Small Pleasures: walking in Haweswater on a sunny January day

Back in January, my wife and I visited the English Lake District for the first time in decades. In recent years, the Lake District has acquired an image of being a beautiful but relatively cosy spot for tourists to visit teashops and trendy restaurants and messing around with boats, but it’s not all like that. The northeastern part of the Lake District is still, by English standards a wild, bleak place. We went to visit Haweswater, near Shap fell. Here’s what the area looks like from the air:

Haweswater, the highest lake in the Lake District, was expanded in 1935 when Manchester Corporation built a dam that flooded the Mardale valley, drowning two villages to create a reservoir to provide drinking water for the city. Today, it provides twenty-five per cent of the water used by the North West’s population of 7.4 million people.

Haweswater is a quiet place, less accessible than other parts of the Lake District. There is only one road into the valley and it dead ends, so there is no through traffic.

At the start of the 1930s, Manchester was in its prime. It was one of the largest cities in England. It had a population of 766,311 people in 1931 (38% bigger than the city is today). The Haweswater Dam was a prestigious project for Manchester Corporation, using leading-edge technology and securing clean water for its people.

The project met with strong local opposition. Partly to offset this and partly to provide accommodation for management while the dam was built, Manchester Corporation commissioned the Haweswater Hotel to be built next to the lake. Built in 1937 and designed in the latest art deco style, the building combined the use of local materials with modern technology. The walls were constructed using local stone. The roof was made of Cumberland slate from old farm buildings in Mardale. Coping stones in the gardens were reused from submerged Mardale walls and antique bell pulls removed from buildings in the valley. To these were added modern innovations like the thin-frame Crittall steel windows and the use of Douglas Fir plywood. The city’s pride in ownership was demonstrated by a stained glass window incorporating the city’s coat of arms, placed at the centre of the main staircase and the use of custom made cutlery and furnishings from high-quality suppliers like Waring and Gillow, marked with a Manchester emblem.

The hotel is still open and we were fortunate enough to get a room there for our visit. It has been lovingly restored and looks like the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie mystery.

The day we walked the valley was one of those rare January days in England when the sun shines, the sky is bright blue and the cold bites. We walked the length of the valley along the road. Every turn brought another stunning view. I loved the bleak beauty of the bare hills, the still darkness of the trees and the way the reservoir mirrored everything, amplifying its beauty.

At the end of the lake, we set off to walk to Small Water, a tarn in the hills above the Mardale valley. The picture below shows what it looks like. Sadly, we didn’t make it all the way up. Normally, it would be a steep but doable walk along a well-established footpath but, on the day we were there, ice made the going tough. We managed the stepping stones and most of the climb but we turned back when we saw that the rocks we’d normally scramble up had been made slick and treacherous by ice that coated the rock like moulded glass.

Small Water

Despite having to change our plans, we had a great day’s walking and a pleasant stay at the hotel. We’ll be going back when the weather is warmer.

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