The Western Lake District: Wastwater & Wasdale

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There’s Nothing Soft About Wasdale

A Heaton Cooper - Wastdale Head
Wastdale Head
by A. Heaton Cooper,c.1905

Wastwater is in character at the oppposite extreme from the lucious greenery of a Grasmere or a Derwentwater. Surrounded by some of England’s highest mountains including the highest, Scafell Pike, this can be a terrifying place. Steep scree slopes plunge more than twelve hundred feet straight down into dark waters and not stopping for a further two hundred feet under the surface. At a maximum of two hundred and sixty feet it is England’s deepest lake. Add in a mix of mist and rain, and you have formula for eeriness unmatched elsewhere in the Lake District. You either love Wasdale for its splendid savagery or you hate it for its oppressive eeriness.

Wastwater in Fiction

Wastwater - David Murray, 1981

Wasdale was repeatedly visited in Hugh Walpole’s 1930s novel of the 1700s, Rogue Herries: “This lake-end valley, cut off from the world, was an excellent rendezvous for smugglers from the sea-coast, only a few miles away. The inn at that time, the Wasdale Inn, was a wretched place, as he well knew, both in accommodation and reputation, but it was there that he must pass the night.” Later, following a murderous fight between David Herries and Denburn in the hills above the valley, the latter’s body is discovered by Sprinkling Tarn and brought down to Wasdale Head: “His body had been found a week later,” we read, “by some of the smugglers who used the Borrowdale-Ravenglass secret paths for their expeditions and were none too anxious for much investigation. They had left the body at the Wasdale Inn, and ridden away. … a murdered man or so found in the hills was no matter for much curiosity.” This was wild country in those days.

Gruesome Wastwater

It has seen some wild happenings more recently also. The lake’s water is very cold and lacking in oxygen. This latter property has led to some gruesome finds such as the 1970s “Wastwater Lady of the Lake”. A blanket bag found by a diver at over a hundred feet depth attached to a concrete slab was found to contain the wax-like, undecomposed body of a former air hostess who had disappeared several years earlier. A court eventually concluded that she had been put there by her husband.

The Wastwater Gnomes

The relative lifelessness of the lake bottom led divers some years ago to create their own version of a tourist attraction. They placed on the lake bed a group of garden gnomes which had to be removed by police divers after the National Park Authority became concerned about the danger to divers exceeding their safe depth while visiting them. Apparently someone later replaced them even deeper, and beyond the depth to which police regulations allow their divers to go.

Wastwater Miscellany

A Heaton Cooper - Wastwater
Wastwater, from Strands
by A. Heaton Cooper,c.1905

The lake is around three miles long and half a mile wide. At the head of the valley is Wasdale Head with its old church, and a pub of which the landlord for many years in the nineteenth century, Will Ritson, was a famous wrestler and raconteur. From the foot of the lake water is fed to the nearby nuclear reprocessing facility, with limits on the amount of extraction, but it is the River Irt which provides the natural outlet. It flows down Nether Wasdale, past Santon Bridge and Holmrook to the sea, constantly meandering as though reluctant to reach its destination.

A individual’s feelings about Wastwater may well depend on the weather and time of day when you first encountered it. Many shudder at its memory, but in 2007 Wastwater was voted Britain’s favourite view in a competition on ITV television. Whether positive or negative, Wastwater inspires feelings; it demands a reaction; it won’t be ignored.

Underwater at Coniston and Wastwater

January 6, 2010

The title of this post may have misled some people to think that I was going to write about the recent Cumbrian floods. Not at all. This is about the lakes, and getting under their surfaces, in particular Coniston Water and Wastwater. Actually it’s all a bit light-hearted. Last night I’d just spent an entire […]

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Joss – Fell Runner of Wasdale

October 23, 2009

The end of last month saw the launch of a biography of Joss Naylor, the legendary Lake District fell runner from Wasdale. He’s a man of 73 now, but in his early years was a pioneer of some of the roughest running in Britain. He once ran 72 Lake District fells inside 24 hours.  And […]

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