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Celebrating Coniston’s high-speed legacy

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 10 October 2018
Related property: Merlewood
Celebrating Coniston’s high-speed legacy

Coniston Water in the southern Lake District, little more than 20 miles away from Merlewood, is arguably the prettiest of all the lakes in the UK’s most visited National Park, and boasts numerous claims to fame – particularly linked to the arts. John Ruskin found the place agreeable enough to set up home there: Brantwood house, where the Victorian artist and philosopher lived from 1872 until his death in 1900. Author Arthur Ransome, meanwhile, set his Swallows & Amazons books in a fictional location derived largely from Coniston Water and nearby Windermere.

But the lake found fame of a different kind in the second half of the 20th Century – and the cause of that fame (above) is set to make a welcome return, as early as next summer.

Whether or not he had a point to prove is one for the psychologists to speculate on; but Donald Campbell sure packed a lot into his 45 years.

Campbell’s illustrious father Malcolm (later Sir Malcolm) set a high benchmark, posting no less than 13 world speed records on land and water in a series of specially-designed cars and boats he called ‘Blue Bird’. He set his final world record on 19th August 1939 – almost 142mph, on water, in the Blue Bird K4. The place: Coniston Water. (You can read previous blogs about Coniston by clicking here and here.)

From this: one of Sir Malcolm Campbell's record-setting Blue Bird boats...

Sir Malcolm Campbell died on New Year’s Eve 1948 after a series of strokes.

Shortly after which, the then-28-year-old Donald took up the cudgels.

From July 1940 onwards, initially using his father’s old boat, Campbell learned how to be a record-breaker. His early attempts to beat Sir Malcolm’s record were unsuccessful; indeed Campbell and his team saw the record slip ever further away thanks to competition from American daredevils. It seemed that whatever the engineers did to the (now one-word) Bluebird K4, they were always playing catch-up.

What was needed was a new boat – a radical redesign. And what Campbell and the boffins came up with was a genuine world-beater: the all-metal, jet-powered Bluebird K7 hydroplane.

To this: the revolutionary, restored Bluebird K7, undergoing tests on Scotland's Loch Fad

Starting in July 1955 and continuing for almost a decade, Campbell set seven world water-speed records in K7, topping out at just over 276mph on 31st December 1964. The boat (and Donald’s derring-do) proved a crowd-puller; K7 was displayed extensively in the UK, USA, Canada, Europe and Australia – as well as annually on Coniston Water, posting ever-higher speed records.

Though it proved short-lived, Campbell enjoyed success on land, too; a hard-won land-speed record of just over 403mph, set in Bluebird CN7 on 17th July 1964. In achieving his seventh water-speed record on the last day of 1964, he became the first, and so far only, person to set both land and water-speed records in the same year.

But Campbell’s quest for further land-speed records led to his doom. The adventurer wanted nothing less than to more than double the land-speed record; and to do so needed a supersonic rocket car. To drum up publicity for this venture, in spring of 1966 he decided to try to set one more water-speed record. The auguries were not good; the mission was dogged by problems – engine failures, bad weather and so on – but the attempt went ahead on 4th January 1967. K7 broke up on her second run, and Campbell was killed.

The boat, and Campbell’s body, were recovered from the lake some 17 years ago. Campbell was laid to rest at Coniston Cemetery. K7, meanwhile, has undergone a complete restoration and, following ‘sea-trials’ on Loch Fad on Scotland’s Isle of Bute, is to return to Coniston Water in July 2019, where she will once more be put through her paces. Perhaps not at the speeds Donald achieved all those years ago – but nonetheless, it promises to be a fantastic and memorable homecoming, and a real crowd-puller. An historic and thrilling occasion, in every way.

And holidaymakers at Merlewood next July will have it on their doorstep.

Coniston Water is 21 miles north of Merlewood via the B5721, the A590, the A5092, the A5084 and the A593. Coniston is also just 28 miles south of the Braithwaite Court holiday site.


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Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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