Alfred Wainwright once compared Coniston in the southern Lake District with Zermatt way up in the Swiss Alps — saying each seemed to have a particularly strong affinity with their nearest mountains.
OK, the Old Man Of Coniston may rise to a mere 2,635ft, while the Matterhorn by Zermatt soars to a loftier 14,692ft, yet there is an element of truth to the great hiking scribe’s fanciful comparison.
The village of Coniston, population 928, somehow feels as though it belongs to its mountain.
This close connection has a long history, with industry providing the glue.
For many years, copper and slate have been mined on the eastern slopes of the Old Man, dating from the days of Elizabeth I, when the first copper mines were established, with German miners shipped in.
Benevolent giant: Tom Chesshyre travels to the village of Coniston in the Lake District. Above, the Old Man of Coniston and Coniston Water
Tom stayed in a ‘mountain cottage’ (pictured) in Coppermines Valley, which sits above Coniston village
These Germans turned out to be more than just dab hands at working the copper seams. They are also believed to have introduced the recipes for local sausages that were eventually to become known as Cumberlands.
Whatever the truth of this, copper mining began in the 1560s and continued till the 1950s.
Slate is still quarried and it’s possible to buy lovely silvery-green slabs at Coniston Stonecraft, a workshop on the path up to the Old Man behind the Sun Hotel.
This tucked-away business is in old railway depot buildings for copper ore and slate; tracks used to wind up from Broughton-in-Furness.
Meanwhile, the Sun Hotel was where Donald Campbell is understood to have stayed the night before his fatal crash at nearly 300mph in Bluebird K7 during his attempt to break the world water speed record on Coniston Water in 1967.
Alfred Wainwright once compared Coniston (pictured) with Zermatt in the Swiss Alps, reveals Tom
The Old Man of Coniston has seen copper and slate mining activity since the days of Elizabeth I. Above, an abandoned slate mine on the mountain
LEFT: A ‘mountain cottage’ hot tub. RIGHT: Tom felt ‘safe and sound’ in his rental in Coppermines Valley
You can learn all about this at the Ruskin Museum, just off the high street, close to the gurgling water of Church Beck and a busy clutch of hostelries that mark the village centre at a crossroads by a bridge.
There’s a mangled piece of the ill-fated vessel at the back in a special Donald Campbell section.
The museum’s name comes from another historical ghost: John Ruskin, the social reformer and essayist (1819-1900), who had so loved the local scenery that he bought a mansion on the far bank of Coniston Water.
This building, called Brantwood (about a 45-minute walk along the lake from the village), is open to the public and offers an intriguing insight into Ruskin’s somewhat peculiar life.
Tom said the holiday cottage and its roaring fire ‘felt a long way from anywhere in Britain’s “Swiss Alps”‘. Pictured: The living room in one of the cottages
During his trip, Tom visits the Ruskin Museum – a ‘rich source of local history’
Tom is the author of Lost In The Lakes: Notes From A 379-Mile Hike Around The Lake District
The Ruskin Museum is a rich source of local history. The root of the name Coniston goes way back to the Old Norse Konigs Tun (king’s settlement), referring to a Viking king named Thorstein.
Displays also capture the early days of mountaineering and the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, founded in 1906 and based in Coniston.
It would be churlish, if fit and the weather’s good, not to climb the Old Man. This I did, enjoying sweeping views across sparkling tarns to the Irish Sea and south to Morecambe Bay.
Then I descended to the village and went for a pint of Bluebird ale at the quaint Black Bull pub.
I was in good historical company. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge recorded that he had ‘dined on oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale, and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries’ at the nearby Blacksmiths Arms, Broughton Mills, on his own hiking jaunt round the Lakes in 1802.
Back at my holiday cottage in Coppermines Valley, the fire roaring, it felt a long way from anywhere in Britain’s ‘Swiss Alps’, safe and sound with the ‘benevolent giant’ (Wainwright’s words) of the Old Man looming above.