There can surely be few better places to grow up than here on the edge of England’s biggest lake. Matt Staniek recalls happy, long summer days spent on Millerground beach, a National Trust area that is located on Lake Windermere’s 24-mile circle.

George and Ed Sandys fondly remember paddling along the west shoreline of Lake Ontario, where they lived with their families for generations.

George remembers the day when everyone had to go treasure-hunting in the shallows after his grandfather’s signet ring fell into the water. There was no difficulty seeing the bottom back then. Today, it is not so.

This is not a long time ago. Matt is 26 years old, George is 37 years and Ed 38.

Over the past three months, great stretches have been turning alarming shades of green as an algae infestation has blossomed

In the last three months, large stretches of land have turned alarmingly greener as an alga infestation has flourished.

Yet you won’t find any of them in Windermere this weekend, however scorching the Bank Holiday sunshine. Ed hasn’t been in all year. Matt won’t let his dog anywhere near the lake.

Ask locals about Windermere’s appearance in the area and they will tell you that it is not.

Over the past three months, great stretches have been turning alarming shades of green as an algae infestation has blossomed due to a toxic cocktail of hot weather, a shrinking water supply and unspecified quantities of ‘nutrients’ — notably sewage. As all of these elements multiply, so does the amount of oxygen available to fish and wildlife.

Known as blue-green algae, the phenomenon — which can cause serious harm to humans and kill animals — is nothing new. No one is able to remember an outbreak of such scale. It is also man-made, which is not denied.

Britain’s coastal resorts may be retching at the torrents of effluent cascading out of the nearest overspill pipe. That will at least eventually get to the sea. Any nasty stuff will not be going far in this slow-moving lake, where it takes a drop nine months for water to travel from one side to the other.

Something is obviously wrong when viewed from the water of Windermere’s surface, whether it be on or below. It is evident that the problem is more severe when seen from the hillsides or from an airplane. It has been even seen from Space. What is so frustrating for many is that these algal ‘blooms’ can materialise in a matter of minutes, then disappear if there is a breeze. Except they haven’t really gone away.

Climate change is causing a tumultuous situation.

¿People are realising that we may have to take a bit of short-term pain to stop a long-term disaster ¿ which is what will happen if we leave this lake to die,¿ says Matt, a local-born zoologist

‘People are realising that we may have to take a bit of short-term pain to stop a long-term disaster — which is what will happen if we leave this lake to die,’ says Matt, a local-born zoologist

‘People are realising that we may have to take a bit of short-term pain to stop a long-term disaster — which is what will happen if we leave this lake to die,’ says Matt, a local-born zoologist who is now dedicating all his time (and his life’s savings) to highlighting the plight of his beloved Windermere.

It is possible to imagine that he might inflict the fury of his neighbors in an area almost entirely dependent upon tourism.

Yet I find most people very supportive of what he is doing — from the local Liberal Democrat MP, councillors and a Tory peer to people like Peter Kelly.

Peter owns Swim The Lakes in Ambleside, which organizes guided swims as well as river and night swims. There is also a trade in wetsuits. You might think he would minimize the circumstances given the business nature, but he is honest and open about it.

‘I regularly paddle the length of the lake,’ he says. ‘Some of it can look crystal clear and some of it’s a swamp. We’ve always had algae but now you get these concentrated blooms like never before — in some places it smells like a sewer. I always say to people, “If it’s minging, don’t swim in it”.’

Peter called it off today, cancelling a Millerground one-mile guided swimming trip. It was only his second ever cancellation. Fresh algae reports convinced him to cancel, even though his water testing kit had shown that the stretch was safe.

‘I just decided it wasn’t worth the risk,’ he says, pointing to the fact that there are umpteen other beautiful stretches of clear, whiff-free water in nearby lakes. In this instance, he took his group to Rydal water nearby.

What is his solution to this problem? ‘Well, we can’t do much about rising temperatures but we can certainly do something about what we put in the water,’ he says.

Many locals claim United Utilities cannot cope with the millions of tourists who descend all year round

Many residents claim that United Utilities is unable to handle millions of tourists who visit all year.

As most people here, he thinks United Utilities has the greatest responsibility for North West England. Valued at £7.4 billion, it is Britain’s biggest water company, with salaries and bonuses to match (chief executive Steve Mogford took home £3 million last year). Locals say United is unable to handle the millions of tourists that descend every year.

In 2021, says the Environment Agency, United discharged ‘storm’ spills into the Windermere catchment for 6,992 hours (down from 7,146 in 2020).

Ambleside Library was where I encountered Tim Farron, Lib Dem MP and former leader. ‘There is no doubt that climate change and the hot weather are to blame,’ he says. ‘There are also things that we can all do but there are two main issues.

‘One is the number of unregulated septic tanks leaking into the lake. United Utilities is my favorite.

‘The fact that even a moderately heavy rainfall can just overwhelm the system and that they are legally allowed these overflow “events” needs to be addressed. They need to be instructed to install more storage tanks.’

While the Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring the situation Mr Farron says that their hands are tied by law and a shortage of resources. He would particularly like it to have the power to regulate septic tank.

These are estimated to number around 1,900 and not connected to main sewage system.

United Utilities is clearly feeling demonized. It points out that its treated effluent is of the highest quality since a £40 million upgrade to a system which, it says, can meet population growth up to 2035. However, there are no controls on the overspill.

Curiously, perhaps, it will not comment on the water quality in the lake, saying this is a matter for others, or respond to ‘hearsay and conjecture’. It is, however, committed to a new ‘Love Windermere’ alliance, led by the Environment Agency, to determine what needs to be done.

‘Building on our own record levels of investment,’ says a company statement to the Mail, ‘we are working with other agencies through the Love Windermere partnership on a science-based plan that will prioritise action that everyone who impacts the lake can take.’

A Press Release was issued by the company recently blaming six local cafes for sewer blockages due to fat deposits in drains. United spokesperson points out, however that there is much to be done about agricultural run-off.

Tim Farron is skeptical. ‘Farming is far less of a problem than it was and the landowners are a pretty responsible lot,’ he says.

The Sandys family, who are responsible for 5,000 acres along five miles of Windermere shoreline, closed the estate’s last midden (slurry pit) ten years ago.

Ed Sandys states that the estate uses modern septic tank for its cottages and that only seasonal grazing is allowed in the fields. The estate also participates in a project to rewilder. Sandys points out a recent event on Cunsey Beck. The river runs through his property to the lake. He found many dead fish and eels one day. ‘I walked back up the river and there was this filth streaming out of a pipe. The water upstream was clean. We followed the line of the pipe back, via manhole covers, to the nearby sewage works.’

But, the spokesperson for United Utilities insists all equipment was functioning on that date, that there was no pollution from its operations, and that it is not my fault. George Sandys asks United Utilities why it installed a new generator shortly after the accident. United claims that this is a coincidental event.

Sandys’ family points out that South Cumbria Rivers Trust test the water at the outfall. The results and the strong smell strongly indicate the presence of rawsewage.

United Utilities contacted Dr Roger Sweeting who is the chair of the trust. He said the trust asked them to drop any suggestions that sewage had caused the problem. While the Environment Agency has not yet commented, they are currently conducting an investigation.

This is, Dr Sweeting says to me, a small example of a large problem and everyone needs to take responsibility.

‘United have actually done some very good work and are exploring a new technique for removing a lot of phosphates from their output,’ he says. ‘As soon as anything goes wrong, people hit on them. You have to ask where duties to water quality meet duties to shareholders — but you’ve also got to ask all those people with septic tanks. Instead of wagging too many fingers or “Do this” campaigns like “Love Windermere”, we need a proper 20-year water quality plan.’

The trust’s president, Lord Cavendish, a local landowner, has observed a collapse in fish stocks on the River Leven, which flows from the southern end of the lake through his land. He acknowledges the responsibility for multiple causes, such as septic tanks or the ineptness of the Environment Agency.

‘I have been in government and served on quangos and I can see that this one is not doing its job,’ says the Tory peer. Although ennobled by Margaret Thatcher, he is frank: ‘I am afraid water privatisation has not been a success.’

The agency tells me it has spent £700,000 over the past decade on improving the water quality of Windermere, which it calls ‘a national asset’.

Matt Staniek leads me through his backyard. Great Langdale Beck’s water quality is unsurpassed by any other water outfall pipes. Ascending below Ambleside along the River Rothay.

Matt points out both the clearer riverbed just above the sewer works and its murkier counterparts below.

The river joins the lake a little further downstream. Our drone shows us a dark brown spearhead hitting a grey-green expanse. United Utilities claims that the plant it operates is only treating effluent. It is not the only company connected to the river. The discharge is from an adjacent industrial estate, it says.

A few signs are posted at nearby beaches warning of the dangers of blue green algae.

Shaun Evans Peacock (32), from Sunderland is just getting out of a quick dip. Although there are a few algae specks, the water seems to be in good shape. He hasn’t seen the signs but, after we point them out, he says he will take a shower.

A woman with an 11-year old daughter who is swimming in shallows met me. She’s seen all the warning signs, so she didn’t bring her dog. Despite her promise not to drink any water, she insists on taking her daughter.

Further out I see a group of paddleboarders who keep falling in. They will join thousands of others in the water this weekend. They will be fine as most of this algae are harmless. Most of the Lake District’s beauty and cleanliness is still intact.

However, there is something seriously wrong at the largest lake. Beatrix Harry set her fairy tales in these fields. Arthur Ransome based many of his children’s classics on adventures in these waters.

It is likely that Swallows and Enemas will prevail if there is not immediate action.