The English Lake District: Thirlmere

Thirlmere is to be found on the left hand side of the road from Ambleside to Keswick, north of Grasmere. It is the first lake encountered after passing the old Westmorland/Cumberland county boundary, on the way down from Dunmail Raise toward St. Johns in the Vale and Keswick.

A Heaton Cooper - Thirlmere and Helvellyn
Thirlmere and Helvellyn
by A. Heaton Cooper (c.1900?)
[Date unknown (to me), but before the forest]

Water for Manchester

Although now largely surrounded dark spruce forest Thirlmere was not always like this. Many considered it to be one of the most beautiful lake valleys in England. The present three miles long reservoir was created in the 1890s by the construction of a dam that raised the water level more than fifty feet. It is functional, and to do them justice the waterworks people at the time did what they could to minimise its eyesore potential, but all the same there is today very little scenic about Thirlmere (although with the removal of many trees on the eastern bank more of the lake can at least now be seen from the road). Disguising the pumping station as a mediaeval castle was certainly a novelty, but completely out of context.

Reservoirs have to be built. Water is vital to life, and a consistent supply is essential to modern life. It is a rare reservoir, however, that combines functionality with aesthetic quality and to my mind Thirlmere is not one of them. (I have a more complimentary view of Ennerdale Water).

Old Thirlmere

The old valley contained two small lakes, each about a mile long. Thirlmere was an ancient name, but for generations one of the lakes was known as Leathes Water, after a local family, and the other as Wyburn Water. There was an ancient footbridge over the short, sluggish stream joining the two. Brackmere was yet another name; there’s much uncertainty over the history of these local name changes.

The Rock of Names

The Wordsworths enjoyed this area, and wrote about their expeditions and eating at the Cherry Tree inn, now long gone. William gave it additional prominence in The Waggoner. He, Coleridge and others carved their initials on a rock which became known as The Rock of Names. (When the dam was built this was moved to escape the rising waters, and is now preserved at Dove Cottage).

Nature Trails

In more recent years the area around the new lake has been opened up to visitors to a much greater extent than it was in the earlier days of the reservoir when the surrounds were securely fenced off. Now there are forest trails and printed nature guides. As with other artificially afforested areas time passes, the environment reaches a new balance and once again it can be enjoyed, although it’s very different from the area the Wordsworth and Coleridge families used to admire.

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