Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
Wordsworth wrote about “a noble view of Legburthwaite”. For him, “a more interesting tract of country is scarcely anywhere to be seen than the road from Ambleside to Keswick”. Thomas West, who was among the first to appreciate the scenery of the Lakes, was much taken with the lake and its surroundings: “The opposite shore is beautified with a variety of crown-topp’d rocks, some rent, some wooded, others not, rising immediately from, or hanging towards the water; and all set off with a background of verdant mountains, rising in the noblest pastoral style.”
A century later other eyes were assessing this pastoral landscape at the heart of the Lakes. Alderman John J. Harwood, observing the flat land at the southern end of Leathes Water, observed that “the valley might have been made for the purpose of a gathering ground for water”, and Manchester Corporation were able to claim that in constructing Thirlmere Reservoir they were “restoring the natural lake”. They were there to “improve the lake”.
Robert Somervell, for the Thirlmere Defence Association, saw the matter very clearly. The western bank of the lake was the “most beautiful shore of the Lake District and that to raise or drop the level of the water even twenty or thirty feet, would utterly mar the whole effect”.
The battle for Thirlmere was one of the first great encounters between those who sought to meet the needs of a developing urban society and those who would protect the natural beauty of the countryside.
Thirlmere was lost, but out of that defeat grew “a commonality of outlook” among such people as Robert Hunter, Octavia Hill,Canon Rawnsley and others which led to the formation of the National Trust and the Lake District Defence Society.
The flooding of the wider valley to form Thirlmere Reservoir with its “sham castles” was not the end of the story. Manchester needed to control the catchment area to conserve and improve the water supply. Large blocks of conifers blanketed the lower fells. Manchester ignored the requirement to plant only tree species which were indigenous to the area.
In 1985 Susan Johnson single-handedly opposed Manchester Water Authority at Keswick Magistrate’s Court. She argued that: “The planting of conifers destroyed not only the sheep’s hope of winter grazing but people’s chance to see the beautiful bones of the land.” Her small victory in favour of sympathetic planting was the beginning of a larger movement towards a more considered approach to landscape management. Today, new native woodlands are being planted on the higher fells.
Ian Brodie writes that “the time has come for a greater push for a holistic approach for the landscape of Thirlmere”. “The Lake District still sees the onslaught of the successors of villadom.” The tourist industry is both an opportunity and a threat. “There is still a need for Romantic Protest to asset itself.” The nature conservation movement has remained true to its original values, but “the unco-ordinated landscape protection movement . . . allows developers almost free reign”.
Ian Brodie was director of the Friends of the Lake District for many years. This important book is a close and careful study of the original Thirlmere case and of the ongoing argument over the preservation of a special landscape.
But it is also a passionate and deeply informed plea for the continued protection of one of our most beautiful and fragile possessions.
Lord Inglewood in his Foreword argues that: “The English Lake District is one of Britain’s, indeed of the World’s, glories, and one of the reasons for it remaining so is the constant vigilance over the years of Ian and others like him.”
Thirlemere is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.