Human beings are pretty clever. Look at some of the incredible things we’ve made. Cars. Planes. Suspension bridges. MRI scanners. Computers. The Internet. The list goes on.
Our inventions clearly serve a purpose but we humans don’t stop there. We become obsessed with design. How the thing looks, performs, feels. Apple made laptop computers and telephones sexy. Brompton makes beautiful folding bikes. The Alfa Romeo Brera has an exquisite back end.
I have vague memories of some sort of poll to determine Britain’s favourite design icon of the 20th Century many years ago. The top 10 included the likes of Concorde, a Spitfire, London Bus (Routemaster, not the bendy bus). All beautiful things but not, I’d argue, as beautiful as Haweswater.
Now, the casual observer would look at this photo and say – that’s not man made, it doesn’t count. But then you look closer and see things like this:
Then, perhaps the biggest giveaway:
And you realise this thing was crafted by humans. OK, it’s had a helping hand from Mother Nature, and it’s those elements which are the pretty bits, but it’s still a reservoir, so I think we should include it alongside Concorde and the Alfa’s boot.
Modern day Haweswater was born from an original, much smaller lake in the Mardale valley. A controversial project, as it involved the destruction of ancient buildings and farmland and altered the character of the natural valley. But let’s assume the project was necessary (Haweswater now provides drinking water to 25% of the North-West so it probably was) and you start to think the Manchester Corporation didn’t do too bad a job. Alfred Wainwright described the resulting efforts in one word – ‘noble’.
I arrived early. Just before 7am. Haweswater is in a quieter part of the Lake District and it certainly feels it. From nearby Shap, you travel along miles of country-roads-to-nowhere before you reach the dam. It feels remote and you are likely to have the place largely to yourself mid-week.
I parked in the small village of Burnbanks, which was built to house those working on the dam. There is a larger car park at the other end of the lake, which you reach by driving along the eastern shoreline, but I wanted to save the views for the walk.
Opening my car door, my ears were treated to an aural delight. The cacophonous blend of the Dawn Chorus, the half-a-dozen woodpeckers tapping on the surrounding trees and the skein of geese flying overhead was like stepping into a lost world. I half expected to hear the calls of a velociraptor on the distant winds.
I wasted no time in lacing up and setting off. You climb the gently sloping road from Burnbanks to the edge of a wood and the start of the lakeside path. Two deer ran in front of me, spooked by the crunch of gravel underfoot, and I caught a glimpse of one of the woodpeckers I’d heard on arrival.
The path along the western shoreline is spectacular. One of the finest lakeside paths in the District by my reckoning. It’s quiet, picturesque and has enough interest at strategic points to keep you going.
You get your first sight of the dam itself through the trees before the views open out across the water. There was a lingering mist which softened the profile of the surrounding peaks of the Far Eastern Fells. The water flat calm, I felt the familiar restorative powers of the hills working their magic.
As the path opens out across Bampton Common, you pass through a set of enormous gates. The nearby information board explains their purpose to keep grazing deer from newly-planted native woodland. The height of the fences reminds you how these animals are able to leap over obstacles which would make an Olympic high jumper jealous.
I paused for a spell at the waterfalls cascading from Measand Beck before reaching the mid-point of the western path. You get a splendid view up and down the lake from this spot but the best are yet to come.
The path gains a little height as you approach the valley of Riggindale. This rugged valley sounds like it’d be more at home in Middle Earth than the Lake District. My pulse quickened as I took in the grandeur of the ridge with its steep cliffs high above. I’ve looked up at these cliffs once before. A gangly teenager peering through the viewfinder of the telescope at the RSPB hut, trained on England’s only pair of golden eagles. Sadly, the last surviving bird failed to return to Riggindale in 2016 and now Scotland is the only place on our our island where you can see these magnificent creatures in the wild.
The horseshoe also brought back memories of a camping trip with friends at university. Walking along the Straits of Riggindale from the summit of High Street. Legs dangling over the cliffs while enjoying our sandwiches. Watching the herd of deer in the valley below. It’s a view that’s stayed with me and I enjoyed experiencing this wild place once more.
The path continues to the foot of the Riggindale ridge at a point which juts out into the water. This is The Rigg. The blue water reflected the slopes opposite and created a perfect mirror image. This part of Haweswater forms its own little inlet, with the vastness of the rest of the lake hidden behind The Rigg.
The path rounds the southern tip of the reservoir to bring you out in the Mardale Head car park. There were only two cars parked up today. The empty parking spaces reinforced the remoteness of the Haweswater valley. The lack of settlements bringing with it a peace that you don’t find at the more popular lakes.
I had planned to take the lakeside path back along the eastern shore but a sign highlighted the bad news that it was closed. Whether this was due to the high water levels in the reservoir, I’m not sure, but walking along the road was hardly a chore, given how quiet it is.
At one point, the lack of signage on a gate to the lakeside path brought some false hope that I could pick up the trail once again. Despite starting out clear, it soon became deeply unpleasant and I had to bail, climbing a wall back on to the road before the going became too rough. By the looks of it, the lakeside path closure is more than temporary, and you are best sticking to the road for the duration.
On the plus side, the road climbs higher than the lakeside path, and that gives you fantastic views of the inlet back towards Mardale Head, The Rigg and the Riggindale valley.
About a third of the way back, you’ll see the tower pier reaching into the deep waters. The faint sound of machinery and falling water from within gives the scene an ominous feel. Like the lake is alive; constantly fed by the surrounding landscape.
Past the Haweswater Hotel – about the only sign of human life I encountered all day – the road becomes less interesting. Perhaps tired legs don’t help but the view is obscured by trees for much of the rest of the way.
Just as this stretch starts to become monotonous, the dam becomes visible and you get a good look at it from the southern side, before it disappears from view once again. it’s a shame you can’t rub noses with the dam, as it would be an impressive sight from below. United Utilities wants to keep us out, so you must complete the final mile or so on the road away from the water’s edge, until you cut back through some woodland just after crossing Naddle Bridge.
Before you know it, you are back at the car. Just before lunch. Still no people. And some cracking memories of what felt like a very different walk from the others.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Mardale Head car park; Burnbanks
Distance: 10.5 miles (17 km)
Terrain: Good lakeside path on eastern shore; quiet road on western shore
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.
Enjoyed reading about this walk around Haweswater? Check out these Winter rounds from my LOTL challenge!