Our Lakes – The Magical Buttermere

A favourite of tourists and a hideout from Norman invaders…. Craig Wishart explains how Buttermere has seen it all.

If you wander around Buttermere the sheer number of visitors can be a bit overwhelming.

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That’s because Buttermere is undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown of the Lake District.  At just over a mile long, this compact lake, the beauty of the valley and the quality of walking surrounding it, brings the crowds from near and far.

The National Trust own the area, development has been kept to a minimum and the ancient rural charm has been kept intact.  It’s easy to see why visitors, going right back to the romantic artists of the 18th century, have fallen in love with the pretty valley.

But if you catch Buttermere on a miserable day, when the weather has kept the crowds at bay, then it’s easy to imagine life of an earlier era.  A time when the Normans were ruthlessly invading Britain and the natives took refuge in the safety of the valley while they conducted their defence back in the 11th century.

With a population descended mostly from Vikings (who were former invaders themselves), the locals had little desire to submit to William the Conquerer and the story goes that a man named Jarl Buthar rallied the population and formed a resistance.

In 1072, King William set up a fortification at Carlisle but the isolated garrison needed constant reinforcement and supplies.  For almost half a century Jarl Buthar and his guerilla army attacked supply wagons and ambushed patrols.

Their success relied on Buttermere’s position as a natural stronghold. It can be defended easily because attacking with a substantial body of troops left only two options: A long march around the fells that would expose the supply chain, or coming over Honister Pass, which can be a tricky journey in a car by modern roads.

The peaks surrounding Buttermere feature some of the Lake Districts finest walking.  Red Pike, High Stile, High Crag, Fleetwith Pike, Haystacks and Robinson may excite the modern adventurer but they are no place for an advancing army.

The constant harrying by Jarl Buthar led (supposedly) to the only battle to take place in Cumbria.  When Buthar’s stronghold was finally revealed, the Normans planned an strike from the direction of Cockermouth with heavily armed troops.  But Buthar’s spies had been busy themselves and brought news of the imminent attack.

He laid a trap in the small valley of Rannerdale.  Hiding his men in the thickly wooded sides of the valley the soldiers were lured in, weighed down by weapons and armour the Normans were cut down and the entire troop was massacred.

No historical records confirm this tale which means speculation surrounding the origins of the lakes name are hazy.  It may indeed come from Buthar but another theory, and I warn you it’s far less romantic than the exploits of Buthar and his rebels, has been put forward.

It’s quite straightforward and derives from Old English meaning ‘the lake by the dairy pastures’ which indicates the fertile nature of the valley bottom.  Literally meaning ‘a great place to make butter’.

Whatever the origins of its name, Buttermere has a long history of settlements despite it’s rugged surroundings.  Honister Slate mine is the last remnant of the quarrying that took place in the area but Buttermere mines were worked for lead and copper veins for centuries.

Around the lake itself you’ll find oddities like the tunnel that was carved out in the 19th century by the gardeners of a Manchester Mill owner who wanted to keep them busy during the winter months.

While local names attest to the humour needed to settle in this isolated valley,  with farmers giving their fields quirky names like Lang Dykes, the Golf Course and Star Fields.  Visitors can only wonder what lead to Sour Milk Ghyll?

The locals may be a law unto themselves but Buttermere is a majestic place with plenty to enthrall visitors.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Locking

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