The Floating Island of Redesmere
Though Redesmere is now an unbroken sheet of water, it formerly had an island. The story goes that there was once a knight who thought that his lady was unfaithful to him, and he swore never to look at her again until the island moved from its place in the lake. Soon after he fell ill, but despite his vow she nursed him until he recovered. There then followed a storm of such strength that the island broke away from the bottom of the lake and drifted away from its original spot – and indeed continued to float freely thereafter – thus clearing the lady’s name.
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 retrained 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.”
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 is 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.
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 Alfred Coward observed, Redesmere is not a natural lake, but is an artificial reservoir. In the late eighteenth century a string of three ornamental pools were made in the grounds of Capesthorne Hall, not far from the Hall itself, by damming the Fanshawe Brook. In order to keep the pools at a constant level a reservoir was needed, so the brook was also dammed on the southeast side of the Congleton to Manchester road, out of sight of the Hall and the other pools. Both the Fanshawe Brook and an area of low-lying land to the south of it were flooded, forming what we now know as Redesmere.
At some time in the next fifty years the island appeared. George Ormerod, when writing about Capesthorne in his History of the County Palatine and City of Chester in 1819, mentions Redesmere, but does not mention the island:
While this omission does not constitute proof, it’s highly suggestive: given how celebrated the floating island was to become, one would expect him to have mentioned it. It seems reasonable to suppose that the island hadn’t yet formed, with the lake probably being less than twenty years old at the time of writing. However the First Series Ordnance Survey map of 1842 shows it, along with the name ‘Floating Island’ (see below).
When the legend originated in oral form can only be guessed; the earliest appearance in print that I have been able to find is in the Murray’s travel guide quoted above, in 1879. The slightly earlier 1864 source does not mention it, though the writer had described the legend of the Rostherne Bell and the Bagmere Death Omen in the previous two paragraphs, so presumably would have recounted the Redesmere legend if he had known of it.
Given that the island itself didn’t appear until somewhere between about 1820 and 1840, this aspect of the legend is obviously not a traditional tale in the ordinary sense. It can only be guessed how it originated. It has more the feel of a Victorian romance than anything, and it may have been devised by one of the inhabitants of Capesthorne Hall to entertain guests. But whatever its origins, this element seems to have fallen into obscurity now. I lived for over 30 years in the town of Congleton, only a few kilometres away, and while the floating island of Redesmere was well known, I never heard anyone mention the story of the knight and his lady, or indeed give any reason for the island’s coming into being.
While the story of the young knight may be easily dismissed as myth, the floating island certainly did exist, even if it was only a mass of peat barely standing above the surface rather than an island as we normally think of one. But did it, as both legend and popular belief maintain, drift around in high winds? Is it feasible that ‘a mass of peat and aquatic vegetation’ should survive being blown back and forth on the lake for a century and a half?
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 – and the fact that the island now appears to have been joined with the shore supported this. I even have vague childhood memories of seeing an article about it in The Manchester Evening News. You’d find it difficult to find any local who doesn’t believe it. It was only in more recent years that I came to wonder about it. I had, after all, never seen a floating island; people just referred to how it had existed, but for one reason or another had become attached to the lakeside somewhere in the early 1970s. 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 why.
But the idea of an island that moved freely 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. (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.
So, if the island was never seen to move, how did it become grounded on the east bank? The 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, the 1916 One Inch to One Mile map, and the 1957 First Series 1:25 000 map all show an island in the same spot, but on the 1979 Second Series 1:25 000 map the island is no more… not because it has drifted into the bank, but because the bank has moved to the island. Studying the maps shows that 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. Being a reservoir rather than a free-flowing stream, any alluvium would inevitably be deposited in the relatively still water. Once plants start to take root, and to stand out above the water, more soil is trapped, and the more solid the ground becomes; over a matter of decades the mass of peat had become a tree-covered piece of land – albeit a very boggy one.
So it would seem that the island never did actually drift from its original position. The lake was created at the end of the eighteenth century, then at some stage in the next few decades the ‘floating island’ of vegetation appeared – floating in the sense of being buoyant, but still anchored to the lake bottom. By the end of the twentieth century the island had gone again, both becoming fixed to the lake bed by the trees growing through it, and joining with the mainland due to the silting up of the east side of the lake.
The monochrome printing doesn’t make it easy, but you should be able to see the name “Floating Island”. Though the accuracy of this early map doesn’t match that of the 20th century ones, it can still be used as a reasonable guide. Note that there is an inlet where the Fanshawe Brook enters the lake on the eastern bank, north of the island, for comparison with the later maps.
Here the shoreline of the lake where the Fanshawe Brook enters has now straightened out: the inlet formed by the river valley has gone as sand washed down by the brook builds up at the edge of the lake.
The island can be seen more clearly on the larger scale map. Note that the point at which the Fanshawe Brook enters the lake is by now a spit of land, an indication of the way sand is continuing to be deposited.
By 1979 the island has gone, but a comparison with the First Series map reveals the markedly different shape of the shoreline around the mouth of the Fanshawe Brook. It can be seen that it is the shoreline that has moved, not the island.
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.
Other floating islands
The only other references to floating islands I know of are both Welsh, and probably refer to the same island, Llyn y Dywarchen (Lake of the Sod). One description comes from Giraldus Cambrensis in his Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales:
The other is part of a legend in which a shepherd falls in love with a beautiful water-nymph who lived in Llyn y Dywarchen. He managed to marry her, but, in the tradition of things he broke three taboos which resulted in her being forced to return to her lake, condemned never to set foot on shore again. However she created a floating island of peat in the lake, and, by standing on the island while her husband and children stood on the shore, she was able to satisfy the terms of her banishment yet still speak to her loved ones.
Rather more prosaically, according to D. Parry-Jones, in Welsh Legends & Fairy Lore (1953), ‘Local people believed that “if it floated towards the north the markets would rise, if to the south they would fall.”’
I also came across a reference to floating islands on a reservoir in Bolton, Connecticut, in the United States (Hans De Pold, Bolton: Historic Tales, The History Press, 2008). Though this lies outside the remit of this website, the relevant section of the book can be found on a webpage called Bolton’s Mysterious Roving Islands. This fascinating account claims “The floating island had measured 125 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 7 feet thick. It had supported cedar trees (one 8 yards tall) that served as masts and sails to drive the island around Bolton Lake.” If true it would be quite remarkable, but this is the only description of it I’ve seen, and there are no photographs to bear it out, so it must remain unsubstantiated.