Lake District Love Letters #8: Mardale and Haweswater

I realise it’s been almost a year since I wrote one of these! (How did this happen?) I have so much material now, but I’ve been so busy with publishing activities, family commitments, etc, that I struggle to find time to write them up. The following, however, simply had to be written, for a number of reasons which I will attempt to explain below…

The story of Mardale

I have at home an old book entitled A Backwater in Lakeland, which was first published in 1922, price 2/6! Written by one Isaac Hinchcliffe, J.P., this fascinating gem of a book tells the story of the valley of Mardale just before the Manchester Corporation built the dam which would flood it. At the time the book was written, an agreement was already in place to flood the valley and create a reservoir which would supply the rapidly growing city of Manchester with drinking water for its burgeoning population. The Act of Parliament which allowed this action effectively condemned the settlement of Mardale Green, and its ancient way of life, to death.

Reservoir at low water
Remnants of Mardale Green today

In 1935, the dam was completed, and the valley flooded. The Dun Bull hotel, Mardale Church and the Grammar school at Measand were all destroyed, along with several farmhouses and the original road along Haweswater’s western shore. The lake level rose by some 100 ft, and all trace of the former settlement vanished.

In recent years, however, a lack of rainfall has led to a drop in water levels, and this summer, the reservoir level is at an unprecedented low. This has revealed not only an eerily harsh, unnatural-looking lakeshore, but also many haunting reminders of the drowned valley of Mardale. I have already written a poem about this, but yesterday I took a walk along the western lake shore, high above where the old road once ran.

Haweswater Shore Walk

red phone box and signpost
The signpost at Burn Banks

The path along Haweswater’s western shore was built by the Manchester Corporation, as one of the conditions of its permission to build the dam. The walk begins at Burn Banks, once a small farming settlement, now a series of bungalows originally built to house the army of workers needed to construct the dam. A signpost placed by the Corporation points the way to the lakeshore path. The distance to Mardale is around 7 miles (11 km), so it would be wise to arrange transport for the return journey!

The path does not follow the shoreline, but hugs the contours of the fellside high above it. The landscape is breathtaking, as the mountains unfold, revealing the hidden treasures of this enclosed Lakeland valley. If you take a detour to the shore when the water level is low, you will see everywhere traces of destroyed walls and other buildings. To the north, the vast stone wall of the dam draws a line across the lake, bringing Haweswater’s beauty to an abrupt but dramatic end.

Reservoir with dam
The huge dam at the north end of the lake

The path crosses over Measand Beck by a wooden bridge. Measand Grammar school once stood somewhere below this point. For the onward journey, take care on some of the more steep and stony sections of the path, especially with children. Hiking boots are essential for this terrain! The further you progress towards Mardale, the more stunning the views become, with Harter Fell crowning the head of the valley, and the Pennines looming into view behind and to the north.

Mountain at Sunset
Kidsty Pike above Riggindale

Pass the lonely but glorious hollow of Riggindale on the right (erstwhile home of the Riggindale Eagle), before the skirting the headland of The Rigg plantation, beneath which Mardale church once stood. I couldn’t find its exact location, and suspect it could still be beneath the water.

As you reach the head of the valley, you will see the remnants of Mardale Green if the water level is low. At present, it is low enough to locate the remains of the Dun Bull Inn, and even find sherds of glass and pottery from this once beloved watering-hole of shepherds and weary travellers. Please do ensure it is safe to enter this part of the valley before exploring – the reservoir levels become treacherously deep quite suddenly.

Lake shore and mountain
Looking towards Harter Fell

The New Road and The New Hotel

Another condition of the Manchester Corporation’s permission to build the dam was that they would build a new road along the eastern shore of the lake, and a hotel to replace the Dun Bull. Somewhat ironically, the New Hotel is now a period 1930s Hotel with a feel of the Overlook to it. Stylish in its way, but traditionally Lakeland it is not. The views along the new road are breathtaking also.

I hope you enjoyed this Lake District Love Letter. As ever, there are more photos of this trip to be found on my Instagram. And on the same day as I completed this walk, I found out that our government, in its infinite wisdom, is seeking to do away with environmental protections in order to allow for more ‘economic development.’ I would point them towards Haweswater’s example as a cautionary tale of the perils of so-called progress…

A prescient song from the Beach Boys in 1971!

32 thoughts on “Lake District Love Letters #8: Mardale and Haweswater

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  1. Ingrid, thank you for this very descriptive and informative post! Beautiful views! We are sadly watching our favorite country scenes bulldozed for new developments.I remember when cows were pasturing where we now have a huge Hyvee and malls.

    1. It is the great tragedy and folly of our time that we no longer recognise the value of the natural world: a world which we are, of course, part of…

  2. An excellent blog I love your travel ones. I am currently writing a novel about a sunken village. This one is in N.York’s. I visited it in the summer and could see the remains of the cemetery wall exposed. Fascinating

  3. awesome way to show us the local scenery with a thought provoking history lesson!

    Govts must have their pockets well lined to do away with environmental protections … hope they get the protest they deserve to rectify that one.

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