15th July, 2010
Here in Cumbria, in the far north west of England, we’ve been experiencing what are called ‘extreme weather events’ for nearly a year. Compared to what, say, the Caribbean coast experiences every year, these ‘events’ are pretty small beer, but for England, a country whose landscape is a lot more modest than its politicians or its football team, they count as extreme.
Last autumn we had the biggest floods in living memory. People were helicoptered out of their houses and entire towns disappeared under eight feet of burst river. Then we had the hardest winter for decades, in which the roads were sheets of ice for weeks and I regularly had to ask the farmer to tow me up the hill with his tractor because my van wouldn’t make it. Now we are in the middle of the driest summer since 1929.
While this is bad news for my struggling broad beans, it does allow a rare glimpse of a drowned past. The levels of Haweswater, the easternmost lake of the Lake District, are currently exceptionally low, and this has brought the ghost village of Mardale Green up into the light for the first time in decades.
The story of Mardale Green has entranced me since I first heard it as a child, when I walked in the valley. Haweswater is today a long, empty stretch of water in a valley whose only outstanding features are spiritless squares of plantation pines. In some lights it’s an eerie place; you can feel some kind of loss there, an emptiness that hangs around in the air. There’s a reason for this, and it’s below the water’s surface. This lake did not used to be here.
In its natural state, Haweswater was two smaller lakes known as High and Low Water, which were separated by a narrow spit of land. They were fringed by trees and meadows, and their shores were dotted with farmsteads. At the head of the valley stood the village of Mardale Green, with its typical cluster of Westmorland stone houses, a medieval church and an inn, the Dun Bull.
images from Mardale Green
Haweswater’s valley is a dead end: there is no way, except on foot, to cross the mountain ridge known as High Street which blocks it at its western end (though the Romans managed to build a road that today still runs along this ridge; it’s a giddying achievement, often literally.) Haweswater’s isolated valley community, its landscape and history, were by no means unique in this region; in many ways it was typical of Lakeland life before the coming of modernity. It was tethered to its place and to its lineage, and many of its people knew nothing else.
I wonder, then, how the villagers felt in 1919 when they heard that the Manchester Water Corporation had secured the passing of the Haweswater Act, enabling the compulsory purchase of the valley, the construction of a dam at its eastern end and the drowning of everything in the vicinity, including Mardale Green. I wonder at the clash of cultures; at the how the coming loss was conceived and assimilated by the farming families, the hunters and the shepherds whose water came from the local becks and who had no telephone lines or electricity. The new reservoir was being built to provide drinking water for the burgeoning population of the city of Manchester. For the city to grow, a village, and a way of life, had to die.
It was all a painted miniature: progress in a nutshell. Vast armies of labourers were brought in to build the dam as the locals looked on. A new village was built to house the workers and their families, for the Haweswater project would take years. Unlike the existing village, this new, 20th century prefab settlement had electricity, pool tables, radios, washing machines – all of the promises which the new age was bringing. Construction of the dam took ten years. During that time, life in Mardale Green went on as it had for centuries, only now with the shadow of its own end hanging over it, lengthening by the day.
The dam’s plug was finally set two decades after the project had been given the go-ahead. Most of the village’s buildings were blown up by the Royal Engineers before the flood. The Holy Trinity church held an emotional last service for the villagers which was also attended by hundreds of people from outside the valley – so many that most had to listen to Mardale’s farewell outside on the grass through speakers rigged up by a local radio ham. The church was then dismantled stone by stone. Bodies were dug up from the churchyard and re-interred in nearby Shap. Some of the stone was used to build the take-off tower for the new reservoir, in which the old church windows can still be seen.
The waters swallowed Mardale Green in 1939, as the world’s first fully-industrialised war swallowed Western civilisation. Today, in 2010, the old stone walls that surrounded the pastures, and the shells of some of the old buildings, have come up into the light again above the lowered surface of Haweswater. The old fields are bleached white, and the remains of the drystone walls are black and slimy.
Manchester is worrying again about its water supply, and the response of the authorities has been to instruct the population of Cumbria to stop using hosepipes. Now, as then, the needs of the city dictate to the country.
What happened to Mardale Green is still happening, on an infinitely bigger scale and with more pain attached, across the planet. In China, more than 1.2 million people have been forcibly displaced to make way for the Three Gorges Dam: a dubious world record. In India, the Narmada Bachao Andolan have been fighting for decades to stop the Indian government building a series of over 3000 dams in the Narmada valley, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying pristine ecosystems.
The story is always the same. An expanding economy needs water, or electric power, or both. Dams and reservoirs are planned, in the interests of national development and economic competitiveness. Villagers whose lifestyles are genuinely ‘low impact’ and ‘sustainable’ are barged out of the way, often in the most horrific circumstances, by a metastasising urban culture which claims to want to be both of these things but is not willing to pay the hard price. The city eats the country.
The line from the authorities is always the same too: this is for everyone’s benefit. The reality is usually different; the power and the piped water goes to the industrial areas, the cities, the rich suburbs. The refugees from the country go to the slums. Who notices? Who reports it? A few genuine journalists and passionate campaigners, but most of us never hear of these things, or care if we do.
It wasn’t very long ago that, after decades of campaigning by activists all over the world, the global organisations which had long supported and funded dam-building began to have second thoughts. Demonstrations of the destructive ecological and social impacts of mega-dams were just too big too ignore. They were not, however, as big as the demand for the power and water that dams provide the ever-spreading Machine. Today, mega-dams are as popular as ever, and are often dressed up as yet another ‘renewable solution’ to the climate change caused by the development model they were originally part of. It’s the same old mutton, now dressed up as low-carbon lamb, and we are still hooked on it. It gives us – some of us – power, order, control, national pride. It allows us to grow, for a while. We can drown the past, and much of the inconvenient present, under hundreds of feet of water and hope it never rises again to show us what’s beneath the surface.
Strangely, as I have been writing this it’s started to rain outside; the first rain in weeks. It’s heavy and fresh. What can be seen of Mardale Green will be no doubt be gone again soon, and Manchester will be able to breathe easier. Here in Cumbria we’ll be able to use our hosepipes to wash our cars down and water our herbaceous borders without having to worry about it. Everything will go back to normal.
Posted by Paul Kingsnorth on 15 July, 10
Posted in: Blog
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