My interest in the Bownessie Lake Monster case began when the news broke that kayaker, Tom Pickles, has allegedly taken a photograph of the monster. It was the latest in a whole series of sightings and investigations into the monster. I wrote an article for the British Anomalistic Research Society website exploring the story behind the photo and concluded that it was probably a tire in the water.
After my research into the photograph I became interested in the sightings previous to the Tom Pickles sighting, as well as the investigations conducted in Windermere by the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) as well as the ones conducted by self-proclaimed psychic, Dean Maynard.
A brief time line of the Bowness sightings
When: 23rd July 2006 (between midday and 1pm)
Who: Steve & Elaine Burnip from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.
Where: Standing at Watbarrow point, near Wrap Castle (North end of West Shore)
What: Saw 3 humps breaking the water, travelling in a straight line. One hump was described as a head. Burnip comments that it wasn’t a wave or boat wake, that it looked like a giant eel and was twenty-foot long. He also said it was faster than a rowing boat, but not as fast as a motor boat.
According to Jon Downes from the CFZ, Steve managed to get a photo of what they saw, it is poor quality but shows ‘grey humps’ in the water. Steve Burnip is very reluctant to hand this photo to the press.
“He showed us the original of the photograph he had taken, still on his digital camera, and zoomed in. What had been merely discolouration in the water on the version that had been rather badly reproduced by the Westmorland Gazette, were actually what appeared to be quite sizeable humps. We hope that as time goes by we shall be able to persuade Steve to let us have a copy for our own use.” – Jon Downes
You can watch a video here of Steve Burnip explaining his encounter to local press.
When: July 2006
Who: Mr & Mrs Gaskell
Where: Cruising near Ambleside at the North end of the lake
What: Saw a large animal jumping in the wake of their vessel “which looked like a seal or dolphin without the fin, leaving a large wake and ripples.”
Around this time the local press had contacted the CFZ after reading about their ‘giant catfish’ research from 2002. They asked the CFZ is they could shed any light on the supposed monster. An appeal was put out in the local newspaper/s for witnesses to come forward and in the following month six more did so, including one from the 1950’s and 1980’s.
When: February 2007
Who: Linden Adams
Where: Windermere area
What: Local photographer, Adams, was walking in the area with his wife when he spotted an oddity in the water of the lake. He said it appeared to be 50 foot long, when compared to boats nearby. Adams took a photo of the object that was then published in numerous papers. Read more here.
When: July 2007
Who: Crew of a boat (unidentified)
Where: North end of the lake
What: A yatch was moored at the North end of the lake when something banged into the side of the boat, causing it to rock. This was described as a ‘Jaws Style attack’ in the local press. Read about it here.
2008 – no sightings or reports on record that can be found.
When: July 24th 2009
Who: Thomas Noblett (managing director of The Langdale Chase Hotel)
Where: Lake Windermere
What: Noblett was swimming close to Wray Castle at 7am on the Wednesday morning when the 3 foot swell hit. He and swimming trainer Andrew Tighe – paddling in a boat beside him – were the only people on the lake. Read about it here.
When: February 11th 2011 at 10:35am
Who: Tom Pickles & Sarah Harrington
What: Tom Pickles, 24, and fellow kayaker Sarah Harrington, 23, paddled 300m out onto Windermere lake near Belle Isle when they spotted a mysterious creature the size of three cars gliding across the lake. A photo was taken on Tom Pickles’ mobile phone and then published in numerous newspapers. The story was reported here. I wrote an article examining the photo here.
When: February 16th 2011
Who: Brian and June Arton from Hovingham, North Yorkshire
Where: Beech Hill Hotel off Newby Bridge Road
What: Brian said: “We’d just checked into our hotel room at around 4pm when I opened the veranda doors and saw something about 300 yards away in the middle of the lake. I joked to my wife: ‘There’s the Loch Ness monster’ as it had humps but I thought it had to be a pontoon or a very strange shaped buoy.” Read about it here.
When: October 11th 2006
Who: The CFZ dispatch a research team made up of: Jonathan Downes, Richard Freeman, Mark North, Lisa Dowley, Corinna James, with guests Jon Ronson, Laura (a producer from Radio 4), and Dominic, a cameraman from The Guardian.
What: “The main point of this three-day expedition was to meet the eyewitnesses, suss out the lie of the land, and – as far as the diving was concerned – carry out something of a dress rehearsal.” You can read a full summary here.
The CFZ returned to the area in July 2007, but this time were over the western hills in Coniston, searching for giant eels following on from their original trip in 2006.
When: 19th & 20th 2009
Who: Dean Maynard
Where: Windermere details of the expedition)
What: Dean Maynard conducted an expedition to the lake. Dean was joined by ‘Bownessie’ witnesses Thomas Noblett, Linden Adams and Andrew Tighe. You can read a brief outline of the expedition – with all the associated press – here.
When: September 1th & 12th 2010
Who: Dean Maynard
What: second expedition with no results other than media coverage. Read more here.
My research into the Windermere lake monster
It seemed to me that Dean Maynard is of the opinion that the sightings were caused by a paranormal creature. The little detail on his website suggested that he and his crew were aiming to find proof that a monster existed in the lake and because of this their research was biased from the start – especially as numerous key eye-witnesses were involved in the research.
I emailed Dean via his PA, Debra Moyce, to ask for a copy of the reports from his expeditions at the lake to see if I could get a general understanding of what claims were investigated and how, but in an email from Debra I was told:
“I have spoken to Dean about your request and have to inform you that due to discussions being held with a third-party we are unable to give you this information at the moment as it may be used during the publishing of a book later on in the year.”
I emailed back to explain that I didn’t necessarily need all the details, just information about the claims researched and the methods used, but I am still to see a reply.
It’s a shame when researchers do not share their findings with others, and because of the lack of details about his research that is outweighed by the amount of press coverage he received, I cannot help but feel that Maynard’s research was a publicity stunt. Especially as when he announced his expedition in 2009 there had been no reported sightings for over a year.
The most intriguing result of the Maynard expedition was some footage filmed by John McKeown of Lakes TV who had been filming shots of the lake for a documentary he was creating about Dean’s investigation of the monster.
It shows something breaking the water in a V shape that John claimed was 20 meters long.
Jonathan Downes from the CFZ was more willing to talk to me about the time he spent at Windermere as part of a research team. Downes had this to say:
“Our theory is that they are giant eels which occur once or twice in a generation, but are nowhere near as big as people say. When eels reach sexual maturity they swim down to the sea, migrate to the Sargasso Sea, mate, spawn and die. We believe that occasionally an eel is born sterile so it doesn’t have the biological imperative to migrate, it stays in freshwater and carries on eating and gets enormous (by eel standards). European eels are not supposed to get bigger than 4 ft but there is (or was) a 5 foot plus one in Blackpool Tower Aquarium (of all places).
I think that once or twice in a generation in a large body of water like Windermere or Loch Ness, a specimen of 8-12 feett could be living. We have found eyewitnesses but the rest is exaggeration or potentially fraud.
If there is anything there it HAS to be a fish and basically that means eel, pike, or possibly Sturgeon. In my long and chequered career I have found that there is usually a sensible explanation for everything, not always, but very much usually.”
I found Jon’s ideas to be interesting, and the idea that what is being seen is something naturally occurring in the lake being misidentified sounded plausible to me, but I wasn’t 100% sure about the giant eel claim. I understand that an eel of 5 foot in length was in Blackpool Aquarium, but the monster sighted on the lake is said to be between 20 – 50 feet in length.
Also, eye-witness testimony alone doesn’t make conclusive evidence for the existence of eels that are 8 – 12 foot in length.
I realised that the people I really needed to speak to were the people who had experience with the ecosystem of Windermere. If a giant eel or fish was being misidentified as a monster I realised that the people who studied the fish population of the lake would be the people most likely to know about it.
I managed to make contact with Dr Ian J Winfield who was happy to answer the questions I had about the ecology of Lake Windermere. Dr Winfield has been studying the ecology and management of freshwater fish in Windermere since 1990 for The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in their Lancaster facility. Although such work is conducted throughout the UK and overseas, a large component of it involves the continuation of long-term netting and trapping studies of Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus), perch (Perca fluviatilis) and pike (Esox lucius) in Windermere, which began during the 1940s.
This work is augmented by the use of state-of-the-art hydro-acoustics to investigate fish abundance, distribution and size structure, together with aspects of their biotic and abiotic environments, (also worth noting is the fact that the Fresh Water Biology Association has also been studying Windermere since the 1930’s).
Most of the sightings of the ‘Bownessie’ monster have been described as being between 20 and 50 feet in length. In all the time that the ecology of the lake has been monitored and managed nothing even close to that size has been documented. Indeed, there is no species native to the UK of that size in Windermere.
Also worth noting is the fact that unlike Loch Ness, there is no canal connecting Windermere with the sea so this discounts the possibility of a large sea creature accidentally finding its way into the lake as was a possible cause for some Loch Ness Monster sightings. Windermere is drained from its southernmost point by the River Leven, but the River has a waterfall along its length which means it would be impossible for a seal or a whale or similar to pass along the waterfall, down the river and into the lake.
Had a seal, a whale or similar been illegally introduced to Windermere and survived, there would have been more than just the handful of sightings that have been documented. Not to mention the impact such a creature would have on the ecology of the lake – something that researchers would certainly have seen and would have documented.
The ﬁsh community of Windermere, which comprises 16 species including the nationally important Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus), is undoubtedly the best studied Lake ﬁsh community in the UK.
Winﬁeld & Durie (2004) reviewed the history of ﬁsh species introductions in Windermere and nearby lakes, a total of 12 native (brown trout (Salmo trutta), European minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus), perch, pike) and non-native (common bream, crucian carp, dace, grayling (Thymallus thymallus), rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), roach, rudd and tench (Tinca tinca)) ﬁsh species are known to have been brought for the purpose of live-baiting. 
As mentioned before, one theory for the cause of the monster is that people are mis-identifying a giant eel.
Although there are Eels in Windermere, they tend to be three or four feet in length and none are as large as 20 foot long. Also worth noting is that Eels do not stick their heads out of the water when they are swimming, which is something that many eye-witnesses have reported the “monster” to be doing when they see it. (Quite often eye-witnesses have reported the monster has ‘humps’, one of which is a head).
Grass snakes, on the other hand, have often been seen by ecologists on the lake swimming very fast through the water, in a straight line, with their head held up out of the water. However, a grass snake will grow no larger than a few feet in length.
Although there is a link between sterility and growth in eels, it tends to be growth in girth rather than in length. Also noteworthy is the fact that several of the ‘Bownessie’ sightings were made during winter months when Eels (like many species of fish in Windermere) tend to become more inactive and hibernate. Therefore the sightings in winter months were not likely to have been eels.
Dr Winfield has suggested that if a creature of quite some size is being seen and misidentified as some sort of monster it could simply be a large pike. Another possibility is that somebody has illegally introduced a catfish into Windermere as this is something Anglers have been noted to do in other lakes. They can grow up to 1 ½ meters in length (the biggest ever captured was 9 feet in length), but these specimen take some time to grow that large. Worth noting though is the fact that catfish have never been documented in Windermere and Dr Winfield doesn’t believe this is a very possible cause for the sightings reported (despite the media misquoting him to suggest that he did).
I also asked Dr Winfield about the video shot by John McKeown that apparently shows something breaking the water, and whether there was anything in the lake that could cause such a disturbance to the water surface. He informed me that although he didn’t believe it to be caused by a species of fish, it could have been a rock in the water (they sometimes become exposed as wakes go over them etc.) or may have even been something under the water that had become caught in a boat wake.
I too felt that McKeown and Maynard had connected the footage with the monster with nothing to support such a connection and it was clear I wasn’t the only one who felt that despite the video being interesting, it doesn’t really weigh up as evidence of a monster existing.
With all of this in mind, I took another look at the information about the individual sightings I had collated and looked at the features of the monster that eye-witnesses had noted.
If we are to believe that all of the eye-witnesses saw the same monster, then we have to believe that the creature they saw has the following features:
- It is 20 – 50 feet in length
- It has a head like a Labrador dog
- It can jump in and out of the water
- It looks like a dolphin or seal without fins
- It looks like a giant eel
No species of fish or animal in Lake Windermere has all of these features – especially not a head like a Labrador dog. When Dr Winfield was first shown the photo taken by Linden Adams, the detail about the size of the creature and the labrador-like head were not mentioned.
After reading over various accounts of the sightings of this monster and the different opinions of researchers, I am drawn to the theory that the monsters that the eye-witnesses have reported may actually be simple mis-identifications of other fish in the lake. It’s not difficult to see something you can’t identify and misjudge it to be paranormal in nature – especially if the suggestion of such a creature existing is already there.
In this video produced by the CFZ about their expedition you can hear Steve Burnip, the first eye-witness in 2006, stating that it was very difficult to judge the distance between where he was standing and where the creature was in the water.
This is, I believe, probably the reason that many people believe they have seen some sort of monster in the lake when in fact they could have been looking at a large fish or a regular sized eel.
There is no way that Burnip could be 100% certain that the creature he saw was twenty-foot in length if he couldn’t tell how far away from him the thing was.
Linden Adams claims he was 1000 feet above ground level (on the side of a mountain), when he spotted and photographed the creature swimming through the lake and causing a wake. It would have been really difficult for him to make an accurate guess at the size of it, even by comparing it to boats in the distance. It could have been a number of things leaving a wake behind.
Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington were in a kayak in the water when they allegedly saw the monster swim past them. It is very difficult to judge the size of something in the water ahead of you, when you are positioned low down in the water yourself – I personally live next to the Kennet & Avon Canal and have been in Kayaks and know what sort of perception you have of the water in front of you.
Also, if you look at the photo taken by Tom Pickles you can see, in the un-cropped version at least, how small the so-called monster actually is when you put the islands in the background in perspective (as I did in this previous article).
The case of Thomas Noblett, the managing director of a local hotel was one that intrigued me due to the fact that he seemed so ready to jump to the idea that his encounter was the result of a monster in the lake when there was nothing in particular that suggested such a thing. It was a huge leap of logic.
He was hit by a three-foot wave that appeared to come out of nowhere on the lake and then continued to travel on across to the bank. While speaking to Dr Winfield about the lake I happened to mention Noblett’s experience to him and he laughed and told me that it was nothing abnormal for a wave to come out of nowhere to disrupt a seemingly still lake. Quite often, wakes will stay around for long periods of time and will bounce back from the bank. This is probably what hit Thomas Noblett.
I cannot help but believe that the sightings of the Bowness lake monster may have been inspired by the suggestion in the media coverage of the case. It’s easy to slap a paranormal tag on something you experience when such an idea is playing at the back of your mind. For example, Mr & Mrs Arton who believe they saw Bownessie from their hotel room thought it was a Pontoon at first, until they read the local newspaper the next day and saw a mention of the lake monster.
I also feel that many people have jumped on the monster as a publicity tool, and not necessarily for the area because Lake Windermere doesn’t need any help attracting tourists to the area.
The Windermere Lake monster case is, in reality, quite unremarkable as far as evidence is concerned, though I am sure that for many people the sightings and stories are evidence enough in themselves. This is how folklore is made, and I believe that there will be many more sightings of the monster, and possibly more photos that show nothing to suggest a monster is in the water that will prove that exact thing to many who see them.
I will be watching this case intently for future reports, and who knows, I might even buy a copy of Maynards book if it gets published, just so I can finally read his expedition reports.
1 – Winfield, I.J., Fletcher, J.M. and James, J.B. (2011). Invasive fish species in the largest lakes of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England: the collective UK experience. Hydrobiologia 660, 93-103. doi:10.1007/s10750-010-0397-2.
Thanks to Jon Downes for his time and to Dr Ian Winfield for his help in my research and constant questions.