Lake District's lost valley of Mardale

Moody Haweswater was the scene of a tragic clearance project half a century ago. Today's it's a remarkable haven for wildlife. Roger Borrell visits

At a fork in the road, the route to Haweswater is the one less travelled by visitors to the Lake District. One way leads to that honeypot of Pooley Bridge while the other skirts the pretty River Lowther before heading towards one of the region’s lost valleys.

The road sign is reassuring. ‘Not suitable for coaches,’ it declares. In a region which regularly tries to jam a quart into a pint pot, this augurs well. Solitude is unlikely but it hints at a more tranquil few hours away fromthe crowds.

The Mardale Inn flaunts itself at you as you drive through the village of Bampton - every fibre cries out ‘cosy country pub’. But we are strong and we continue down narrowing lanes until the first glint through the trees inform you have almost reached your destination.

You pass the grand Haweswater Hotel on your left before the splendour of the lake is revealed, with the road leading you down to the valley bottom.This is the highest lake in the region at 240 metres above sea level and, when not in drought, it’s the fourth deepest at 57 metres. It’s also totally phoney.

Haweswater is a reservoir built in the valley of Mardale and its construction ended a way of life in the valley. It all started in the late 20s with the controversial construction of a dam. Parliament passed an Act allowing Manchester Corporation to build the reservoir to supply water for the urban areas of the north west.

It had been regarded by many as Westmorland’s loveliest valley and, understandably, the plan caused an outcry. However, all that was forgotten in the rush to quench the thirst of industry and an increasing town-based population.

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Originally, Haweswater was a small, natural lake, almost divided by a spit of land at Measand. The two reaches of the lake were known as High Water and Low Water but the building of the dam raised the water level by 29 metres. The dam wall measures 470 metres and 27.5 metres high and the construction job was regarded as innovative at the time. When it’s full, it holds 84 billion litres.

The farming villages of Measand and Mardale Green were abandoned as water flooded the valley and families were forced to find other places to live.

All the farms and houses and the Dun Bull Inn were pulled down. Even the coffins were removed from the graveyard and re-buried at Shap. Mardale church was taken down, too.

Lake District writer and walker Alfred Wainwright lamented the passing of the old valley. He wrote: ‘ Mardale is still a noble valley. Butman works with such clumsy hands! Gone for ever are the quiet wooded bays and shingly shores that nature had � fashioned so sweetly in the Haweswater of old; how aggressively ugly is the tidemark of the new Haweswater.’

That’s a bit harsh but at times of drought, when the shoreline is exposed, the vista is distinctly unnatural. Many people go back to see what is left ofthe village of Mardale. This summer the old dry stone walls that once separated the lush fields emerged from the water like skeletal fingers stretching from the deep.

Today, the reservoir has become a favourite spot for birdwatchers and walkers. During a short stroll along the lakeside road I spotted woodpeckers, owls, bold as brass red squirrels and spotted flycatchers which dart from the drystone walls to perform a mesmerising ballet while feeding mid-air.

The lake also contains a very rare fish, called a schelly, which is like a freshwater herring and is only found here, at Ullswater and in a tarn on Helvellyn.

However, the star of the Haweswater show, when he overcomes his shyness, is the golden eagle, the only one in England. These stunning birds returned to the Lake District after an absence of over 200 years.

There is a RSPB observation post at the western end of the lake in the remote valley of Riggindale, but you’ll be fortunate to spot one. The first eagles to return nested in the valley in 1969. So far, 16 chicks have been produced, but none have fledged since 1996 and no eggs have been laid in four of the last five years.

Now, there is just one eagle left - an eight-year-old lonely heart alone in the middle of this remote valley. Conservationists are hoping to attract a female from Scotland to breed. Let’s hope love is in the air.

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Staying by the lake

The only building of any substance in this valley is the Haweswater Hotel, a grand art deco structure which was constructed in 1937 as a replacement for the old Dun Bull Inn.

A reminder of the old days is in the hall where a glass case contains a model of the old Mardale church which was pulled down. The public rooms also have some fascinating photographs from the days before the great flood.

While Haweswater Hotel is a reminder of the past, the guests rooms are decidedly cutting edge with contemporary fittings and furnishings that you would find in a top West End hotel.All the suites have a lake view and the en-suite bathrooms contain whirlpool baths and LCD waterproof televisions for bath-time viewing.

When you venture down to the dining room, the Le Mardale restaurant provides some accomplished cooking using local and seasonal produce. After a long hike looking for that elusive golden eagle, the Haweswater Hotel provides a luxurious resting place.

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