Bannerdale, Bowscale – and the Immortal Trout

Blencathra from the summit of Bannerdale Crags

TWO immortal trout inhabit the depths of a remote Cumbrian tarn. I don’t know how I come to know this. I think I read it somewhere a long time ago. But it’s a legend worth passing down to future generations. Perhaps, as with most legends, there is a kernel of truth waiting be discovered. And if I uncover that kernel I’ll be famous and maybe get to appear on Look North. So I’m off in search of the Immortal Trout . . .

Bannerdale Crag is a high wall of scrubby rock rising from a boggy common in the fells behind Mungrisdale. The Immortal Trout dwell in a dark pool beyond the crag. First, though, I have an unscheduled date with destiny. I am about to be confronted by another mystery.

The approach to Bannerdale Crags

The ruined bothy at Bannerdale Lead Mine

At the foot of the crag lie the ruins of Bannerdale Lead Mine. Actually, “ruins” is too magnificent a word. There is nothing here except a tumbled bothy and a couple of tunnels. Galena, the ore of lead, was mined here during the 19th Century along with a small quantity of zinc blende – or sphalerite, as knowledgeable types call it. But the site has been so thoroughly reclaimed by nature it is almost impossible to tell that human activity has taken place.

The smithy hearth

Abutting the crag, and almost hidden from view beneath the only tree for miles, are the walls of a tiny building that once housed a smithy and an office. The roof has gone, but someone has attempted to convert one of the two rooms into a rough shelter by slinging an old tarpaulin over a branch. The tarpaulin turned to rags many years ago – but it’s not hard to imagine that, once a fire has been kindled in the rudimentary fireplace, it could be quite a snug place to spend the night.

In a patch of plaster on one of the walls a mysterious hand has carved C BANNISTER, MARCH 1956. This both startles and intrigues me. On the day Mr Bannister carved his name I would have been a foetus with tiny arms and tiny legs in a vicarage flat forty miles to the south. I stand there gazing at the inscription and have an epiphany.

The Immortal Trout go out of the window, in a metaphorical sense at least. They are put on the back-burner – which is perhaps the most appropriate place for them. I feel an urgent desire to learn more about Mr Bannister. It’s as if a stranger has marched out of the past and into my life with his Woolworths tobacco knife in his hand and said: “I carved these words on the day your boneless legs kicked your mother for the first time. She was tearing up her Wren’s uniform for dusters. Your father – a quarrelsome Scotsman with a weakness for rum – was being thrown out of The Four Aces Bar in the Valletta alley known as The Gut and escorted to his ship by Maltese police. Such are the ways of the world and the many paths that cross and then part again. I have shown you the past, now you must walk into the future. Go in peace, my friend, and seek the Immortal Trout.”

In pensive mood I scramble silently up the crag. Am I following the footsteps of the mysterious Mr Bannister? Will I stumble upon his bones? Is that what this is all about? Has fate led me here? Will the Immortal Trout have the answers to my questions? Will they impart their ancient knowledge?

A hundred feet or so above the ruin I discover the remains of a footbridge that once crossed a beck and, nearby, the mouth of an old level, which is almost hidden from view by vegetation. With Petzl headlamp blazing I blunder into the tunnel, which is extremely wet and muddy. In fact, it is so wet and muddy I am obliged to traverse a distance of twenty feet or so along the tunnel walls as best I can. The tunnel ends after a couple of hundred feet. No Mr Bannister. Thankfully. Not even a toe bone.

The entrance to the level. I said it was wet.

Looking out of the Graphite Level higher up the crag

I climb higher up the crag and discover another level. But this is even shorter than the first – penetrating only forty feet. This tunnel was known as the Graphite Level because it was driven along a graphite vein. But whoever mined it certainly didn’t find much.

I skirt south across the face of the crag on a faint path that takes me to old slate workings just beneath the summit. I’ve read about these quarries somewhere, but I can’t think where. John Bolton’s Geological Fragments, perhaps, or EH Shackleton’s Geological Excursions in Lakeland. On the summit of Bannerdale Crag the ground lies like frozen tundra beneath a heavy frost. To the west stands an ethereal Blencathra (top picture), enshrouded in a fine veil of snow and ice.

Looking down from the slate workings on Bannerdale Crags

The top of Bannerdale Crags with Bowscale Fell in the distance

In a rough stone shelter on nearby Bowscale Fell I have a quick brew then drop down to Bowscale Tarn. This is where, according to legend, the Immortal Trout dwell. So shhhh . . .

The tarn is calm and still. Nothing stirs beneath its surface, nothing stirs upon its banks. I am the only living creature within a couple of leagues – not including the Immortal Trout. William Wordsworth was aware of their existence, because in the Feast of Brougham Castle he has this to say:

Both the undying fish that swim
In Bowscale Tarn did wait on him

Perched like a kingfisher on a rock, I gaze down into the depths, searching flickering shadows for the Immortal Trout. Should I call to them, I wonder? Should I sing to them and entice them to the surface? Reluctantly, I allow the opportunity to pass because it crosses my mind I’d feel a bit like Vic and Bob summoning the Dove From Above.

Burdened with unanswered questions I follow a track to Mungrisdale and spend a thoughtful half hour examining the gravestones in St Kentigern’s Church, dreading that fate might lead me to the final resting place of the elusive Mr Bannister. But it doesn’t.

Back at home a few hours later, I scour the internet in a final bid to uncover some truths and unravel some mysteries. The English Nature report for scheduling the Skiddaw area a Site of Special Scientific Interest has this to say about Bowscale Tarn: “Two high-level corrie lakes, Scales and Bowscale Tarns, occur within the site. Both have low nutrient levels and are inherently species poor.”

This creates a conundrum. Could the low nutrient levels support the Immortal Trout? Or have the Immortal Trout sucked the nutrients from the water? This is very unsatisfactory. More research required here.

Little historical information about Bannerdale Mine is available on the internet. The most informative account by far is in book form: Richard E Hewer’s article entitled Bannerdale Lead Mine, in The Mine Explorer Volume I, 1984, the journal of the Cumbria Amenity Trust. Luckily I have a copy.

Leafing through Mr Hewer’s fascinating account, I realise that I completely missed the lowest and most important tunnel, which must be situated near the base of the crag. I vow to return. Hopefully with Mr Bannister and his Woolworths tobacco knife.

Bowscale Tarn, where dwell two immortal trout. Allegedly.

About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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4 Responses to Bannerdale, Bowscale – and the Immortal Trout

  1. greg says:

    Just discovered your blog and found it to be very interesting. It sounds like your earlier job was the same as my dads. I originate from Tebay and my dad used to work at Shap Granite Pink quarry. My dad drilled and blasted until eventually being retired to the weigh bridge. He was interested in Alpine plants and fenced off an area of fell around the cabin and planted Alpines. He told me how the dynamite was kept in a shed which they eventually locked because of fears the IRA might steel the contents. It was raided once but only by salmon poachers who blew up Blamiers Dub to get the fish.
    I look forwards to reading more of your blogs and will put a link on mine to yours.


    • McEff says:

      Hi Greg. That’s interesting stuff. Yes, I was the driller at Stainton Quarry, near Barrow, for four years before moving on to Burlington Slate at Kirkby-in-Furness. But before that I worked in the saw sheds for Cumbria Green Slate at Crosby Ravensworth, just over the fields from Shap. That was back in the early 1980s. I worked with chaps who had friends at Shap Quarry. It’s a small world.


  2. I think you found the lower level Alen. But you do seem to have missed the upper level, which is well worth returning for.


    • McEff says:

      Hi. I don’t know whether it was the upper or lower level. After I posted this article (blimey, it’s more than five years ago) I found a report by Richard Hewer, who I used to know quite well, which had a rough survey attached. I’ve been meaning to revisit the site ever since, but like a lot of things it just never got done. One day, perhaps, I might get there . . .
      Cheers, Alen


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