Thirlmere – Our Lakes series

Thirlmere – Our Lakes

As you drive by Thirlmere you can be forgiven for thinking this peaceful location hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

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A casual glance suggests that except for a handful of farms, a couple of churches and the road beneath you, the valley once known as Wythburndale, has retained a timeless quality.

But it doesn’t take much digging to learn that an entire city relies on Thirlmere for its water supply and the dam caused so much controversy the episode led to the formation of the National Trust.   

Damming Thirlmere may have provoked a recognition that the natural landscape is a national asset that requires protection but, in this case, the essential needs of an urban population outweighed any aesthetic changes.

Originally the Wythburn Valley was made up of a smaller natural lake that was so narrow across its middle section that it was often regarded as two lakes. An 1867 photo shows the lake with its narrowest point at Wath Bridge (Wath means ford in Cumbrian dialect) and a wooden bridge was constructed at this point.

Development came in 1889, it was drastic and transformed the valley forever when the area was purchased by the Manchester City Corporation Waterworks. At 178 metres above sea level, Thirlmere was a perfect choice for the water supply for the burgeoning city and the Corporation constructed a dam at the northern end of the lake that flooded the valley and provided Manchester with water via a 96 mile-long Aqueduct.

The small stream of St John’s Beck that flowed north to the River Greta was lost, the settlements of Armboth and Wythburn were submerged and the only remaining building is the little church at Wythburn. The 104-foot high dam created a lake 3.5 miles long, 1.2 miles wide, 158 feet deep and generated huge outrage.   

There was huge opposition to flooding an entire valley but the controversial project went ahead in 1886. Despite the defeat, the battle was a significant moment in the history of the conservation movement, inspired the formation of the National Trust and highlighted the vulnerability of the landscape.

Thirlmere water began pouring out of Manchester taps in 1894 but the valley still has the drama of its soaring fellsides and the rural charm of St John’s in the Vale to the north.

The dam is now considered to be of architectural and historical interest being the first English masonry gravity dam and one of only two arch dams. The straining well building on the east shore marks where the head of Wythburn Water once was and the mock castle-like tower suggests the architecture was constructed with earlier Picturesque qualities in mind.

The valley was no stranger to industrial activity, mining and quarrying sites can still be seen scattered throughout and the best agricultural land, now underwater, would have been colonised by medieval farmers.   

Thirlmere captured the imagination of local Romantic poets, the Wordsworths and Coleridge, who met there while travelling between their respective homes in Grasmere and Keswick. Their meeting point was marked by the Rock Of Names, which had their initials carved on it. The rock was blasted during the construction of the reservoir but parts were rescued and are located outside the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere.

It’s claimed that Thirlemre is overlooked by the last monarch of the medieval kingdom of Cumbria, King Dunmail. Some say the famous cairn at the summit of Dunmail Raise dates from 945 AD and is thought to be the burial place of the King.

Take some time to stop the next time you drive by Thirlmere, there’s a lot more to this special valley than first appearances might suggest.


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