Friday, 24 May 2013

The Beautiful and the dammed

The two north-easternmost spokes in the great Lakeland wheel, Swindale and Mardale, could hardly be more different. To their west, or anticlockwise, the great glen of Ullswater cleaves down from Pattererdale towards Penrith. The blue shape of the lake on the map marries so closely with curve of Haweswater, to its east that, if you half-close your eyes (and use enough imagination), you can see the pair of them as a whale calf nestling up to its mother.

Eastwards, or clockwise round the wheel, the boggy uplands of Mosedale send their waters down the Sleddale Beck by a channel whose banks are starry with primroses each April. That water flows into the Lowther and at last the Eden in its long bending north. Starting from the same watershed, on Hartsop Pike, the Crookdale and Borrow. Becks trend south-eastward to enter the Lune near Tebay and finish up 40 miles away in Morecambe Bay. As for the difference between Swindale and Mardale ... well, we can hardly use `Mardale' any more except historically.

From 1935 onwards, the sweet valley was drowned to make a reservoir. The original lake was doubled in length and trebled in surface area. The dam looms like a prison wall. So Manchester needed the water.  So Mardale village had to go – its houses, its farms (which used to send 3,000 lb of butter south by train each week), the houses, the pub, the school, the reading-room, the church – the lot. The stones of the church were recycled to make the intake well for the dam. One hundred and four dead from the graveyard were reinterred in 'the Mardale portion' of Shap graveyard. Mardale was written off by the pro-dam interests as 'an overrated beauty spot' and the home ground of only 100 people.

Mardale Valley-before the flood

Am I deceiving myself when I believe that it couldn't happen today? That people's awareness and their protests would deter the authorities from destroying a community? Nowadays, whenever there is a prolonged drought, you can be a ghoulish tourist and poke about among the bones of Mardale. When the water sinks low, walls are bared, an arched bridge, heaps of rubble with caves between them – the cellars of the pubs. I'm ashamed to say that when I found a piece of a stone ginger beer bottle here in the summer of 1983,1 brought it away with me. Next year, another drought, and cars queued the length of the dale to see the wreckage. An ice-cream van sold refreshments. Worse locusts than me began to steal the coping-stones off the bridge and after a few weeks the parapets were gone. Up on the hillside there is a rock-climb called Dun Bull – last evidence above water of the bygone pub which had hosted many an epic of feasting and drinking when stray sheep were gathered in at the Mardale Meet.

The link between Mardale and Swindale is the Old Corpse Road. It tracks east-north­eastward up the hill opposite the pine-covered peninsula called The Rigg, crosses the watershed, and at last drops down into Swindale at its head. The Mardale folk carried their dead this way to Shap until they got their own church early in the 18th century. Until then the long carry had caused `excessive expense for funerals, and the souls as well as the bodies of infants taken to be baptised are endangered'. I last walked that way with my wife and another poet, who spent some miles extolling the virtues of Hunza apricots and doling out a few from time to time. (They're supposed to help you live longer – I can't yet vouch for this from my own experience). For weekly worship the Swindale folk had to make do with a chapel at Truss Gap Farm. Am I imagining this or did Harry Griffin, the renowned walker and climber, once recall that he had found the organ in the disused chapel and that, being expert on the keyboard, he coaxed from it a few struggling notes?

Swindale has never been ample enough to sustain settlement on the Mardale scale. It has stayed as it always was, beef cattle browsing the water meadows, sheep on the hill, a narrow zone of lush hayfields (one of which was named in a 13th-century document). On the eastern flank Gouther Crag juts out above slopes deep in ferns and foxgloves and bunchy trees. The grassy quietude of it all is entrancing. One time, when I was on a stance high up on a route called The Fang, I saw a hay tedder working along a field of ripe hay down below on the river-bank and I was able to delight in the perfect matching of the silken stripes of mown grass on the yellow-white stubble with the meanders of the watercourse.

The Drasdo Brothers-Neville leading-Harold hiding in the trees:

Fang Buttress on Gouther Crag was named after a downward-pointing finger of rock, like a big blunt grey icicle, at the start of a route called Sostenuto, which was put up in 1958 by the Drasdo brothers from Bradford. When I first climbed it with my stepson in 1983, the right ridge of the fang was a help as you struggled to get started. Two years later I was climbing with the Drummonds – Ed, pioneer of scarcely believable routes in North Wales and Yosemite, and his wife Leah, a beginner. Ed had never climbed in the Lakes before. His first sally was to amble upwards unroped beside Leah and myself on a straightforward route called Kennel Wall. He looked unstoppable, fearless, agile as a cat, with hands like a bear's paws. When we went to start up Sostenuto, I found that the fang had fallen off, whether by gravity or due to some earth tremor. I was intrigued to see that Ed, who had climbed routes of the greatest difficulty (Main Wall on Clogwyn dur Arddu, the North America Wall on El Capitan), had to try twice before he could start Sostenuto without the aid of the fang's clear-cut edges.

Ed Drummond..'fearless and agile as a cat with hands like bear's paws':

At the top of Gouther Crag, 500ft above the floor of the dale, you step off into another zone – trackless moorland, where I had my only sight of red deer in Cumbria. Five or six animals fled swiftly along then melted into the heather and blaeberry as they cunningly found cover beyond a rise in the ground. The same lovely contrast between the ruggedness and salience of the dale sides and the gently undulating moorland up above holds good all round the compass. At the dale-head Hobgrumble Gill and Mosedale Beck flow together beside a knoll called The Knott to make the Swindale River. The Mosedale has just plunged several hundred feet in a series of white cascades called Swindle Forces.

On days after heavy rain they have made me exult in their headlong plunge and reminded me of Beethoven – that rush and onset and resolution of many clashing sounds. Then, 'suddenly', as you emerge onto the levels of the moor above, the water is quite small, a brown peaty flow between banks of tousled heather that has never beenburnt or used in any way. All is calm. The water flows from one black pool to another by stony runnels just too broad to jump, so that you have to cross it by balancing along the wires of a rusty fence. Silence surrounds you, accented by the occasional pipe of a meadow pipit or the bark of a raven. It's like the lulling hush of an Andante after the speed and tumult of the opening movement. (The Drasdos' other route on Gouther is called Sforzando).

Haweswater offers few such elementals these days. The walk along the north shore is pleasant enough. A mile or two along from the dam the path picks its way past a craggy burst of waterfalls which offer superb terrain for hide-and-seek or scrambling or picnics on coigns among the birches and rowans. Always beside you the mass of trapped water imposes its sullen presence – a lake, it's true, but one whose oddly uniform shores betray that it was man-made, forced onto nature. You can appreciate the difference from wild water if you come down into Haweswater from its south end by either of the two old packhorse routes, either from Nan Bield at the head of Kentmere or from Gatescarth beyond Longsleddale. Up there the two tarns in their corries Blea Water and Small Water, are cupped as beautifully as raindrops in the calyx of a flower. Like Scales Tarn below Sharp Edge on Saddleback, they have rounded or lobed shapes of an organ inside a body or a chestnut in its husk.

Haweswater opens out northward towards Bampton and Lowther – well tended farming country. Swindale opens out eastward past a strange neutral ground crisscrossed by a maze of aqueducts and covered channels that pipe Cumbrian water down to Preston and Manchester. There is a fundamental change below ground there – the joint between the slates and schists of the north Lakes and the limestone which comes scything up from Kirkby Stephen. Shap Abbey is a stranded relic of the medieval age when monks built a major wool industry on grasslands that flourished on lime-based soils. Now that affluence has gone – also the trade brought in to Shap by the main road north. Shap feels backwatered these days – its pubs and shops not quite thronged enough, though equally you can enjoy their decent calm. It still gladdens me to be there because, looking westward, we can see the perky profile of Kidsty Pike and know that the particular atmospheres of Swindale and Haweswater are waiting for us there.

David Craig. First Published in Cumbria