Manchester, So Much to Answer For

High Street and Harter Fell from Mardale Head, Haweswater

High Street is the highest English mountain east of Kirkstone. The Romans built a road over it and farmers raced horses up there. Wainwright called its ascent from Mardale “the connoisseur’s route”. On this classic Lakeland hill walk, I encounter a drowned village and the last of the English golden eagles.

The Drowned Village

It was last orders for the Dun Bull Inn in 1935. When the bell rang  time it didn’t just mark the end of drinking hours but the end of days for the small farming village of Mardale Green.  The Manchester Corporation had bought the land and was busy constructing a dam on the lake to flood the valley and provide a reservoir for its burgeoning municipal population.

A rural community hundreds of years old was to be broken up and consigned to a watery grave; its residents dispersed; their homes razed by the explosives of the Royal Engineers; their ancestors exhumed from their graves and reburied ten miles away in Shap; their church dismantled stone by stone and used to build a water take off tower for the reservoir. There would be no compensation beyond a sum paid to the Diocese of Carlisle for the church.

Mardale Head
Mardale Head, Haweswater

The dam itself was considered a feat of modern engineering but it’s hard to imagine the locals saw it that way. They must have wondered why they should give up their homes and their history for the sake of a distant city they had little connection with. Morrissey wrote Suffer Little Children about the Moors Murders but Mardale residents might have identified with the sentiment, “oh Manchester, so much to answer for”.

Today Mardale Green sleeps beneath the tranquil surface of Haweswater, the most easterly and secluded of the Cumbrian lakes; a place of spectacular natural beauty despite the artifice in its construction. It’s hardly an unbroken slumber however: as has happened several times in the intervening years, when rainfall is low and the waters recede, the spectre of the sunken village emerges to remind the world what happened here.

Mardale Green
The sunken village
The Last of the Golden Eagles

When we visited in 2001, the rocky crags above the western bank were home to England’s only pair of nesting golden eagles.  We made our way to the RSPB hide and were greeted by an excited steward who steered us to a telescope in time to see the male perched majestically on the cliff as the female circled. In Scotland they call buzzards “telegraph eagles” in honour of every tourist who’s seen a buzzard on a telegraph pole and sworn they’ve spied an eagle; but when you witness the magnificent six foot wingspan of the real thing, there can be no doubt you’re in the presence of a king among birds.

A little less fortunate were an American couple who visited just an hour before when neither bird was in sight. Undeterred they resolved to return and, apparently under the impression they were in a safari park, asked the steward, “what time do you feed them?”  Bemused, he explained the birds are wild, to which they shrugged as if this were a poor excuse and sauntered off in search, presumably, of a cafe and gift shop.

The female died in 2004 (the eagle, not the pushy American) leaving the male, known locally as Eddy, to lead a solitary and celibate existence. Sadly he has failed to appear since November 2015 so with each passing month the fear grows that our last surviving English eagle must now too be dead.

Swine Crag
Swine Crag and Eagle Crag

Haweswater teems with wildlife however. It’s a nature reserve where red deer, red squirrels, peregrines, buzzards and mountain birds such as the ring ouzel can be spotted. For all that, the Dutch exchange students who visit for their studies invariably stare awestruck at the hills; and it’s the hills that draw me back here too.

The Connoisseur’s Route Up High Street

At 2,718 ft, the wide whale-backed ridge of High Street is the highest point east of Kirkstone. So named for the road the Romans built along its long flat top to connect Ambleside and Brougham, High Street is a grassy ridge to the north and south but to the east, above Mardale Head, it is a precipitous cliff descending dramatically to surround the volcanic crater of Blea Water, creating a natural amphitheatre not unlike Helvellyn and Red Tarn. Alfred Wainwright described the ascent from Mardale as “the connoisseur’s route”. This was my first fell walk, seventeen years ago, and one I love to repeat.

Blea Water
Blea Water and High Street

Starting from the car park at the end of the shore road, I follow the path round the head of the lake and up to the Rigg, a wooded promontory jutting out above the drowned village. Turn left before the tumble-down wall and begin the steep ascent of a long ridge over the beautifully named Swine Crag, Heron Crag and Eagle Crag (which appropriately is exactly where we saw the eagle perched).  The views over Haweswater, Riggindale and Kidsty Pike are superb and only improve as you gain height along the spine of Rough Crag, with the blue expanse of Blea Water an impressive vista to your left. After the marshy depression of Caspel Gate, with its own tiny tarn and bad-weather (or weary-leg) escape route to Blea Water, begin the final scramble to the top, climbing the aptly named Long Stile.

Blea Water
Blea Water from Long Stile

In contrast to the rugged, rocky drama of the ascent, the summit is a flat grassy plain traversed by a dry stone wall.  Close your eyes and imagine the fairs held here in the 18th and 19th centuries where Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers locked arms and farmers raced their horses – the top is still known as Racecourse Hill. Go back further and picture the cohorts of Roman Legionaries marching between forts. Most Lakeland peaks were remote, secluded spaces but High Street was a hive of activity.  Today if you hear the sound of heavy boots coming towards you, it’s trekking poles not spears they carry and Goretex rather than armour plate they don for protection. If you hear a neigh or whinny, cast an eye out for the wild fell ponies that sometimes graze here.

Look north-west then slowly track around to the south to see a procession of celebrated Lakeland summits: Skiddaw and Blencathra, St Sunday Crag, Fairfield and the Helvellyn range, Great Gable, the Scafells, Bow Fell, Crinkle Crags and the Coniston Fells.  To the south springs the distinctive skyline of the Kentmere peaks and the next section of the walk is shared with the popular “Kentmere Round” which circuits the neighbouring valley.

Fairfield
Fairfield from High Street

From the trig point, I follow the wall then veer off left on the path to Mardale Ill Bell, from whose summit I descend to the Nan Bield Pass. This was the old packhorse route linking Mardale and Kentmere but is now the preserve of ramblers and mountain bikers.  The views on both sides are unforgettable and the pass itself sports a large stone shelter which offers a good windbreak for a rest and revitalising snack before the final pull up to the summit of Harter Fell with its strange cairn made from old iron fence posts. Descend via the Gatescarth pass back to the car park.

Mardale Head
Mardale Head from Harter Fell

As I drive away along the shore of Haweswater, I spare a thought for the submerged village of Mardale Green and the golden eagles that once soared here.  Shot, trapped and poisoned to edge of extinction by farmers and gamekeepers fearing for their lambs and game birds, conservation efforts now abound to encourage them back; but as Natural England issues new licenses to shoot buzzards, I wonder what lessons we’ve really learned; as Otis Redding sang: “You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry” – a lyric with an ironic twist in Mardale.


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The Stuff of Legend

Helvellyn via Grisdale Tarn from Thirlmere

 

On a stunning hill walk over the Helvellyn mountain range in the English Lake District, I discover a teddy bear with a tragic tale to tell and delve into history and folklore to encounter a lost Celtic crown, a ghost army, a reckless romantic artist eulogised for the manner of his death and a dog’s devotion that endured beyond the grave.

Nestled between the mighty flanks of Fairfield and the hefty Helvellyn massif, Grisedale Tarn has an eerie, other-worldly majesty. As the cloud hangs low over its silent waters, you can almost imagine a hand emerging from its depths holding aloft Excalibur. But it’s another Celtic ruler whose legend pervades here.

Dunmail was the last of the Cumbrian kings, slain in a bloody battle with massed Scottish and Saxon forces. His men were routed, mutilated and forced to build a large cairn, Dunmail Raise, on the spot where their chieftain fell, but not before they’d saved his crown from Saxon mitts and cast it into the depths of Grisedale Tarn where it is rumoured to remain. Local legend has it that every year his ghostly army returns to the tarn, retrieves the crown and carries it back to Dunmail Raise to urge their monarch to rise again and reclaim his kingdom.

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

Today the cairn sits beside a stretch of dual carriageway on the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, just before the road skirts the shore of Thirlmere. Turn away from the tarmac however, and climb the path alongside the cascading waters of Raise Beck and the modern world quickly fades.  By the time the tarn is reached the stuff of legend feels more tangible.

Some fine ridge walks converge here. Starting from Patterdale walkers with lofty ambitions and matching energy levels can conquer St Sunday Crag and ascend the impressive bulk of Fairfield by the rocky pinnacle of Cofa Pike. Today though, ascending from Thirlmere, I’m heading for Helvellyn, which means climbing the stepped path that zigzags up the southern slope of Dollywagon Pike.

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

As if in sympathy with Dunmail’s demise, the sky darkens and the cloud comes down. By the time I reach the top it’s enveloped in a thick mist.  The path to Helvellyn is wide and easily followed but Dollywagon’s summit requires a brief detour. I follow the sketchy path along the line of the crags with the distant silhouettes of fellow walkers and some jubilant whoops to reassure me I’m heading in the right direction.  It’s not long before the summit cairn comes into view and the reason for their felicity is revealed.  A party of charity fundraisers is preparing for a group photo, unfurling their “24 peak challenge” banner in triumph at attaining their target. The celebrations are cut short though, when a navigationally diligent member realises this isn’t Helvellyn after all and the banner is duly packed away.

Angel Cassie Teddy
Angel Cassie Teddy on Dollywagon Pike

As they dissolve into the murk in search of the right mountain top I’m left alone on a slender promontory descending all around into cloud.  Just then I notice a small teddy bear, tucked carefully behind a rock. It clearly hasn’t been dropped by accident, but what is it doing here? It has a laminated card tagged to its ear bearing the web address, https://www.facebook.com/angelbabycassie. I later learn it’s been placed here by a grieving father in memory of his stillborn daughter, Cassie Elizabeth.  To raise awareness and fund help for other parents going through this harrowing experience, Nicky Bloor has set himself the challenge of climbing the 100 highest peaks in England and Wales, leaving on each a teddy like the one he’d bought for Cassie – the one she never got to hug.

Just then a flash of blue sky is revealed and I get a tantalising glance of the verdant valley below.  The cloud shrouds round again, but the wind has whipped up a pace and is blowing it clear. As I pick my way back to the main path, the vista to the west opens up revealing a stunning panorama of Lakeland fells with the sun breaking through illuminating their eastern slopes like a Heaton Cooper painting.

Dollywagon Pike
Looking west from Dollywagon Pike

I press on for the wonderfully named Nethermost Pike with another quick aside to visit the top of High Crag.  By now the sky has cleared to the east rewarding those of us who have braved the gloom with breathtaking views over Ullswater and Striding Edge.  Striding Edge is the jagged Helvellyn ridge which, in good weather, affords adventurers with a head for heights an exhilarating way to scramble to the summit.  From Nethermost Pike, its intrepid walkers look like ants or stick men.  We appear to have swapped Heaton Cooper for LS Lowry.

Striding Edge
Stick men on Striding Edge

Spurning the main path I track round the edge of the crags to get a closer look at Striding Edge and Red Tarn beyond. As you join the route coming up from the ridge, you encounter a monument to Charles Gough, a romantic artist who attracted little attention during his lifetime but was later immortalised by the likes of Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott who saw the free-spirited or perhaps plain reckless nature of his death in 1805 as the ultimate expression of the romantic ideal. A tourist in the Lake District, Gough set out to climb Helvellyn with no experience and only his faithful dog, Foxie for company.  His body was found three months later beside Red Tarn by a shepherd who supposed he must have fallen from Striding Edge. Foxie was still guarding his body.

This image of canine fidelity was irresistible to the Romantics who pictured a devoted spaniel lovingly defending her master’s body from the scavenging ravens that picked at his bones.  A Carlisle newspaper had a more prosaic interpretation, “The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master, and, shocking to relate, had torn the cloaths from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.”

Red Tarn
Red Tarn and Striding Edge

With the clouds parted, the views from the top of Helvellyn are spectacular and continue to reward all the way down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the steep descent to Thirlmere. On the way I pass a man who can climb no further due to his crippling fear of heights but whose overriding ambition is to make it to the top one day; and a lovely couple, ascending via this route, who ask me earnestly if they are nearly there yet – a hundred yards above the car park!

All human experience is here then – the history, the comedy and the tragedy; the poetic and prosaic; the noble and foolhardy; and all somehow diminished in significance by these wild, beautiful, remote peaks with their rocky outcrops and sweeping vistas, formed from catastrophic eruptions 450 million years ago.

As the country argues angrily over Brexit, devolution and independence, the legend of Dunmail feels like a timeless reminder that it was always thus; but these magnificent hills were here long before there were human feet to tread them and they will remain long after the last walking boot has crumbled into the dust; a realisation at once humbling, liberating and exhilarating.  Perhaps this is why one man is so desperate to conquer his fear while another seeks solace here from the pain of losing his child. To borrow a line from a time when I used to like U2, “kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but you go on and on”.

 

Click here for detailed directions at WalkLakes.co.uk


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