The Floating Island of Redesmere
There was once a cottage by the side of Redesmere in which there lived a beautiful maiden called Isabel de Vere, who had been dispossessed of her inheritance at Calvely by the villainous knight Hugh de Moreton. Sir Reginald, a rather hot-headed knight of Capesthorne, having seen her and fallen in love with her, vowed to return her lands to her, and set out to fight Sir Hugh. However Sir Hugh bested him, and he was forced to flee. He was therefore unaware of Sir Hugh’s subsequent death at a feast one Christmas, and of the retaking of Calvely by Isabel’s faithful retainers from Hugh’s supporters. Isabel returned to her home, only to be wooed by another local gentleman.
When he learned of this, the short-tempered Sir Reginald swore never again to look at Isabel’s face until the island on Redesmere moved its position. Soon after this rather hasty oath he became seriously ill, and Isabel, hearing of this, came to care for him, and nursed him back to health. But Sir Reginald remembered his oath, and his knightly honour meant that he could not allow her to remain. Greatly saddened by being parted from her, he learned the value of temperance, and became a changed man. He was rewarded by a sudden storm which was so violent it tore the island from its roots and blew it across the lake, releasing him from his oath, and allowing him to be reunited with Isabel. The island continues to float on the mere, drifting back and forth, as a testament to their story.
By your side is the Mere, which stretches out in peaceful radiance under the sunshine, and the Floating Island in the midst of the burnished waters, looking like an emerald set in gold. Now a floating island and a Mere must have a legend, and a legend must have a love tale, with all the necessary elements of gallant knight and lady fair, of villain lord and craven friend, and faithful servant, to bring it to its proper sequel. In this respect the Mere of Capesthorne is perfectly orthodox. Sit down, and we will tell you the story:
Sir Reginald Davenport was a stalwart knight who had fought with honour by the side of King Henry, at the Battle of Agincourt; he was all that he ought to be in a melée; struck hard and spared not; and carried his pennon gallantly through a foughten field. But if he was un preux chevalier, sans peur, he was not altogether sans reproche. Sir Reginald had, we are sorry to say, a little failing—he was hot of head; in short, Sir Reginald had a temper of his own. Close to the Mere was a cottage; a casket which contained a gem, and that gem was Isabel de Vere. Fair as the, sun light, modest as the moon, she was the joy of all around her, and made sad work, as you may well suppose, with the heart of Sir Reginald. Why she dwelt there all alone is somewhat of a mystery; it was not very prudent in so young a lady. Why she dwelt in poverty is soon told. Born of a lordly line, and heiress of the estates of Calveley, she had been cheated out of house and home by Sir Hugh de Moreton, who, you will agree with us, was therefore no better than he should be. Isabel confided this little fact to Sir Reginald, and very wroth was the knight when he knew it. He vowed vengeance against the robber chief, led his men to the assault of his strong hold, and, as too often happens, was beaten for his pains. A stronger knight than he then took the field, one who is sure to be a winner whenever he enters the lists, Sir Death. He suddenly made his appearance at the Castle one Christmas night, reckoned with the savage host, and struck him down amidst the mirth and wassail of his lawless crew. Then fled the freebooters; then uprose the old retainers of her house, and Isabel de Vere proudly took possession of her own. Feasting followed of course, and foremost in the merry throng was a young gentleman of dubious character, who all at once woke up to the conviction that Calveley was a very pretty dowry, and as quickly proceeded to pay all those delicate attentions to the Lady of the Castle which he had so sadly neglected when she was only the inmate of the cottage:—
Of Isabel de Vere;
And gladly did he welcome her
When danger was not near:
And gaily did be lead the dance,
And raise the jocund cheer;
Although, I ween, he knew her not,
When poor and friendless were her lot
Beside the lonely Mere.”
We have not much respect for Fytton of Gawsworth, of Bollin, of Carden, or of Pownall, or of whatever other place he might happen to be; moreover we think it a sad pity that the lady had no elderly friend to give her good counsel in her difficulties, for of course Sir Reginald soon heard how matters stood, and heard a little more than the truth into the bargain, and of course he turned very sulky; he wandered up and down in wrathful mood, stayed out late at night, and altogether conducted himself in a very outrageous and uncomfortable fashion. As these proceedings of his were rather unbecoming a staid and respectable gentleman, his faithful squire first took the matter to heart, and then took his master to task. Hereupon Sir Reginald acted very foolishly, he waxed madly furious, and swore a great oath that—
The waters of the Mere,
He would not look upon the face
Of Isabel de Vere.”
When he had vowed his vow he fell sick, took to his bed, and lost his senses. Now when the lady heard of his sickness, she nursed him as she was bound to do, and so well, that by degrees his consciousness returned, and he became aware of the sad misrepresentations of that very meddling and very evil-minded and very disreputable female—Fame. Then he remembered, when it was too late, how he had cursed his lady-love; he wept and moaned, but nevertheless felt obliged to request she would absent herself. Sir Reginald became an altered and a softened man, and when contrition had done its blessed work, and rubbed out the fiery spot from his soul, then did heaven take pity on his sorrow. A tempest ensued; trees were uprooted, ravines were filled with floods, ships, such as they were, were wrecked at sea, the earth was strewed with waifs and fragments, and tokens of ruin, scattered by the storm—but what concerned Sir Reginald most was, that the island was wrenched from its deep foundation, and floated to the shore. The reader may guess the rest. With the speed of light he carried the tidings to his mistress:—
Was a wondrous tale to tell,
Yet must the good Sir Reginald
Have told it passing well;
For when ’twas o’er, the lover pressed
A willing maiden to his breast,
And lo I a fond kiss told the rest
To his fond Isabel.”
Such is the legend of the Mere of Capesthorne. Do not ask us to vouch for its veracity; the rather, as if you should be tempted to look into Ormerod, we greatly fear you will neither find the knight nor his lady amongst the pedigreed ancestors of the Davenports; but take the story as you have it, and it will give you a warp wherein to weave a pretty romance, of any pattern you may fancy. Besides, when you remember that Cardan wrote his Encomiurn Neronis to prove that Nero was a very phoenix of perfection; that Buck and Walpole will have it that Richard III. was neither humpbacked nor malicious; and that Miss Strickland, in our own day, would fain show that Mary was as great a saint as Elizabeth was a sinner—so good a foundation of doubting is laid for you, that, in so simple a matter as the Legend versus Ormerod, you may doubt which way you please, and, if you like it best, give all your doubts in favour of the legend.
On Reed’s Mere, a large sheet of water near Capesthorne Hall, is one of those singular phenomena of nature—a floating island. It is between one and two acres in extent, and covered with trees and underwood; and though generally stationary near the centre of the pool, is frequently carried by strong currents of wind to the sides of the pond, where it remains until again set in motion by a counter current.
We have in one of our Meres—Redesmere—a floating island. It is a mass of peat moss, about two statute acres in extent; its outer edge carries a belt of alder and birch trees (some twenty yards wide), some of the trees being twenty feet high and a foot in diameter. The interior is formed of a mass of long grass, cranberry, bog myrtle, and heather, all matted together. It requires a flood of wind from a particular point to move it from its usual position; but occasionally, when retained in deep water till the flood subsides, a very slight wind is sufficient to make it shift its position, and it has done so, the Rev. R. Heptinstall informs me, three times in one day. It has now been stationary about two years, and it requires some seven feet of water to enable it to float. There is only sufficient depth of water in the Mere to allow it to move say a distance of one-third by a quarter of a mile. It is quite possible that it may never shift again, and may by degrees fill up Redesmere, and make it a moss, which will at first have a go through that unswimmable, unwalkable state mentioned by Ovid as one of the concomitants of chaos:—
“Sic erat instablilis tellus innabilis unda.”
“Reed’s Mere,” as this one in Capesthorne Park is called, produces also the Hippuris vulgaris, believed to grow nowhere else near Manchester. It is provided, moreover, with a floating island, one or two acres in extent, and covered with trees and brushwood, predominant among which is the fragrant shrub called sweet-gale. Ordinarily, the island remains moored near the centre, but strong currents of wind move it away, and keep it so, until affected by powerful counter-currents.
To account for the origin of this floating island there is, of course, a legend, based, in the present instance, on the loves of the fair Isabel de Vere—herself the daughter of a golden lineage—and a certain Sire Reginald, (surname unrecorded,) who had achieved renown at Agincourt. The Lady Isabel lived in a cottage hard by, having been wronged of her possessions by one Sire Hugh de Moreton. This fact she confided to Sir Reginald, who attacked the despoiler, but unsuccessfully; a stronger friend came, however, to the rescue, and the next Christmas night Sir Hugh died suddenly. Then the lady resumed her rights; and Sir Reginald, among others, thought she would make a pretty bride,—more than a little jealous at the same time of the attentions paid by certain rivals, and vowing at last, that
The bosom of the mere,
He would not look upon the face
Of Isabel de Vere.”
By and by he fell sick; Isabel watched by his pillow; and eventually love and faithfulness were rewarded by Heaven sending a hurricane that tore the island from its anchorage.
The well-timbered grounds, through which the road from Stockport to Congleton runs, are ornamented with a fine sheet of water called Reedsmere, forming a floating island about 1½ acres in size, which in strong winds is blown about here and there. Aspidium Thelypteris and Hippuris vulgaris are found on Reedsmere. A country legend accounts for the floating island by a story, that a certain knight was jealous of his lady-love, and vowed not to look upon her face until the island moved on the face of the mere. But he fell sick and was nigh to death, when he was nursed back to health by the lady, to reward whose constancy a tremendous hurricane tore the island up by the roots.
The situation of Capesthorne is very picturesque, overlooking a chain of pools supplied from Reedsmere, a fine sheet of water above, on which is still to be seen the old Floating Island about an acre in size, which, though now stationary, for many years formerly used to roam about the mere just as the wind, the trees growing on it acting as sails, dictated.
There is one good typical case at Capesthorne, about five miles west of Macclesfield. Of it the Rev. A. F. Claydon kindly gave me the following interesting account, Sept., 1887: — “The island is nearly two acres in extent, and covered with silver beech trees and brushwood. The lake was raised about forty years ago two or three feet, which was the cause of the island floating away from the mainland to which it had been attached; the place is easily seen where it migrated from. It usually stood in the middle of the lake, but was frequently driven by the wind to the edge of the water, where it usually remained until a wind set in from some other quarter and carried it to the other side of the mere. About 1850 a S.W. wind drove it to the N.E. side where there is a small wood, and there it has remained ever since; being protected by the tall trees from easterly winds, there is not much chance of its ever going off again. The water is twenty feet deep on the S.W. and W. sides, but on the E. only about six feet; it is about fifteen or twenty feet from the mainland. I have rowed round it, and spent a long day on it fishing. A summer house has been built upon it, and there is also a platform to walk along as it is so boggy that one soon gets up to the knees in water if one tries to traverse it.”
Close to Capesthorne, the seat of the descendants of the powerful Davenport family, who ruled the Forest of Macclesfield, and much of the surrounding country for so many centuries, is the big artificial water called Redesmere. From time to time, when the water is low, there appears on the surface a mass of peat and aquatic vegetation known as the “floating island”. Similar masses, dislodged from the banks, and stranded in shallow water, occur on other meres, and some of them certainly float, forming islands on which the ducks rest in the same way they do on “hovers” on the Broads. This imagined island gave origin to a local tradition, which without apparently any historical foundation has been converted into a ballad.
Reedsmere, in Capesthorne, has a small floating island, which moves in a high wind. It is really one of those peat masses which are sometimes found in shallow waters, but the local tradition says that it was once stationary. A certain knight was in love with a lady, but he imagined she was unfaithful to him. All her protests were useless, and he made a vow that he would never look upon her face again until the island moved on the face of the lake. Shortly after making this somewhat rash statement, he became very ill, and the forgiving girl nursed him back to health. There followed an unusually violent storm, which tore the island from its roots, so that it did, in fact, move, as it has done ever since. This timely occurrence not only proved the lady’s innocence, to everyone’s satisfaction, but it also saved her lover’s face, and released him from a vow which he doubtless regretted.
Floating on Redesmere is an island made of peat. Legend, however, says that it was originally a conventionally fixed island which became loose owing to supernatural intervention.
A young knight, a member of the Capesthorne family, mistakenly believed that his betrothed was being unfaithful to him, and in a rage he swore never to look on her face again until the island moved on the water. Shortly after this vow, he fell seriously ill, and was selflessly nursed back to heath by the innocent and forgiving girl. While he was convalescent, a tremendous storm tore the island from its roots and blew it across the mere. The young knight joyfully accepted the sign of the girl’s virtue and—need it be said?—they lived happily ever after.
As is noted in a couple of the above sources, Redesmere is not a natural lake, but a reservoir made in the eighteenth century to feed the chain of ornamental pools in Capesthorne Park, near to the Hall. Twentieth century guidebooks to Capesthorne Hall give no mention to the pools or to Redesmere, whose design and construction were not recorded, so its exact date is not known. It was formed by damming the Fanshawe Brook at the point where it was crossed by the Congleton to Manchester Road, causing the valley of the brook and an area of low-lying land to the south to be flooded.
The island didn’t appear until the early nineteenth century. George Ormerod, when writing about Capesthorne in his History of the County Palatine and City of Chester in 1819, is the first to mention Redesmere, but he does not mention the island, floating or otherwise:
The island’s first appearance in print seems to be the First Series Ordnance Survey map of 1842, which shows it, along with the name ‘Floating Island’ (see maps below). There is also the account quoted by George Symons, supplied to him by the Rev Claydon in 1887, which states ‘The lake was raised about forty years ago two or three feet, which was the cause of the island floating away from the mainland to which it had been attached; the place is easily seen where it migrated from.’ The ‘about forty years ago’ would make it ‘about’ 1847, five years later than the OS map’s publication, but his approximation presumably isn’t that far out, and 1840 is probably a reasonably accurate date for the formation of the island. The legend of Sir Reginald and Isabel de Vere quite likely appeared not long after, as a direct result of the island’s creation.
Reginald and Isabel
The first appearance in print of the legend I’ve been able to find is the 1850 A Whitsuntide Ramble to Capesthorne Park, by an anonymous writer. Though he gives an excellent description of the legend, the way he quotes the lines of verse from a ballad – which is also quoted by Leo Hartley Grindon in 1866 – shows that the story already existed. While probably inconsequential, there are a couple of minor discrepancies between his and Grindon’s account. The former gives the name of the knight as Sir Reginald Davenport (the Capesthorne family name of the time), while the latter says his surname is unknown; the former gives one of the lines of the ballad as ‘The waters of the Mere’, while the latter gives ‘The bosom of the mere’. It may of course be that the former invented the surname himself, but the altered line suggests the possibility that there was more than one version of the ballad available by then. It would clearly be useful to locate a copy of the original, as it was quite possibly written by the person who devised the legend, and it would be interesting to know who did so, and when. At the moment the 1850 account is as far back as I can trace it, but since the island itself didn’t appear until around 1840, it can’t go back any further than this. Sadly for lovers of historical romances, the early nineteenth century is a more accurate date for the tale than the early sixteenth, as references to Agincourt in the legend imply.
The floating island
But while the legend of Sir Reginald and Isabel de Vere may be accounted for as simply the writings of a nineteenth century poet, the matter of the floating island itself is more complicated, as it seems to have acquired a legendary status of its own.
The floating island certainly did exist at some point, even if it was only ‘a mass of peat and aquatic vegetation’ rather than an island as we normally think of one. The formation of such an island is described in an article by Sidney Powers, B.A., which appeared in Volume 79 of Popular Science Monthly, September 1911, quoted below:
In order to understand the formation of a floating island let us imagine a pond on the edges of which rushes and grasses are growing. These gradually push their way out into the deeper water, leaving a mass of decaying vegetable matter upon which, in time, mosses such as sphagnum may secure a foothold, and start a shelf which will extend out into the water. As soon as the sphagnum has become well established, water-loving plants and shrubs such as alders, sheep laurel and sweet gale will grow with the moss. Cranberries and pitcher plants may also aid in the formation of the mat, forming the familiar cranberry bog. This shelf will be attached to the shore for several feet, the distance depending on the depth of the water, but the peat will seldom attain a thickness of more than three feet. After the mat has become firm, black spruces and larches may grow upon it, often anchoring it and always making it more compact by means of their roots. Such a mat is illustrated by the drawing on page 304.
After the shelf has extended itself some distance into the pond, if the water level is raised unusually high by excessive rainfall or the construction of a dam across the outlet, the mat may break off and form a floating island. This island will either become attached near its former position by roots extending underneath it, or it will float around the lake.
But is it feasible that such an island, supporting trees ‘twenty feet high and a foot in diameter’ should survive being blown back and forth on the lake for any great length of time? Three of the above accounts say that it became stationary in the mid nineteenth century, only a few years after it was formed. However, according to popular local belief, it could still be seen adrift as late as 1970, periodically becoming attached to the shore and being broken off again on windy days.
I lived for over 30 years in the town of Congleton, only a few kilometres away, and like so many others who grew up in the area I took for granted that the island in Redesmere really did drift around in strong winds. While the legend of Reginald and Isabel seemed to have sunk into obscurity by this time – I hadn’t heard of it before researching this article – the floating island itself was generally known about. It would be occasionally be referred to in local newspapers as fact. You’d find it difficult to find any local who didn’t believe it. It was only in more recent years that I came to wonder about it. I had, after all, never seen it myself; people just referred to how it had existed, but for one reason or another had become attached to the lakeside somewhere around 1970. I have both read and heard that the island was anchored to the shore with iron chains to stop it drifting away again, though no one seemed to be clear on who had done this, or when.
The belief that the island had continued to drift for over a century was very pervasive, so I looked for concrete evidence that bore this out. I tried writing to the commodore of Redesmere Sailing Club, but while he courteously replied, his answer left me none the wiser:
Unfortunately this simply told me what I already knew; I had been hoping for a first-hand sighting of the island moving, or at least of seeing it in different places. It seemed reasonable to expect that those regularly going yachting on the lake would make a note of where the island was at different times if it did indeed move, since it would presumably be something of a navigation hazard.
I also wrote a letter to my local newspaper, the Congleton Chronicle, asking if anyone had any memories of seeing the island moving around on the surface of Redesmere with their own eyes, or at least of seeing it in different spots at different dates. For while the lake itself is privately owned, its southern edge is bounded by Redesmere Lane, which has a popularly-used parking area for people to look at the lake and to feed the ducks and swans. Normally letters asking for people’s reminiscences are replied to promptly, but no such thing happened on this occasion.
But if the island had never moved, how did it become grounded on the east bank? A possible answer is revealed when one looks at a series of maps of the area.
The original 1842 Ordnance Survey One Inch to One Mile map shows its earliest recorded position. The monochrome printing doesn’t make it easy, but you should be able to see the name. Though the accuracy of this early map (surveyed at 2 inches to 1 mile, or 1:31 680) doesn’t match that of the 1:2500 ones done later in the 19th century, it can still be used as a reasonable guide. Since the island had only just become detached from the shore at this time, it would still have been not only floating, but also likely to drift around on windy days.
The 1:2500 1872 map shows the lake and island in greater detail. Note that the island is still called ‘Floating Island’, though if the contemporary accounts are correct, it would have been floating only in the sense of being buoyant, having been stationary for many years. To go back to the Rev Claydon, writing in 1887:
What was obvious to the Rev Claydon is not so obvious to us, but the place to which it had originally been attached may be the the small headland to the south-west, where this map shows some trees just inside the lake itself. He goes on:
As with the date of its formation, there is again a slight discrepancy between accounts. Egerton Leigh, wrote in 1864: ‘It has now been stationary about two years, and it requires some seven feet of water to enable it to float.’ After all this time it isn’t possible to reconcile these differences, but we can assume that the island had become stationary somewhere in the 1850s. But though the exact date may have been uncertain, all sources agree that it did stop moving in the later part of the nineteenth century. There was no doubt a combination of factors involved: the Rev Claydon described the shallower water and the shelter from wind reduced its chances of moving off, and the longer it stayed there, the less chance there would be, as roots would grow down from the island into the lake bed – a phenomenon mentioned in the article by Sidney Powers quoted above – which would not have been far below the island at this point.
The 1:2500 1898 map is substantially the same as the 1872 one, but the the name ‘Floating Island’ has been dropped. It is in exactly the same position, and is exactly the same size as it was in 1872, meaning it hadn’t moved in over a quarter of a century.
As an aside, note that the area of the island is shown on the map as being 0.77 acres – considerably less than either the 2 acres or 1½ acres stated in the printed articles.
The 1:2500 1909 map is, unsurprisingly, little different from the preceding ones; the island is certainly in exactly the same place. It appears that by now the island has definitely become anchored to the bottom, or at least the Ordnance Survey has assumed so.
I don’t have a 1:2500 map between the 1900s and the 1960s, but here is the 1:25 000 First Series one for 1957, which, while not as detailed as the others, certainly seems to show no change in the island’s position.
However the 1:2500 1964 map no longer shows the island, which has become a headland on the east bank. This is almost certainly the result of sand and soil being washed down into the lake by the Fanshawe Brook, the major watercourse flowing into it. It can be seen that the Fanshawe Brook has formed quite a lengthy promontory extending into the lake (it is from this promontory that I took the photograph at the head of this page). Being a reservoir rather than a free-flowing stream, any alluvium would inevitably be deposited in the relatively still water.
While the change in the map may seem to be dramatic, it should be understood that even fifty years on, as I write this, the filled-in channel would be more accurately described as marsh than solid land; it’s barely above the level of the lake, and stepping on it is likely to leave you boot-deep in soft mud, for all the plants and even trees that grow in it. The sediment from the Fanshawe Brook must have been settling on the bottom since the lake was created, and the transition from water to land would have been gradual. The shallower the water in the channel became, the more plants started to grow in it, until it became almost indistinguishable from the peat of the island (which the Rev Claydon described himself as being so soft you could sink knee-deep in it). The island, meanwhile, has lost pieces from its south and west shore to erosion, with parts – including trees – breaking off and falling into the lake, which is deeper on the west side.
To summarise: the lake was created in the eighteenth century, then around 1840 the raising of the water level caused a mass of peat to detach itself from the bank and drift away. For several years it was liable to be blown to and fro across the lake, before fetching up on the east bank. Once here, in shallow water, roots went down to the lake bottom and anchored it, though it continued to float in the sense of being buoyant. By the early 1960s the island had gone again, with the silting up of the east bank both causing it to make contact with the lake bed, and filling the channel that had once separated it from the bank.
But while the island seems not to have continued to drift around in the way popular belief has it, it did remain afloat, tethered by roots, until the silting up of the lake bottom stabilised it. When I went to Redesmere to take the photographs shown on this page in 2013 I met an angler, John Winterbottom, fishing on the edge of what remains of the island, and asked him what he knew about its once having floated. He told me that when he’d gone fishing there in his younger days, before the channel had filled up, if he jumped up and down the entire island would bounce under the impact before dampening down. This had only ended after the channel had finally become silted up. I also asked him if he had known it to move around from time to time, but while he certainly believed it to have done, he did concede that he’d only ever seen it in the same place every time he’d been fishing there.
So it would seem that the belief in the Floating Island of Redesmere that persisted into the late twentieth century was partly accurate: the island was indeed floating above the bed of the lake until the 1960s, anchored by roots. But in the absence of any first-hand accounts of its having been seen in different places on the lake, it seems unlikely that it was floating in the sense of being mobile.
This is Redesmere as it is now, courtesy of Google Maps aerial view. You can see the nature of the landscape more clearly; both the island and the mass of trees growing on the silted-up area that was once an inlet of the lake where the Fanshawe Brook entered.