I hung the washing out on the line today, hopeful. The football kit, the toddler pyjamas, my daughter’s pale pink winter coat, a bad colour choice for any child’s jacket, are now two-tone. The bottom half of the clothes are nearly dry from the wind, the top half is dark and drenched from the rain showers. It will probably continue like this all day but I’ll leave it out. I like the smell of the rain in the house on the radiators when I finally bring it in.
Rain is synonymous with the Lake District where I grew up. I spent hours watching it fall onto the slate slabbed streets of the villages I worked in as a teenager. In Hawkshead, the closest village to where we lived, I had three different jobs. When I worked in a café the rain would force the walkers through the doors, defeated. They would shuffle over to the counter and order tea and scones while the droplets puddled onto the lino beneath them.
When I worked in the pub I stoked the fire in the bar and watched as waterproof laden families scurried from one shop to the next in the square outside. And when I worked in the rock shop that sold crystal gems and amethyst rings and silver pendants I would sing along to my own mix tapes, as I sat behind the counter and observed a trail of hatted and hooded people jog out of the Co-Op opposite with their milk and bread.
It was different when it was sunny. The tourists appeared as if out of nowhere and commandeered every table, every bench at the side of the square, every cobbled street, every corner in the shops. But when it rained the village had a muted feeling, a quiet one. The lights in the shop windows reflected on the wet stone ground and the colours were deeper, soaked still.
After work in the village, I would drive home on the windy roads as the rain continued to fall. Past the swollen lake, and under the low cloud that hung in the trees as windscreen wipers beat in time to the radio. I would swerve the car onto the wrong side of the road to avoid puddles, sometimes having to slow right down to push through a deeper stretch of water. (I always tested the brakes afterward; does it really dry them out? Who knows.) The field outside my old house would be water-logged, the sheep sheltering in the copse of trees. If mum wasn’t home from work yet, I would sit at the windowsill and wait for her, worrying the roads would soon become unpassable. My dad, a forester, would already be at home, his boots alongside the open fire, newspaper shoved into the toes, steaming. You could spend all day out in the rain working but you’ll regret it the next day. Our drinking water, which tumbled onto the fell and into our water tank at the side of the hill, ran a bit siltier, a diluted shade of soil when it rained hard. Just run the tap a bit, Mum would say and it’ll come clean. It always did.
The amount of rain in these mountainous places is joked about, moaned about, villainised and feared. It is why the scenery is all shades of green, why The Lakes are picture postcard and why people have flocked to the area for hundreds to years. And it is why, over a hundred years ago, they decided to build reservoirs in these areas to catch as much rain water as they could and to feed it down into the growing cities below. Thirlmere, near where I grew up, was one of them. In the late 1800’s Manchester was mushrooming. The industrial revolution demanded more workforce but the city wasn’t set up for it. It was overcrowded and chronically unhealthy with diseases like cholera and typhoid spreading through them unchecked. It was suggested a newly built reservoir at Thirlmere, near Keswick could provide clean water for the people of Manchester. There was local reluctance, some, like the poet John Ruskin, were irrepressibly angry at the idea. Ruskin believed the water was being ‘stolen’ and that the aesthetic of the area would be damaged irreparably. He even he wished ‘the town of Manchester, or at least the Corporation thereof [who were building the reservoir] should be up at the of bottom of it.’
But the construction of the reservoir went ahead. It took four years and 3,000 men to build the pipelines to the city. Along with Haweswater, it still provides Manchester with drinking water and uses the simple act of gravity to carry hundreds of litres, travelling at 6 miles an hour, reaching the city in a day.
I took the kids one day to see the reservoir. Predictably, it was tipping it down. The waterfalls that ran off the fells bubbled white, an undercurrent of brown as the soil was washed away. I was interested in the men who built this incredible feat of engineering, and the families they brought with them. 570 men built the dam. So where did they live? My great granddad was an engineer on a reservoir like this above Sheffield and his family followed him on each job. Sometimes whole temporary communities were built with schools, churches, football teams and orchestras. It’s an incredible feat. They needed so many working men, there often wasn’t enough accommodation which meant the huts were overcrowded. Mary-Ann, my great grandmother, had eleven lodgers. Eleven. It’s unthinkable. The men worked shifts, so the beds would have been full day and night. She also had, in the end, thirteen children. I guess the kids would have slept everywhere and anywhere. I cannot imagine what it would have been like on a day like the day we visited Thirlmere. When it rained the damp must have risen from every surface. Not one piece of clothing dry. Steam rising from everything. My feet are cold just thinking about it.
When we reached Thirlmere that day with the kids, it was so wet, they didn’t even want to get out the car. But the walk to the dam was short and we togged them up and opened the car doors to the wind and the water. We ran along the dam walls, and looked over the at the expanse of water in front of us. The wind whipped Manchester’s drinking water into our faces. Soon enough, the kids had had enough and rushed back to the car to eat the sandwiches, but I lingered; I wanted to feel the power of the stone and water and how they both encompassed one another. Yin and yang. But, looking further up around the area, I couldn’t see anywhere flat enough to hold a camp of people. The fells rose up on either side of the reservoir cradling it. Later, I found out why there was no obvious place for temporary buildings. Yes, there were small collections of huts dotted about the area where the workers lived but the bulk of the accommodation was based at the bottom of the reservoir itself. Of course – it was the flattest place for a settlement. The fact that Thirlmere was originally two small lakes dug out into one large reservoir must have made it like living in an empty bath, the waterfalls and other small becks that originally ran into it, like leaky taps that dripped constantly. I imagine there was plenty of steaming boots in front of fires here.
Back at home, I watch the dog walkers in their waterproofs wade up the street. I feel like I’m waiting for the door to open, the ding dong of the bell to tell you a customer has come in, to serve them tea, beer, make small talk as they pick out a necklace for themselves to remember this wet holiday. But no one comes. Just more dog walkers, Labradors, cockapoos, staffies. The rain is colouring the washing in the back garden. I think about Mary-Ann’s washing line, the many small items, the men’s clothing, stained with dug up dirt. I can reach the radiator from where I am sitting and it clangs underneath my ring as I lay a hand over it, thankful.
Later on I’ll pick up the kids from school and the youngest will try and jump in each puddle in the playground. The rain will make us all scurry back into the shelter of our cars, under the eaves of buildings, the usual snatched conversations deserted. But for now, I’ll enjoy this muted feeling, this quiet space watching the rain gather in pools on the road.
Rebecca Smith worked for BBC radio for twelve years, producing live and pre-recorded programmes. Latterly she worked in Radio 4’s Readings team researching titles for Book of the Week and The Fiction Serial. She graduated with honours with a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University in 2021 and has since been working freelance. She lives in Scotland with her three children. Her book, Rural, The Lives of the Working Class Countryside, is out now.
Photo of Thirlmere Dam by the author.