left is a single scaled down shed with its own overhang facing the museum entrance, protecting an active boatyard – the first sign of the building’s purpose. A member of the conservation team is washing down a small vessel outside as I arrive.

Elements are solid and opaque, the heavy corrugated oxidised copper cladding facades already greening slightly. There are only single openings at the gable ends. The space under the middle cantilever, however, is glazed, revealing an enclosed interstice lined at the back with reddish tinted Douglas fir that gives the way in an inviting glow.

It was almost inevitable a boathouse would be central to the design. The large sliding doors are 5.6m high and 4.3m wide to allow boats in and out of the museum.
It was almost inevitable a boathouse would be central to the design. The large sliding doors are 5.6m high and 4.3m wide to allow boats in and out of the museum. Credit: Christian Richters

The building belongs to Lakeland Arts, a Cumbrian arts and heritage trust that has social history at its heart and was founded in 1952 to display local contemporary and historic art. By the time it came to acquire the collection of the former Windermere Steamboat Museum it already had two sites and three buildings – the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, the Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry and Blackwell, the arts & crafts holiday villa of the wealthy industrialist Edward Holt nearby.

The Steamboat Museum, on the other hand, had grown out of the private boat collection of local enthusiast George Pattinson, who with his brothers owned and ran the lakeside site as a sand and gravel pit – hence the beds of grey gravel in the new landscaping design. As Pattinson began to collect more vessels in the 1970s, a tarpaulin went over them, followed by a more conventional building which opened in 1977. In the 1980s the museum was receiving 80,000 visitors a year. However, by the late 1990s the site had become tired and costly to run so it closed.

Whereas that building was more about accommodating the boats themselves, in 2007 Lakeland Arts’ then director Edward King had the idea of displaying the collection in a contemporary building, unlike anything else in the Lake District. It could lease 7.5 acres of land from the South Lakeland District Council, incorporating some of the foreshore, as well as conserve the local heritage of boating and associated crafts by preserving the 40 historical vessels it had so far. In contrast with the previous ad hoc nature of the museum, Lakeland Arts wanted to present the boats as designed, crafted works of art in a white wall gallery setting. People would still be able to get close to them and they would be restored to usable condition, even if most would stay off the water.

There’s an understanding of why it’s taken so long; anyone can see it’s a complex design and build

  • The main gallery – not just boats but the paraphernalia of leisure in the Lakes.
    The main gallery – not just boats but the paraphernalia of leisure in the Lakes. Credit: Christian Richters
  • View from cloakroom area through to the reception.
    View from cloakroom area through to the reception. Credit: Christian Richters
  • The new café with its rooflight is reminiscent of a pleasure cruise boat.
    The new café with its rooflight is reminiscent of a pleasure cruise boat. Credit: Christian Richters
123

There’s a dual pace, allowing some visitors to appreciate the larger scale and others to delve further

On entering through the glazed sliding doors, the reception opens out before you; a full height space engulfed by the warmth of the timber panelling. The desk – a long stone plinth – spreads across the width of the volume. The shop shelving is laid out either side symmetrically and an upturned 5.8m long rowing boat floats overhead, suspended from the ceiling’s apex, poised with its paddles. It’s the kind that used to be found in the city parks of Liverpool, Manchester and Durham, made by Borwicks. Beyond the reception counter, through a pointed picture window, is the boathouse, where the lake enters the building and doors open onto the scenery. From here visitors can catch a ride on the 1902 Osprey, which was used as a passenger boat from the 1940s, or another historical vessel.

Museum facilities come off to the right of the reception – the learning centre with views on three sides, WCs, offices tucked into the roofspace and the café with 96 covers inside in a separate joined volume behind. It’s a pretty magnificent space with timber lined walls to first floor level, white rendered above, and a huge skylight that is a reminder of the 1879 steam yacht Brittania’s skylight on display in the gallery over the way. Sitting under it gives the feel of being out on the water already. 

On the opposite side of the reception, 200 years of boating and leisure history are set out in a series of three galleries. The first of these rooms, painted in duck egg blue/grey, houses two steam launches stored on rigs as if they are about to be cast onto the water. Dolly, from 1850-60, was on Windermere before it was moved to Ulls­water where it sank in 1895 and was pulled out in 1962. Kittiwake was used by the Edith Cavell Home of Rest for Nurses in the 1920s. A wall of miscellaneous treasures portrays the paraphernalia of boating gone by – old steering wheels, flags, life rings, anchors, propellers, rudders, jackets, cushions, navigation lights, steam kettles and other canoes and kayaks.

The largest room, a white space beyond, contains 14 vessels, including Beatrix Potter’s tarn rowing boat from 1890, a tea hamper from the same year, the UK’s earliest motorboat, and crockery from Brittania. There’s a dual pace, allowing some visitors to appreciate the larger scale and boats themselves and others to also delve further through information contained in drawers and on stacked story cards that places the boats in the context of who owned them, where they lived, how they were used, and who maintained and worked on them. You can’t help but go around with a warm feeling. The third gallery is temporary exhibition space that when I visited was being used to screen a specially commissioned film of a dance performed in the part-complete building, choreographed by Sara Wookey.

From there visitors are led outside to the conservation workshop and then to the boathouse itself which currently moors six vessels on the water. Timber walkways allow visitors to get close to them. The connection between land and water constantly plays out in the building: the gnarled trees hanging over the bay and four new piers are visible from the picture windows at the ends, maintaining that metaphorical connection between them and the museum as the conduit of the stories of the lives alluded to in between. 

Carmody Groarke has delivered the building as proposed, impeccably detailed and conceptually thorough. It is, as expected, a breath of fresh air in the architecture of the Lake District, but its collection is surprisingly fun and interesting too.


 

IN NUMBERS

Project cost: £20m  
GIFA: 2,560m2
Project cost/m2: £7,812.50  
CO2 eq/m2: 30.1kg 
Expected visitors per year: 100-150k 

Credits

Architect: Carmody Groarke
Client: Lakeland Arts
Structural & services engineer: Arup
Landscape architect: Jonathan Cook Landscape Architecture
Exhibition design: Real Studios

Latest articles