Furness Diving Club have been engaged with the Water Bird organisation to help explore the underwater world off Hill of Oaks to see if there is evidence of the historic activities that took place there prior to and during the first world war over 100 years ago.
Having publicly declared in October 1909 his intention to have an aeroplane fly from water, at a time when nobody in the world had successfully done so, Edward Wakefield’s first task was to have a hanger built at Windermere.
Wakefield selected Hill of Oaks as the site, on the south-eastern shore of the lake, designed a new access road through Haws Wood and obtained planning permission on 24 January 1911.
After weeks when the weather was not suitable for flying, on the morning of 25 November 1911 the lake was calm. Herbert Stanley Adams taxied out Waterbird from Hill of Oaks and with the benefit of a gentle wind Adams made the historic flight.
He reached a height of about 50 feet and continued towards the ferry, where he made a wide turn before returning to alight at Hill of Oaks.
The Admiralty took an early interest in Windermere. On 20 January 1912, Lieutenant (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Arthur Longmore test-flew Waterbird for the Admiralty. Also, on 23 January 1912, in a paper entitled ‘The Development of Naval Aeroplanes and Airships’, Rear-Admiral (later Admiral Sir) Ernest Troubridge, Chief of Staff, proposed a hydro-aeroplane school.
By June 1912, a second hanger was built with a workshop, at a greater height above the lake than the first so as to give protection from flooding Later additions included a twin hangar with a frontage of 120 feet and a depth of 80 feet, a cafe building and a dormitory block of 20 bedrooms.
The Admiralty awarded a contract to train pilots, and in May 1916 requisitioned the seaplane school which was the first in the UK having been established in 1911. The headquarters of the Royal Naval Air Service at Windermere were relocated from Cockshott and the RNAS Unit Hill of Oaks changed its name to RNAS Windermere upon becoming an all-service school by the end of June 1916, and operated until the end of June 1917.
A number of dives took place to understand the underwater topography and to see whether there was any evidence of the activities that took place over 100 years ago.
It is a really interesting site and from the easy access gravel beach the lake bed slopes steeply down to c10m where a number of steep walls are encountered descending to 20-30m in places.
Sometime later we had the opportunity to carry out a side scan sonar survey of the site which confirmed our own impression of the underwater topography and also identified four potential targets of interest , a possible wreck, the transport barge and two debris fields.
Prior to the targets being identified divers had located ample evidence of occupation at the time of the first world war by recovering numerous pot and glass bottles from the period as well as pot batteries.
The barge was the most interesting target. This was used to deliver aeroplanes to Hill of Oaks from Lakeside and to assist with launching and recovery
A couple of exploratory dives managed to reveal the location of the barge still resting on the sea bed perched right over the edge of a cliff / wall over 100 years after capsizing. It is now home to schools of perch.
We returned to the site with a film crew producing a programme about Cumbrian life and including a piece on Waterbird. The programme will initially run in the spring of 2024.
Relocating the barge we filmed it once more and located a substantial winch and winch handle at its aft end along with some chain. Looking further afield around the barge no other items were found and no sign of the A frame / crane which could have been recovered or lie at the bottom of the cliff.
There remain plenty of interesting discovery dives to be had in the area and plenty yet to discover !