Thursday, 11 July 2013

goosey goosey gander

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.

Traditional nursery rhyme.
My friend Barry must be pleased, secretly, that whenever we go out for a walk nowadays, he won’t be called upon to exert himself unduly. So it was yesterday, when I thought that the head of Haweswater would be a suitable venue for a brief excursion. Haweswater had once been a much smaller lake, but it was dammed in the 1930s by Manchester Corporation, in the teeth of fierce local opposition, to supply water to the city.

Manchester Corporation had already created controversy in the Lake District in the nineteenth century by doing something similar to Thirlmere, but the damage here was much more extreme. When the dam was completed, the water level was raised by 29 metres, which meant the inundation of two ancient farming villages, Mardale Green and Measand. Although all the farms and houses were demolished beforehand, the remains of Mardale Green, at the head of the valley, can still be seen during periods of extreme drought, when the water level is unusually low.

Anyway, we drove to the head of the valley with the intention of following the footpath on the opposite side of the lake. This path was clearly visible from the small car park at the end of the road, so we headed directly across the damp fields towards it, following an indistinct path. This was a mistake.

The river coming down from the mountains on our left was quite shallow, but it would not be easy to cross it without getting our feet wet. It’s easy to jump from one stepping stone to the next when those stones are large, but here all the rocks that stood clear of the water were small, and it took quite a while to find a way across the obstacle in front of us that didn’t risk undue stress on my dodgy knee.

Once we had crossed, the ground rose steeply before us towards a traditional stile over a dry-stone wall:


The smooth rock outcrop in this photo provides evidence that at some time in the not too distant past, a few thousand years ago, this valley was scoured by ice, like the rest of the Lake District. The ice has gone, but ice-planed outcrops like this can be seen all over the district.


We hadn’t walked far before our attention was drawn to some bizarre sounds emanating from the far shore of the lake. There appeared to be a couple of large birds, which may or may not have been geese, and this was all the excuse I needed to turn back. However, there was no need to go back across the river, because the good path we were now on led back to the car park, albeit by a circuitous route. At least we could be certain that our feet would remain dry.

On the way back, I spotted a common wall lizard, about 15cm long. Had I been on my own, my first instinct would have been to reach for my camera, but I wanted Barry to see it before it disappeared into the long grass. It was yellowish brown with prominent longitudinal stripes, which meant that it was possible to see it only when it was moving across bare ground. I’m used to lizards in Hong Kong—monitors, skinks, and the family of geckoes that lives behind our refrigerator—but I have to admit that this was the first time I’d ever seen a lizard in my native country.

After a cup of coffee, I suggested that we walk back along the road to investigate the birds that we’d heard from the other side of the lake. We’d already revised our estimate of the number of birds to half a dozen, but as we drew closer, it became apparent that there were probably twice this number.

Barry spotted them first: large, plump birds waddling, extremely slowly, line abreast, towards the water. They had become visible only when they had reached the stretch of gravel between the grass and the water’s edge, and this mass migration appeared to be very orderly:


Note the line of birds on the left, and the orderly flotillas already on the water. One by one, they launched themselves into the water, but they were clearly not in any hurry: we were able to keep up with them without undue effort as they paddled lazily along the shoreline. I have no idea where they were going, or what they were doing immediately before we spotted them, but they were a magnificent sight:


I’ve since identified the birds as Canada geese, and I’ve calculated the size of their gaggle as about one hundred (and before anyone accuses me of misusing the word ‘calculated’, I should point out that I arrived at the figure of 100 by counting roughly half the birds on the water and multiplying that result by two).

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