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Sculpted by nature or by man? At Thirlmere

Walking down to Thirlmere Cumbria
Written by Stuart Wickes

Sculpted by nature or shaped by man?

Day 6 of our winter walk across The Lake District takes us from the wilds of Dunmail Raise on a route that traces the eastern line of Thirlmere. And while everything here looks natural and beautiful, looks can be deceptive and everything is not necessarily what it seems. Which gets me wondering is this place really as wild as it looks? Is it sculpted by nature or has it really been shaped by man…

Are you from round here?

“Where are you from?” asks the waitress in The King’s Head as she pours us morning coffee.

I settle back into an armchair that feels like it might be as old as this 17th century Thirlspot coaching inn. “Oh, we’re local,” I say. Although this place doesn’t feel local; it took us two hours to get here after rushing for the bus this morning.

“We live in the South Lakes,” I explain. Well….. it’s almost the Lake District. But while we like to think of ourselves as Cumbrian locals, we’re not really. In truth we are offcomers, pretenders at Lake District living and no more Cumbrian than Danish bacon.

But we’re not the only pretenders around here. On this next to last leg of our winters walk across the Lake District we’ve encountered many things that aren’t quite as local or natural as they seem.

Hiking over Dunmail Raise Cumbria

Setting off from Dunmail Raise towards Thirlmere and the sun comes out. Is that natural?

Things are not what they seem

Thirlmere is a great example. It’s one of my favourite lakes; a slip of silver shimmering between craggy mountains, an uninhabited, wild and wooded oasis. Although technically it’s not a lake. Mind you neither are the others we’ve passed this week – not Windermere, Grasmere nor Rydal Water. You see there’s only really one lake in the Lake District; Bassenthwaite Lake. The rest are all waters, meres or tarns. So, dear reader, be warned there is no such place as Lake Windermere nor such a thing as a Lake Windermere Cruise; these are tourist names for tourist places.

Walking down to Thirlmere Cumbria

Walking down to Thirlmere, the path takes you across open fell and through managed woodland.

Inside the forest

Our route along Thirlmere takes us on forest track and trail, kicking pinecones, splashing in ghylls, watching out for red squirrel and red deer. Once upon a time most of the Lake District was heavily wooded, before man arrived and started clearing to live and farm. Today, Lakeland woods and forests are more of a novelty and the bigger ones like Grizedale, Whinlatter and here at Thirlmere are managed, more industrial than natural. Not that most people would notice. After all a wood’s a wood, isnt’t it? But of course it’s not. The character is different, the species controlled, the growth more regimented. There’s planting and coppicing, forest roads and woodpiles, signs and markings, and the sound of tractor and chainsaw.

Boots in the forest at Thirlmere

On the logstacks in the woodlands at Thirlmere. They’re natural, aren’t they?

Out on the open fell

Once the woodland would have covered the fells here too. Yes, the wide open fells we see as nature’s handiwork. Yet these green and vibrant slopes, slashed by the slate grey lines of intake walls, are as much the work of generations of hill farmers and their sheep. The Lake District is not untouched nor untamed nature. It may feel like a wild place but it is not wilderness. It has long been a working farm, a natural resource, a site of industrial exploitation. Over the centuries it’s not just artists and poets who have been inspired by this place, so too have entrepreneurs in search of riches made of slate, granite and limestone, copper, lead and graphite. And where artists left marks on paper, industrialists left marks on the land with their quarries, mines, railways, sawmills and reservoirs.

Dunmail Raise Stones

Out on the open fell, is this natural?

A hot topic

Environmental controversies are nothing new in the Lakes and are as alive today as they were back then. The current hot debate is about whether The Lake District is suitable as a site for constructing a long term underground nuclear dump for the nation. Supporters claim the geology in this area is well suited to this, that employment and economic benefits could be significant and visual impacts minimal. But of course others see this as wholly inconsistent with the idea of a protected National Park and rightly raise concerns about the risks and unforeseeable consequences.

Forest Beck Cumbria

Water bounces down a forest beck. Now that has a natural energy and vibe about it.

Following the flow of water

On the fell above Thirlmere, beyond Fisherplace Beck, we track the route of Thirlmere leat, a concrete channel that gathers water from the string of becks and ghylls of the fells to the east of Thirlmere, channelling it back to the reservoir. For that is what Thirlmere really is; not a lake, not a tarn, not a natural body of Lake District water, but a reservoir. We stand and watch the water in the leat from a footbridge; it flows smoothly, gently and quietly. There is none of the energy and vitality we saw in the waterfalls at Fisherplace Beck. Nature tamed and channelled is not the same. Yet despite its manmade nature at least the waters of Thirlmere itself retain a wild vibe.

The country serves the city

Thirlmere is a classic example of Lake District industrialisation, exploiting one of the areas most plentiful resources; rain. Even back in 1878 proposals for a dam and reservoir here led to environmental protests. But then, as perhaps now, such considerations were overruled by officials more concerned with the need for development, the power of industrialists and the demands of a growing city some 100 miles away. There used to be two smaller waters here, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water. Wythburn was a village with cottages and an inn and there were farms, a hamlet and church at Armboth. But these were drowned for the people of Manchester, all except for the church which still sits on its own beside the reservoir. Alone with the ghosts of Armboth House which now lies beneath the waters.

Looking at a Ghyll Cumbria

There is a natural vitality to the becks and gyhlls as the water bounces downhill.

World class engineering

Built by the Manchester Corporation in the 1880s, Thirlmere is now 3½ miles wide and a mile wide, big enough to quench the thirst of the city of Manchester, a feat it achieves using one of the longest tunnels in the world.  Yes the longest tunnel in the world is in the Lake District. At almost 96 miles it is longer than the Channel Tunnel, the Guangzhou Metro tunnel and the Delaware Aqueduct. And it’s way older than them all, a testament to the engineering skills of the Victorians. Not that you can see it or visit it for it’s all underground and full of water, flowing at a steady 4 miles per hour, using only gravity, all the way to Manchester.  United Utilities, who manage the reservoir and tunnel today, say one glass of water in every nine drunk in the North West comes from here, with each glass taking about a day to get from Thirlmere to the Manchester. That’s faster than we can walk. But gives me an idea for another long distance walk.

A world class beer

As we walk on towards Keswick, none of us seem to be particularly thirsty. At least not for water. Perhaps it’s all the rain. That’s one resource that is entirely natural, and judging by the weather this week, is pretty renewable too. But there’s something better on offer at the local pub.

Kings Head Thirlspot

Some man made things are worth walking and waiting for.


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Our thanks to Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire for their help in bringing you this story.
Check out our Day 1: What? No Car? A Lake District Family Walking Tour
Check out our Day 2: Really Seeing The Lake District
Check out our Day 3: Walking in the footsteps of Poets: Rydal Hall Walk
Check out our Day 4: A walk back in time through Lake District history
Check out our Day 5: A walk on the wild side: Beyond Grasmere
Check out our Talking Point: Are you a Muddy Boots Person?
Check out our Talking Point: Where does adventure begin? At the front door?
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About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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