Turbulence by the lakeside

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The Independent Online

There are two sides to every story. So let's start with the obvious one. At least it seemed obvious as I set out, one afternoon this week, to climb Gummer's How, the summit overlooking the southern bay of Lake Windermere. The sun was hot but a strong wind was blowing grey and white clouds across a perfect blue sky - glorious fell-walking weather. And from the top I would have a good view of the problem.

There are two sides to every story. So let's start with the obvious one. At least it seemed obvious as I set out, one afternoon this week, to climb Gummer's How, the summit overlooking the southern bay of Lake Windermere. The sun was hot but a strong wind was blowing grey and white clouds across a perfect blue sky - glorious fell-walking weather. And from the top I would have a good view of the problem.

You can see why Buddhists are so keen on nature, I thought, as I fell into the steady rhythm of the climb. To ensure that you do not miss your footing on the steep slope of grass and stone, your gaze becomes close-focused. Your attention is on your boots and what you can see around them - thistles and knapweed with brilliant purple bursting heads, mottled foxgloves emerging from the most unlikely rock crevices, a bright peacock butterfly fluttering from the yellow ragwort. As I moved up I passed a large black beetle on its way down, tipping and tumbling, exposing its iridescent underbelly and righting itself with its shiny blue-black legs.

Present consciousness, the Buddhists call it, by which they seem to mean a heightened sense of the world around you and your relationship to it. So by the time I reached the trig point which marked the 1,053ft peak I was fairly receptive to the Wordsworthian view of the Lakes as a place of natural wonder.

The vista from the top did nothing to dispel that, with Langdale Pike lowering darkly on the horizon and in other directions fellsides and vales tinged cobalt and turquoise in the afternoon sun. Directly below was Windermere itself, its grey waters rippled with shimmering silver as wind combed its surface. It was a picture of tranquillity, with flotillas of yachts and dinghies, moored motionless, like a medieval army before battle, awaiting the arrival of their weekend warriors.

And then, breaking the surface of the waters, I spotted the enemy. On the western edge of the bay was a fast powerboat, pulling a water-skier in circles as purposeless as a buzzing fly beneath a lampshade - and just as irritating. Small wonder that the Lake District National Park authority has decided to ban them as contrary to the ordinance that these places are to be preserved for the "quiet enjoyment" of the public.

When, later, I met up with Ian Brodie, the director of the Friends of the Lake District it seemed inevitable that the coalition between his organisation and the park authorities, ramblers' groups, wildlife trusts, civic societies, and canoers, anglers, and sailing enthusiasts, should have persuaded the government - after a long public enquiry - to endorse a bylaw enforcing a 10mph speed limit on Windermere.

"The park authority has a duty to protect and enhance the landscape and to promote recreational activities which are appropriate," he said. "Fast powerboats aren't appropriate. It's a question of noise, pollution and safety. And there has been some instances of exceedingly bad behaviour with fast boats circling groups of Scouts canoes trying to overturn them with their wash." Who could argue with that?

*****

There are two sides to every story. But the people who work on the shores of Lake Windermere think that, in this case, there may only be one and a half. Down at the water's edge, at the quayside by Shepherd's chandlery, I met Norman Park, who this week organised a demonstration of 486 powerboats on the lake to protest against the new 10mph limit. Norman, an ex-merchant seaman and former coastguard, waved his beefy arm dismissively across the waters. "Look at this," he said. "It's a sunny day in August, the height of summer, in the middle of the school holidays, and what can you see?"

I could see half a dozen sailing boats, four powerboats, two water-skiers and a couple of dozen rowing boats and pottering motor-boats hired out to day-trippers - and that was after Norman had taken me for a tour of the northern half of the five-mile lake in a 245 Four Winns Sundowner, one of the most popular speed-boats his yard sells. "Five days out of seven it's as quiet as this," he kept saying.

But while Norman was concerned to dispel the myth that Windermere was overcrowded, I was more interested in finding out about speed. Faster, I kept urging. The bow lifted and the boat surged forward. "This is the speed for towing a wake-board - a kind of surfboard - it's about 18mph," said the driver, Nick Atkinson, the chandlery's sales manager who has lived around the lake since he was two and is an Olympic-class sailor, who also canoes and races powerboats. Faster. The boat began to bounce as we turned into the prevailing south-westerly and met the waves head on. "This is the speed for towing a water-skier - 22 to 25mph." Faster, faster. Nick curved the boat and pushed it up to 50mph. The bows cut through the waves turning the slate-grey waters into a frenzy of white wake.

If there is something Buddhist about climbing, then powerboat racing has an altogether different theology. As the wind cuts through your hair an exhilaration whips up which is something to do with dominance and dominion, with man atavistically mastering his environment - a sense only exaggerated as an RAF Tornado, on a low-flying exercise, screeched overhead, banking close to the water.

This is, in some measure, what the anti-powerboat people object to. Norman and his fellows make much of a remark which Ian Brodie once allegedly made about "medallion-clad ski-boys swaggering into the hotel bar". It is more than snobbery, said Norman, it's outdated. "Their idea of powerboats is 20 years behind the times. They think it's all noise and screaming and exhaust gases," he said, and pointed out that he had not even had to raise his voice to say so, despite the 730 horsepower engine beneath us. "There's no smell to speak of, and the water biologists say the lake is today the cleanest its ever been."

But then anything is going to be objected to by what he calls "the retirement lobby - people who made their fortune polluting Liverpool or the Thames, and come up here to retire because they always liked their holidays here and then complain that there are too many tourists. And many of the so-called Friends of the Lake District don't even live here."

What Norman is most anxious to challenge is the idea that there is an incompatibility between lake-users. "Here on the west side there's rarely enough wind for sail, which makes it just right for water-skiing. Other parts are good for angling, canoeing and swimming," he said as we passed High Wray Bay and he gave a wave to a water-skier.

"I always wave to skiers," said Norman, "more often than not if they wave back they fall off." And who could argue with that.

*****

There are two sides to every story. But in this case there may even be three. Those who support and oppose a speed limit on Lake Windermere trade "facts" in a way which makes it hard for the outsider to make a judgement. Each accuses the other of being in the past, unwilling to negotiate. Ian Brodie says just 126 people will lose their jobs when the ban comes in in 2005; Norman Park insists it will be more than 400, "which in local terms is the equivalent of Longbridge shutting."

There is a third view by the lakeside. Raymond Dennison, the chairman of Windermere Lake Cruises, which employs 200 staff running the pleasure-steamers which criss-cross the lake, was hiring a chug-boat out to a family of tourists. Hardly powerboat racers. "I'm against the ban. Powerboat users are not yobs; they're business people who spend a lot of money."

At Ambleside Pier one of those skippers, Ian Kirsopp, was about to take a party of children out in his boat Queen of the Lake. "There are a lot of ignorant types on the water. People who live by the edge of the lake get woken up at 4 or 5am by skiers who come out then because the water is very flat at that time. Then there are those who don't even know they should pass port-to-port or who tow skiers right across your bow - if they fell off you would have to go hard over to take evasive action with 70 passengers on board that can be very dangerous. But these people need to be regulated, not banned."

Up at the lake's poshest hotel, the Miller Howe, a powerboat owner, Mike James, agreed. "The annual boat licence is just 40," he said as he left the conservatory where afternoon tea was being served. "They could treble it and have the money to police the lake properly."

It is only one of a number of compromises which have been offered. Others include introducing a boat-driving licence, banning skiing on bank holidays, outside certain hours and in certain areas; fining those who speed and, in bad cases, impounding their boats. All of which have been rejected.

It is not over yet. One of the skiers has this week decided to take the government to the European Court claiming his human rights are being infringed. It may turn out that there are four sides to this story.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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