Silence, please. It's Windermere

A 10mph speed limit on Britain's longest lake has seen off the jet skis and powerboats. Stephen Goodwin reports on a quiet revolution

As we paddle our kayaks away from the jetties on the Nab at Bowness, instructor Gavin Gardner remarks that the lake is already noticeably quieter. Though a chill wind is blowing down the water from the fells of Fairfield and Dove Crag, it is a dazzling sunny afternoon on Windermere. On any such day last year the lawnmower buzz of jet-skis would have been an irritating background accompaniment, just taking the edge off a perfect commune with wind and water.

Easter sees a long-awaited change on Windermere, England's longest lake. On 29 March - the day after the Bank holiday - a 10mph speed limit comes into force for all craft. Powerboats and the scooter-like jet skis are not actually banned but the speed restriction removes the point - their owners would say "fun" - of taking one out on the lake.

Gavin welcomes the move. He has known jet-skiers perform frightening slaloms around youngsters learning to kayak, though he acknowledges that these "thrill seekers" were a minority. Though 10.5 miles long, Windermere is relatively narrow. On a fine weekend 1,500 craft could be the lake, with water-skiers towed by powerboats surging past dinghy sailors, windsurfers and children in canoes and kayaks. There have been nasty accidents, and, as I found, the wash of a powerboat travels further across the lake than the driver might imagine.

The speed and noise of powerboats is simply incompatible with the national park principle of "quiet enjoyment". Boat owners, and the hotels and businesses they have sustained, have fought a vigorous rearguard action claiming jobs will be lost. But those with more savvy see the speed ban as an opportunity. A quieter Windermere, without the stress that whining motors bring, is much more attractive to those who go for "low-impact" water sports, family boat trips around the shore, bathing or birdwatching.

Though the Lake District is on the doorstep, I had generally given Windermere a wide berth, content to view it from the fell tops as a silvery sea, or glimpsed on driving through Ambleside, bound for the rock climbing of Great Langdale. But the coming ban provided the impetus to set aside a prejudice for craggy places and "test the water" on Windermere.

First stop was the Windermere Sailing and Adventure School, launched last summer by Jimmy Forbes, a Scot, and Xandra Vrancken from Belgium - sometimes it takes outsiders to spot potential. The school operates its flotilla of dinghies and windsurfers from the ideally situated waterfront of Ambleside Youth Hostel, a good place to stay if you're watching the pennies, with rooms for couples, groups and families.

The trickiest part of the taster lesson was zipping up the back of my wetsuit. After 10 minutes of instruction at the water's edge, we went out in a little Optimist, the standard training dinghy, for an introduction to tacking. The skills gap became more apparent on graduating to a speedier craft. But this is where the fun is, harnessing the wayward forces of wind and water.

The stiff breezes that blow down the lake can whip up crests and give an adventurous feel, even to kayaking. Thankfully, it was pretty calm for my maiden voyage with Gavin and we were able to drift for a while and watch the birdlife around Belle Isle. Gavin works for Windermere Canoe and Cycle - another new venture - based at the Boathouse on Ferry Nab Road, Bowness.

Lining the jetties and parked on shore were the yachts, "gin palace" cruisers and powerboats that have been the mainstay of business around the Nab. Figures released in February by the national park suggest this waterfront scene is not likely to change that much. This year, 1,969 owners have registered craft with engines for use on the lake compared with 1,995 a year ago. The drop in the number of jet-skis from 59 to two is more dramatic. Sports boats are down from 517 to 234 while more cabin cruisers, dinghies and yachts with motors have been registered.

Cycling, or mountain biking, is another of the "low-impact" activities on the up around Windermere. One of the most eco-friendly businesses to be started in Lakeland is Country Lanes, a cycle hire and holiday outfit operating from Windermere railway station. Many customers arrive by train and explore the countryside either independently or on bespoke or guided cycle tours. We sampled a popular route that crosses the lake by ferry and inscribes a circle, following a track through fir and broadleaf woods along the lakeside to Red Nab and then on tarmac through Hawkshead and by Beatrix Potter's farm at Hill Top - an energetic four-and-a-half hour round trip.

While kayaking and cycling make only a modest intrusion upon the atmosphere of the park, the effect on one's body can be more profound - shoulders and seat in particular. A touch of muscle-soothing luxury is in order at the end of the day, and South Lakeland has plenty. The post-kayaking balm was provided by Linthwaite House Hotel, set above Bowness with superb views across the lake to the Coniston fells and a pair of AA rosettes for its "modern British" cuisine.

After the cycling we headed, saddle-sore, for the deep bath and log fire of a self-catering cottage at the Masons Arms on Strawberry Bank, Cartmel Fell. This 16th-century pub, noted for its food and staggering range of beers, is on one of Country Lanes' longer cycling routes. I confess that by then we had taken eco-purism far enough and arrived by car. And to hell with self-catering - "low impact" can still be high energy, and the Masons serves steaks of rare restorative succulence.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Where to stay

Linthwaite House Hotel (01539 488 600; www.linthwaite.com) offers b&b from £190 per night, based on two sharing. Masons Arms (01539 568 486: www.strawberrybank.com), offers self-catering suites from £95 per night, based on two sharing. Youth Hostel Association Ambleside, Waterhead (01539 432 304; www.yha.org.uk) offers rooms with two to eight beds. B&b starts from £18.50 per night. £3 extra for non-members.

What to do

Windermere Sailing and Adventure School (01539 443789; www.sailadventure.co.uk). Two-hour sailing taster courses start at £25 per adult. Windermere Canoe and Cycle (01539 444 451; www.windermerecanoecycle.co.uk) offers canoe or kayak hire from £20 for a half day. Country Lanes Cycle Centre (01539 444544; www.countrylanes.co.uk) offers cycle hire from £15 per day.

Further information

Tourist Information Office, Windermere (01539 442870; www.lakelandgateway.info).

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