The following is an extract from my MA dissertation, read my full dissertation here: Rain, Myth and Northerness.
Starting with the maxim ‘start where you are’ and where I was being Manchester, I decided to write about rain, but as I explored my landscapes of rain – Manchester, Haworth, and Thirlmere – I realised that actually what I was exploring was the mythical aspects of these landscapes as typified by rain. By myth I mean a story that is told about a landscape that becomes a part of how that place is perceived. So, for instance, Manchester is referred to as the rainy city, which is in fact inaccurate because it’s only the 9th rainiest city in the UK.
My stepfather, Paul, and I set off early on a Sunday morning. The weather forecast tells us to expect rain, but the sky overhead is clear and blue, except for a few clouds. As we enter the Lake District the soft folds of brown fells, like fat, sleeping bodies, rise up on either side of the road. They are interspersed with green and heather-swathed hills.
Instead of going straight to the reservoir we seek out the tourist information centre in nearby Keswick to get a map of the area’s walks. However, having wandered round the shop, there doesn’t seem to be anything about Thirlmere, and the only map I can find that features it is an Ordinance Survey one. I head over to the lady at the counter.
Hi, do you have any walks around Thirlmere?”
Oh, someone else asked about that the other day. – it seems as though it is an unusual occurance to be asked about Thirlmere twice in one week – I’m afraid we don’t have much. I’ll just have a look.
She heads in to a back room and reappears with a small booklet of walks. This is the only one we have, but it’s quite a nice walk and not too long, only five miles.
Okay, thank you, I’ll take that and the OS map.
Are you sure you don’t want the waterproof version? I decide it’s probably a wise move.
Having acquired the maps we head back to the car and drive the six miles down the road to a car park overlooking Thirlmere. We change our shoes for walking boots, put on our backpacks, and head north along the eastern shore of the reservoir. The path is lined with ferns and I can see across the water to the hills on the other side. They are covered with regimented fir trees, though the trees have been felled in parts, leaving the landscape with small bald patches. After walking a short distance we drop down off the path to the shore edge. There are some old rusty rails and chains running down into the water. I look at the OS map, we are near the site of a former quarry, which might explain these rusting remnants. There is a lone canoeist wearing a bright red top on the water and I can see why he’d rather be here than on Windermere or one of the other popular lakes. He is the only thing moving, besides the water itself.
Thirlmere, judging by the lack of information at the visitor centre and the lack of people on the path, doesn’t seem to be a huge tourist attraction. This is nothing new, however. Daniel Defoe described it as the most frightful place in England and its once harsh appearance – with rocky cliffs rising abruptly out of the shallow waters – deterred many visitors, not least because it was so inaccessible. It did gain favour amongst the Romantics. Harriet Ritvo, in her book The Dawn of Green, describes Thirlmere as having been an ‘aesthetic litmus test’ for those seeking the sublime. Still, it remained largely unvisited by tourists. Its physical isolation and relatively small tourist industry is part of the reason it was so easy for the Thirlmere Defence Association – formed in around 1867 to prevent the Manchester Corporation from damming Thirlmere – to mythologise the area, and consequently the Lake District as a whole.
The Association defended Thirlmere on the grounds that it was a landscape of pure, untouched natural beauty, despite the fact that this was far from true. The area was inhabited by farmers, whose livestock grazed the hills and fells that had once been forested, and the surrounding mountains had long been mined for minerals. However, because of the long standing presence of these industries in the area the Association were able to overlook them in their claims. Ritvo calls this ‘retrospective naturalisation’. It is the assimilation of something old into the natural landscape, and it seems we do it unconsciously. I was doing it myself as I stood at the shore of the reservoir. The rusty chains didn’t jar with my perception of what is natural, unspoilt, and devoid of humanity, in the same way that the canoeist and his plastic canoe did.
Paul points to the Forestry Commission plantation. Look at all those trees, they look so ugly. He points to another hill which is treeless. I prefer that, doesn’t it look so much nicer?
Once the Corporation had won the fight and built the dam, trees came to symbolise the ongoing struggle. The Lake District was once covered in forests, which were eventually cleared to make way for farming. The deforested landscape then became the accepted natural state, and so, when the Forestry Commission started planting the shores of the reservoir with pines, spruces, larches, and firs, there was a great deal of opposition. Today there remain those, like my stepfather, whose perception of what the Lake District should look like doesn’t incorporate these forests, and those who have learnt to appreciate the landscape with them.
After sitting by the water for a while we head off along the path again, which starts to rise and offers views back across the reservoir. The water is nestled in the middle of a wreath of trees, and the bright sunlight reflecting on its surface makes it look like a blank space, in need of colouring in. From our vantage point we can also see Raven Crag, which sits up above the tree line. It is covered with gullies and grooves that make it look like a loaf of badly sliced bread. After heading up and away from the reservoir and around the base of a large knoll, the path leads back down towards the road.
We cross over the road and pass a field in which small birds dart in and out of the stone walls. Overhead a hawk circles. Away from the reservoir the landscape appears more built up. We pass the Thirlmere Recreation Hall, which has an “honesty box” car park. Across the road from the hall an old couple are tending an allotment packed with vegetables. These quaint scenes of rural life once again hint at the possibility of unconsciously naturalising and mythologising human activity on the landscape.
The path now starts to ascend steeply before levelling out and passing along the side of a fell, it is muddy – a testament to the days of rain in which we have managed to find a window. As the afternoon wears on the sun bears down on us and we realise we’ve forgotten to bring sun cream or spare water. We pass a waterfall and I start snapping away with my camera, then we pass another and another, and yet more waterfalls, and I stop snapping so much. It is becoming clear why this site was chosen for the reservoir. We stop at one of the waterfalls and I plunge my arms into the water to try and cool down.
Our walk passes within the foothills of Helvellyn – a name that sounds like Valhalla and so always makes me think of the afterlife – and Paul starts telling me about Striding Edge, a thin ridge leading from the summit of Helvellyn. The path along Striding Edge is very narrow, with sharp drops at either side, and in 2008 it took the lives of three experienced walkers who fell in bad weather.
Although the Lake District has its own specific myths, as a northern landscape it is also part of a wider myth – that of the north of England. This myth is often used to comic effect when the inhabitants of the north are caricatured as grumpy and working class. However, it is also a vision of the landscape as interminably dark, gloomy, grim, black, bleak, and rainy. Of course this myth does have some grounding in reality. At one time the north was the centre of industry and this industry quite literally blackened the skies and buildings of the region. Still, I have never really thought of the north as particularly bleak, but Striding Edge brings home the fact that it is a dangerous landscape. It is a landscape that threatens to engulf us if we take a stray step. As I’m trying to articulate these thoughts to Paul we pass the carcass of a dead sheep, its flesh all but gone and an empty rib cage left to sink into the grass.
We arrive back at the car and, after re-hydrating, we take another look at the OS map. It appears that there is a road going right round the reservoir, so we get back into the car and head north to do the route anti-clockwise. We stop at a car park and walk back along the quiet road to the dam. It is made of a grey stone that has been blackened over time. Its texture mirrors the texture of the choppy water, and the colour of the water seems to mimic the stone. An official looking granite plaque, with Manchester’s coat of arms above it, commemorates the laying of the first stone. The city’s motto – ‘Concilio et Labore’ (Wisdom and Effort) – seems appropriate as I look out across the water curled up in its basket of hills. Some might deny the wisdom of the Manchester Corporation’s damming of Thirlmere, but the incredible effort of transforming a landscape is evident in the reservoir.
It is certainly a complex landscape. It was once thought to be harsh and ugly, then it was sublime, and afterwards it was a picturesque representation of unspoilt nature. It was fought over and won by the Corporation who once more transformed it, and with the passing of time it has slowly been reintegrated back into the natural world. With the exception of the dam itself, the reservoir looks as much a part of the Lake District as any of the regions more well known lakes. It is also a body of water that was fought over along class lines. From the perspective of the Thirlmere Defence Association it was a battle between the greedy, rich mill owners and the working classes, who had a right to enjoy the unspoilt Lake District. From the perspective of the Manchester Corporation it was a fight between the elite upper classes who could afford to enjoy the Lake District, and the working classes, who had a right to clean water and sanitation.
As I look across the water I try to envisage the landscape before the reservoir. I imagine the steep cliffs that once surrounded shallow waters and I can understand the Defence Associations desire to preserve. On the other hand the solid stone beneath my feet speaks of necessity. It speaks of the growing industry and work force that needed water. I suspect, had I been around at the time, that I might have been persuaded to side with the Defence Association, but hindsight reveals the bigger picture and I decide to simply enjoy it. By now the sun’s intensity has lessened and cool air laps off the water.
I tear myself away from the view and we carry on driving. We stop once more at another of the many car parks that dot the edges of the reservoir, this time at a wide stretch of pebbled shore. As I’m walking across it towards the water I find a bunch of plastic, red roses wedged into a rock. Perhaps they were put there in memory of someone who ignored the ‘No Swimming’ signs and drowned in the icy waters that never get above freezing. We drive back to Keswick for a dinner of Cumberland sausages, mash and ale, before heading back to Manchester along the slow, scenic A road. As we approach Manchester it starts to rain. The city conforms to its own myth.