A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN
By Martin Hickes
(First featured in Cumbria magazine in 2005).
FEW places conjure up an image of heaven, and while the comparison may be somewhat glib and contrite, High Dam in Cumbria offers a glimpse of something almost divine.
Thirty years ago, when I was a boy on holiday, the place was filled with dragonflies, minnows, buttercups, basking adders on low stone walls and whispering Scots Pines.
And today, as a regular re-visitor with my own little girl amid the bustle of the 21st century, it remains happily unchanged in an ‘On Golden Pond’ fashion.
And it seems more and more people are discovering the beauty of the dam, nestled in Canada-like conditions above Finsthwaite and Newby Bridge.
In the 1950s and in earlier years, the beauty spot was simply a privately-owned feeder reservoir for the Bobbin Mill at Stott Park, whose mill race was fed by both the higher and lower dams, populated by the odd holidaymaker and fisherman.
Today, it attracts up to 10,000 visitors a year thanks to deliberately low-key improvements made to car parking, signage and access routes as well as greater safety features by its owner/managers the Lake District National Park Authority.
The moves, law changes relating to access to land, and raised awareness through the internet, are allowing tourists who may be more familiar with Tarn Hows and the Langdales to discover the magic of the place themselves, off the usual tourist track.
Tony Hill, ranger for the LDNPA, says while the authority has been looking after the woodlands and ways around High Dam since the 70s, any expansion of facilities or basic amenities have been sympathic and largely ‘organic’ in nature.
“More and more people are recognising the beauty of High Dam which has a special place in the hearts of many visitors and locals alike, and while it has always been a point of access for walkers since the very early days, it is fair to say it is becoming steadily more popular, receiving on average around 100 visitors a day throughout the year.
“It is certainly one of the more hidden but beautiful and compact tarns in the area and its woodlands, which are in superb condition, have won awards recently thanks to the work we have undertaken to preserve and promote conservation.
“Recent law changes are also opening up access to a number of surrounding areas flanking High Dam and this is turn will probably have a knock-on effect stimulating more visitors in the future.
“It already has a dedicated number of fans on the internet promoting it as one of the hidden jewels of Lakeland, and we are delighted it is being recognised.
“We are acutely aware however that many people feel it is ‘theirs’ and take a sentimentally proprietorial attitude towards the spot, which is fully understandable and also one of reasons any developments or improvements have been deliberately understated.
“We want to encourage people to discover it for themselves rather than to be blatantly ‘managed’ into visiting.
“It has a small car park and rather than expanding this, it is hypothetically possible that local landowners will be encouraged to offer on-field parking in the future if it continues to steadily grow – but that’s for the future.”
Stott Park Bobbin Mill, the working mill at the base of the dams, was built in 1835, to supply wooden bobbins and cotton reels to the Lancashire textile industry.
A farmer, John Harrison, inherited the site and built the mill and then leased it. After his death, the mill experienced several lessees until the Coward family acquired the tenancy in the 1860’s, enlarging and improving the mill.
The family’s link with the mill lasted until 1971 when plastic bobbins ensured the demise of the mill.
Its owner, John Robert Coward, abandoned it, literally leaving everything in place. English Heritage purchased the shell in 1983, and the site is now a fully working replica..
And while the High Dam’s sluice wheels may be old and rusting now, its waters sparkle with excitement for young families – and look set to do for many years to come.
The water is swimmable if a little peaty – and the loftiness but compactness of the fir- rimmed tarn – as high as 500ft – gives swimmers the impression of being close to the changeable Lakeland skies.
But the best feature by far is Finsthwaite Heights which overlooks both tarns, which offer walkers a breathtaking view of the Old Man of Coniston and range of associated hills.
The heights and the dam are criss-crossed by ancient cart-tracks and old way marks, and boast some of the best examples of semi-ancient woodland, including incongruously tightly-packed and stragglingly tall oaks, as well as a wealth of botanical wonders among the leaf litter.
Iain Kellett, farmer and Finsthwaite resident, whose farm abuts the Dam, takes a laid-back attitude to the increasing numbers at High Dam.
“My family has had a farm here for over 60 years and certainly when I was young, we used to take dips in High Dam during the summer after work and there were very few people around.
“Today, it’s still as beautiful but there must be up to 100 people a day here all told over the summer. One or two people in the village may be a little annoyed at the concessions to tourism but then the Lake District is for everybody isn’t it?”
Iain has recently opened up some of his own land to allow footpath access over previously closed areas which lead to High Dam and Finsthwaite Heights.
A spokesman for Cumbria Tourist Board, said: "High Dam and Finsthwaite are natural, unspoilt areas of Cumbria which are lesser known than some of the central Lake District but just as attractive to many visitors.
"Cumbria is spoilt in having many hidden tarns and dams in places that people love to find and make their own. More and more people are taking short breaks and want to spend their time in a quality environment like this and with the pace of life it is easy to see why.
“The county receives 16 million visitors throughout the year and our visitors are extremely loyal because the landscape, scenery and tranquillity are like no other place in the UK."
More information on High Dam and Finsthwaite can be found at the Lake District National Park web site or under a general web search.
• This article for first written in 2005. Some stats may have changed, but High Dam remains largely unchanged still as Spring approaches.