Mardale.... and Wainwright

Updated: Jan 13


Let’s be clear at the outset of this blog, we aren’t aware of any explicit connection between ‘The Mardale Inn’ and the renowned British fellwalker, guidebook author and illustrator, Alfred Wainwright (or AW as he preferred to be called).


We know however that as AW frequented the Bampton Valley for a number of his documented walks on the ‘Outlying Fells’, such as Knipescar Common, the Naddle Horseshoe and Heughscar Hill, he would have passed by ‘St Patrick’s Well’ (as the Inn would have been known in his day). Based on his writing as well as TV programmes, we also know with certainty that AW was passionate about Mardale Valley, just up from our village of Burnbanks. His travels to Mardale and sentiment about the area are the topics we will explore here.


AW’s first visit to the Lakes from his home town of Blackburn was in 1930 aged 23. He had saved £5 and decided to take his first holiday ever 60 miles away in the Lake District. Accompanied by his cousin, he planned a rapid circuit of as many parts of the Lakes as possible, driven by an urgency to experience as much as he could within the constraints of annual holidays as a young accountant in Blackburn’s Borough Treasurer’s office.


As an avowed cartophile, AW would have first come across Mardale as he planned his 1930 walk on his maps. His route took him up from Windermere to the old Roman road of High Street, and then traversed across to Howtown and Ullswater for the evening. Mardale Head, Mardale Ill Bell, Mardale Common and the now lost area of Mardale Green, would have been on his right looking east towards the Pennines.


The impact of AW’s first trip to the Lakes was immense on him. He and his cousin had covered as far afield as High Street, Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Coniston. He described it as a “holiday of a thousand delights” and on resumption of office life in Blackburn, he felt he “was only half living”.


Over the following years, AW snatched trips to the Lake District as he was now married to his first wife, Ruth and father to son, Peter. For his first visit to Mardale Valley itself, he arrived from the south via Gatescarth Pass and noted “it was a lovely vista”. This is believed to have been during 1936 after Manchester Corporation had taken over the valley and construction of the Haweswater Dam had commenced at Burnbanks.


By this time, Mardale Church had been deconsecrated prior to being demolished, and bodies had been exhumed from the graveyard and moved to Shap. The Dun Bull Hotel was unoccupied and empty. He described the “hamlet of Mardale Green, [as being] delightfully situated in the lee of a wooded hill, but now under sentence of death”.


AW was generally very negative about the arrival of the reservoir: “Soon the hamlet of Mardale Green would be drowned: the church, the inn, the cottages and the flowers would all disappear, sunk without trace and its history and traditions would be forgotten”.


Book Two of his Lake District guides, ‘The Far Eastern Fells’, was published around Easter 1957 covering local Wainwrights such as Harter Fell, High Street, Mardale Ill Bell, Loadpot and Kidsty Pike. AW described the Far Eastern fells, in a clear reflection of himself, as being “for the strong walker” and pleasing to “the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”. By this time, he had become a little more forgiving of what Manchester Corporation had done in creating Haweswater, conceding that they “have done the job as unobtrusively as possible” and stating that, “Mardale is still a noble valley”.


Harter Fell
Harter Fell pages from AW's 'The Far Eastern Fells' - "the hamlet of Mardale was 'drowned' by Haweswater (shame!)"

In 1973, Wainwright published “A Coast to Coast Walk” which is a 182 mile walk running from St Bees Head in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. He routed it such that it takes in Mardale ahead of its exit from the Lake District near our village of Rosgill. The highest point on the whole walk is Kidsty Pike at 2,560 feet (780 metres) before it descends steeply through Riggindale to run alongside Haweswater.

Eric Robson (left) with AW

In the 1985 BBC television programme with Eric Robson, “Wainwright on Lakeland’s Far Eastern Fells”, the opening titles feature an AW sketch of himself sitting on Harter Fell looking down towards Haweswater (this illustration, used at the head of this article and originally from Book Two, 'Far Eastern Fells' , was consistently used to open the three year series spanning the Lakes and Scotland).


In the TV programme, AW shared that Mardale “is one of the finest valley heads in the Lake District, not as grand as Wasdale and possibly Langdale, but it's so beautifully symmetrically arranged encircling the floor of the valley”. As if to close the book on the contentious issue of Mardale and Haweswater (AW died in 1991), Wainwright concluded to Eric Robson that, “I like it here, I think it’s splendid in spite of what Manchester Corporation have done to it”. In Bampton Valley, we wholeheartedly agree with that.


Postscript: AW notes in his Coast to Coast book, that “if exhaustion is imminent [having come down from Kidsty Pike], there is a fair chance of getting a night’s lodging at Bampton, a mile along the road from Burnbanks”. It is surely incumbent on us to ensure that there are options for lodging, food and beer for weary walkers at a refreshed, community owned ‘Mardale Inn’!


Thanks to Jane King, the Estate of A. Wainwright and Frances Lincoln Publishing for kindly allowing use of material from the works of Alfred Wainwright in this blog article. Copyright of such material remains with the Estate of A. Wainwright.


Many thanks also to Wainwright aficionado, Chris Butterfield, for reviewing this blog and kindly supplying images taken from Wainwright’s original first edition prints prepared for publishing by Westmorland Gazette. See more of Chris' work at https://www.alfredwainwright.co.uk/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/AlfredWainwright


Final thanks are due to Eric Robson OBE DL for his support in use of photo with AW