Bowness-on-Windermere is the only one of the Lake District's small towns to actually face onto one of the lakes (Coniston, Ambleside, Keswick and Windermere town are all at a short distance from their respective lakes). At Bowness the promenade and the steamer piers border on the town centre, and Windermere dominated the scene. Piers, landing stages and boat houses line the shore for half a mile around the promenade, while out in the lake flotillas of yachts fill the view. A little way to the south is the landing stage for the car ferry across the lake, and close to that is the marina. If the mountains dominate most Lake District towns, here water is king.
Bowness village is actually older than Windermere town, but the original lake shore village has largely disappeared below the Victorian lake side resort that developed after the railway reached Windermere. Although the station itself was in Windermere, the lake was at Bowness, and the crowds came south to the water. The main shopping area lines the southern end of the road to Windermere town, and the two communities merge somewhere along the way. Bowness has a larger more varied shopped area than Windermere, and also contains a number of good restaurants.
Old Bowness village dates back to the tenth or eleventh century. A few remains do survive, including the 15th century rectory, which is now the oldest inhabited house in the area, and the church of St Martin itself, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1480. The ferry across the lake dates back to at least 1454, and may well be much older, for it provides a much more direct way to reach Hawkshead than the long road route. Close to the church is the New Hall inn, the oldest pub in Bowness and a very atmospheric building.
The Windermere steamers are probably the best way to explore the lake, and an all-day open ticket is available, which allows you to visit every section of the lake, from Lakeside at the southern tip to Waterhead near Ambleside. The steamers are also the best way to visit the National Park centre at Brockhole. Although the railway is responsible for much of the growth of Bowness, the steamers actually predate it by two years, having begun in 1845. Opposite Bowness is Belle Isle, the largest island in Windermere. Once the site of a Roman villa, the island now contains a domed cylindrical house built in 1774 by John Plaw, for Thomas English, a Nottingham merchant.