A Journey into Scotland … Part 11
It may be called The Lake District, but there is in fact only one lake in the whole region. That is Bassenthwaite Lake and it lies to the north of me. All the rest of the large bodies of water up here are either called waters as in Coniston Water or meres as in Buttermere. Smaller bodies of water, that may well be called lakes elsewhere, are usually called tarns. Some people refer to the largest lake as Lake Windermere but this is frowned upon by purists as lake and mere both mean the same thing. We do have something of a problem in England when it comes to naming our geographical stretches of water. For example both river and Avon mean the same thing. Shakespeare was therefore born on the banks of the River River.
It isn’t just the British, other counties do tautological place names ; Mississippi River means Big River River. Mount Kilimanjoro means Mountain Mountain and even Walney Island where I began this journey means Island Island.
There seems no geological distinction between a lake and a mere; the naming seems to be as much from usage as from any other means. The influence of Norse language is much stronger up here in Cumbria than elsewhere in the country. Lake or mere can be seen as similar to the distinction between biscuit and cookie. People look for a significant difference but in reality they name the same thing, only one names it in French and the other in Dutch. To add a little confusion and a tiny bit of controversy, the sole lake in Cumbria was labelled Bassenwater on many older maps.
I’m heading from the southern end of the huge glacial valley that divides the whole district. I’m riding from Grasmere and Rydal Water in the direction of Bassenthwaite Lake and I’m not at all sure I’m going to even get that far. On the way I’ll be climbing over the pass of Dunmail Raise and cycling the shores of Thirlmere. To increase the confusion Thirlmere, though one of the larger bodies of water in the National Park, is neither a lake nor a mere, nor a water for that matter. It is a reservoir.
I breakfast with the two Americans I’d shared beer and thoughts on poetry with last night. They are going to have a walk up Helvellyn. They are terrific company and we intend to swap addresses but somehow never do. One of the delights of travelling this way is that you get to meet people who have that desire to get up and do things and see what is there. On journeys like this I have no end of firm friendships that last less than a day. Even when you get an address (and my notebooks had many by the time I got back home) you realise that the friendship was based on the shared experience of a certain place at a certain time and it can prove very hard to start a letter. Sure I’d like to bump into these folk again but it won’t happen. It is nice that all of the memories are pleasant ones.
The road heads upwards and keeps going that way for some considerable time. I’m passing some of the most photographable scenery in the north of England but it isn’t that easy to get off a bicycle every time you see something worth snapping. I ride on steadily, steadily. It’s the first time I’ve ridden anywhere laden down with bags and, on day two of the trip, I am still getting used to how this affects the handling of the bike. Uphill means beating out a steady rhythm and not stopping. The beauty remains in the eye and the memory if not in the camera.
I’m round about the point of the valley where Michael the shepherd lived with his wife and son in the poem bearing his name. They worked all hours of daylight in the open air and spent their evenings inside engaged in similar diligent labour to the extent that the light burning in their cottage became known locally as The Evening Star. I recite a verse to myself as I pedal. We learnt it at University. It’s funny what sticks in the mind.
For, as it chanced,
Their cottage on a plot of rising ground
Stood single, with large prospect, north and south,
High into Easedale, up to Dunmail-Raise,
And westward to the village near the lake;
And from this constant light, so regular
And so far seen, the House itself, by all
Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
Both old and young, was named THE EVENING STAR.
At the top the road levels out and runs between two walls of mountainside. It is devastatingly lovely. This is the pass of Dunmail Raise. It is by no means the highest or most difficult pass in the Lake District but it holds plenty of interest. A cairn in the middle of the road marks the burial place of Dunmail the last king of Cumberland. When he fell in battle against the Scots his warriors each placed a stone over his body before taking his crown and throwing it into Grizedale Tarn below Helvellyn. Once a year the ghosts of the warriors return to recover the crown and carry it down to the cairn where the voice of Dunmail is said to be heard saying “Not yet, not yet. Wait awhile my warriors.” England has its fair share of sleeping kings.
The descent is shorter and Thirlmere extends its silver beauty below. Originally this section of the valley contained two lakes. A returning Wordsworth would be staggered to see such a stretch of sylvan beauty. There is no doubt that Thirlmere is exceedingly beautiful. Leathes Water and Wythburn Water are still here, I suppose, but a further fifty feet of water lies above their surfaces. All schemes to flood valleys are controversial. This was the case here in the 1860s when Manchester Corporation realised it had to do something about providing fresh water for the rapidly growing city. The dam was built between 1890 and 1894 and the valley flooded. Building the dam was the easy part of the engineering feat. Getting the water the 96 miles to Manchester was the clever bit. The cleverness is in the simplicity. They simply dug an aqueduct (mostly tunnel) that had a very gentle downhill gradient and the water flows at a steady four miles an hour all the way to a second reservoir at Heaton Park Manchester. It takes the water almost exactly 24 hours to make the journey. There is no pumping station along the route. It may have been controversial but it is very impressive and Manchester gets an awful lot of clean lake district water.
At the northern end I’ve made up my mind that I’ve had enough of the heavy traffic. Many famous beauty spots of lakeland lie ahead but I choose the quiet road to Thelkeld and Blencathra rather than the busy one to Keswick, Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake. I immediately lose the stunning and inspiring views of high mountains and misty peaks. I immediately gain tranquility and a landscape that is every bit as beautiful if a little less awe inspiring. This is the best cycling road I’ve come across so far. It’s only four miles but boy, is it lovely?
Threlkeld is at the foot of Blencathra, otherwise known as Saddleback by those who have spotted its distinctive summit but who have missed the point that one is a poetically lovely name and the other sounds like a name uninspired parents would call it for the amusement of their bored children. I stop to buy a pie and some sweets in the local store. The woman starts to tell me about Thelkeld without my asking and in the process sells me a booklet. In return she is more than happy to fill my water bottles.