In search of a drowned village
Yesterday, en route to Penrith station for the journey home, our minicab driver asked what had brought us to Haweswater. I told her that it was Sarah Hall’s novel. In fact, I have been trying to get to Haweswater for the past three years. At Easter 2015, we made it up from Kentmere to the top of Nan Bield Pass. Forced back by sheet ice, we had to satisfy ourselves with the view. To me, the dark silhouette of the water was magical.
Our minicab driver said, “Oh, Sarah. See that white house over there? She lived there. Her Dad still does. She went to school with my two girls. And I’m Marion in the book.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is a close-knit, self-reliant community. “Enjoyed the book, did you?”
I did. Haweswater is a fictional account of the drowning of a village community. In reality, it’s barely fiction. The building of the dam was a real event. People were affected, people who’d farmed the land for generations and were in many ways part of it. There were, of course, arguments about the sacrifice of the few to serve the many. At other times these might even have seemed fair. Here, some of the people had already sacrificed much, volunteering to serve in WW1 with the promise that they could return to live out their lives in peace in their own small corners of England. Personally, I’ve always liked the ‘I was here first’ argument. The problem the villagers had was that theirs was a very small corner of England. Too small. It lay between the Whelter Beck and Mardale Head at the junction of three ancient trading routes: Gatesgarth Pass, Nan Bield Pass and a third route from Rigginsdale. Those who farmed the land didn’t own it. They had no rights over it, no claims for compensation. They were not party to discussions about their futures. By the time they heard about the building project, a law had been passed, decisions taken, blueprints drawn up.
Sarah Hall has parachuted her fictional characters into an all-too real event. I’ve written extensively about how fiction can alter a landscape. This extract is taken from a blogpost I wrote in 2013.
‘St Mary’s Church in Beddington is normally locked on a Thursday lunchtime, but I was lucky to find the doors open, and so I decided to step inside and light a candle for my mother-in-law; something to mark her tenth anniversary. But at the same time as thinking how much she would have liked the building, pointing out that they would never have allowed her to have ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’ played at her funeral, I was aware of two other presences: Jim and Aimee.
Who are Jim and Aimee? They’re old friends of mine. People I have written into the landscape of my life. I have done this by setting my novels in places that are well known to me. In the case of A Funeral for an Owl, the setting takes in my daily lunchtime walk: a four-mile route from my front door.’
I have no doubt that Sarah Hall’s fictional characters became as real to her as the men and women who once inhabited the valley, now a dying breed. They certainly became very real to me. In this region born of volcanoes, sculpted by glaciers, they have added another somewhat confusing strata.
“It is quite clear that Janet Lightburn, a young woman who showed great promise but was also a product of the landscape, should not fall in love with the man from the Manchester Waterworks. Any other man would have done his job and left the building of the Haweswater dam to the engineers and the navvies. But Jack Liggett was not the man the people of Haweswater first had him pegged as. Coming from the poverty of the city, as a boy he’d jumped the train to escape from a violent father, his destination the Lakeland fells. He was determined to see the Haweswater dam project through.
What follows is a love story to the land itself and a disappearing way of life. The secretive and sometimes violent collision between two of the novel’s central characters is a perfect reflection of the unsettling time between the wars, and impotence in the face of unstoppable change.” (Taken from my review on Goodreads)
When I came across the ruins of Whelter Farm, it was the presence of the Lightburns I felt. When the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end – and they did – it was because this was the beck where six-year old Isaac had taught himself to hold his breath in the ice-cold flow; this was the crag where Jack discovered the golden eagle’s nest. Is it wrong that I care more about them than I do about Miss Jane Foster, the school mistress who taught in the valley from 1891 until 1932? Or the Hudsons, who were the last to leave the valley?
And yet this is precisely what great historical fiction is for: making events beyond our own experiences accessible by allowing us to see them through the eyes of just one or two characters.
There is, of course, another side to the story. One I learned while exploring the shores and the ruins. A tail of dry stone wall reaching into the water. A rusted water pipe extending along the length of the beach. One of the results of the industrial revolution was an exodus from countryside to city. In just 100 years, Manchester’s population grew from 70,000 to 543,900. By 1921, by which time Manchester Waterworks had already acquired Haweswater and the surrounding land, it had swollen to 730,000. Another fifteen years before the engineers and the machinery arrived, and the strain on natural resources became untenable. At a time when England was in the grip of the great depression, the dam provided employment for over 400 unemployed men, many of whom left family behind and hiked over the mountains to present themselves to the work’s foremen. Compared to the appalling conditions in the textile mills, workers were treated relatively well. The Corporation constructed a ‘model’ village. Those higher up the pecking order were encouraged to bring family with them. A community was established, which took the name ‘Burnbanks’. It had a policeman, a hall of worship, an amateur dramatics society. The dam itself was cutting edge technology, the first of its kind in the UK. Hollow buttress walls took on the shape of pyramids. Today, the portion that sits above the water line looks relatively unobtrusive. As Wainwright wrote, Haweswater is still a noble valley.
Of course, we can never know what would remain of Mardale today had the Manchester Corporation not moved in. People had lived with the threat of ‘the flood’ since the end of the nineteenth century. Movement from the valley resulted and it was gradual. As early as 1914, when the train still stopped at Shap, the unoccupied farmhouses of Goosemire and Grove Brae were being let as holiday cottages. Neighbouring Swindale is uninhabited. But our cab driver told of the changes she has seen in the nearby village of Bampton. The school and the pub have closed. Its population can no longer support a church or a Sunday school. Properties snapped up as holiday homes are empty for many months of the year. For those who remain, life is tough. The 2015 floods made national headlines, but run-off from fields and fells causes regular flooding. Debris swept up in the flow means that the river beds have risen, increasing the chance of future flooding, but the Environmental Agency, I was told, seem more concerned about crayfish than people. The younger generation prefer to take their chances in Penrith.
I arrived conflicted. I left conflicted – but perhaps with a more balanced view. I remain, as I always was, a fan of the ‘I was here first’ argument.
Haweswater is a novel by Sarah Hall.
Mardale: Echoes and Reflections of a lost Lakeland community is by Shap History Society.
Mardale is not the only community that has been sacrificed to provide water for city dwellers. This article shows the people’s protest when it was proposed that the Welsh village of Capel Celyn be submerged to create a reservoir for Liverpool. They lost their battle.
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