Category Archives: Natural History

Axis: Bold As Love

Bow Fell via Whorneyside Force and the Climbers’ Terrace

Bow Fell feels like the centre of the world with valleys radiating out like the spokes of a wheel and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The ascent via Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill is one of striking contrasts and the final section along The Climbers’ Terrace and up the side of The Great Slab is simply breathtaking. The descent via Rossett Gill is steeped in smuggling history.

Centre of the World

As anyone who has stood on its summit in sunshine knows, Bow Fell is the axis on which the world converges. The broad shoulder of The Band plunges east to Great Langdale while the fine ridge of Crinkle Crags runs south to Red Tarn and the Furness Fells. At contiguous points of the clock, the green valleys of Duddon and Eskdale sweep in to lay their heads at Bow Fell’s foot; and the soaring Scafell massif circles over Esk Pike to meet its western flank. Gaze north and Grassmoor looms while the valley of Langstrath rolls in from the north-east and the distant peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Turn full circle and see the full length of Helvellyn unfurl, linking arms with Fairfield over Grisedale Tarn, while the high ground of The Langdale Pikes swings over Stakes Pass to meet the mountain’s northern bounds.

Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag

Of course a wider world exists, but that’s a place of tarmac and traffic; of hubbub, hassle, frayed nerves and short tempers. If you’ve climbed the 2962ft to get here, you’re probably inclined to forget all that for a while. Scafell Pike is about 250ft higher, but that’s splitting hairs; on Bow Fell, you are Zeus looking down from Olympus – at the centre of the world and on top of it. Forgive my flights of fancy, but I defy anyone to stand here on a clear day and not experience a soaring rush of exhilaration.

The axis notion is not entirely fanciful. Geographers have compared the Lake District to a wheel, the valleys and lakes radiating out like spokes. The real hub is about 14 miles away near Dunmail Raise. But Dunmail Raise is a cairn in the middle of a dual carriageway; on top of Bow Fell, you don’t need a map to get the picture.

By the looks on their faces, the small group of fellow walkers sharing the summit feel similarly elated. Some have come directly up the Band. A couple have climbed over Crinkle Crags. One has come via The Langdale Pikes and plans to return over Crinkle Crags. He’ll sleep like a baby tonight. I took a lesser trodden route that offers some striking and secluded scenery.

Old Dungeon Ghyll

George Macaulay Trevelyan believed that common people have a more positive effect on shaping history than royalty. His historical writings were passionate, poetic and partisan celebrations of his liberal beliefs. During his lifetime he was lauded as “the most widely read historian in the world; perhaps in the history of the world.” Subjective historical narrative fell out of fashion however, and Trevelyan was later dismissed as “a pontificating old windbag”.

Fortunately, his other legacies have fared better. He was the first president of the Youth Hostel Association and a dedicated conservationist. In the early 1900’s he bought Middlefell farm in Great Langdale and donated it to The National Trust. It became The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The stables were converted into a dining room and the shippon into The Climber’s Bar, which still sports the cow stalls.

British climbing clubs used the bar for their gala dinners and after conquering the north face of the Eiger, Chris Bonnington and Ian Clough gave a trial run of their lecture here before delivering the real thing in Keswick. What better starting point for a mountain expedition, albeit a slightly less ambitious one than Bonnington and Clough’s.

Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill

I follow the road down to Stool End Farm and, once through the farmyard, ignore the usual route up The Band, keeping straight on through a field and some stock pens heading for Oxendale. Off to the left, a footbridge crosses Oxendale Beck to ascend Crinkle Crags. I ignore this too and follow the stream.

Great Langdale
Great Langdale

The sketchy path starts to climb over wilder and rockier terrain, gaining height and fording the feeder streams that flow down from the fell-side. The views back along the length of Great Langdale are already impressive. After about two thirds of a mile, I cross a bridge and follow the bank on the other side. Soon the crash and hiss of cascading water grows louder with every step. The path turns left to climb the fell but I stick with the stream, rounding an outcrop to come face to face with Whorneyside Force.

Here the beck plunges 40ft into a deep green, bowl-shaped pool; the foaming jets forming two white legs that cross at the bottom like some giant reclining stick figure. Below a sky of pure blue and in sharp relief against the dark exposed rock, it’s utterly hypnotic, beautifully offset by the winter yellow of the surrounding scrub.

Whorneyside Force
Whorneyside Force

A steep scramble up a mud and scree bank makes for a fun if inelegant way to rejoin the main path, which climbs above the waterfall then descends to cross the beck a little further on. A few hundred yards later, I’m staring into the mouth of deep ravine.

White winter skeletons of stunted rowan trees jut from jagged rock at unnatural angles. The spindly lattice of branch and twig fragments the view. Glaring sunlight casts black shadows that disorient further. Steep slabs of bare rock are intercut with patches of impossibly sloped grass. White water cascades down sheer steps. Everything is angular and irregular. In contrast to the tranquillity of Whorneyside Force, the ravine is topsy-turvey; chaotic, confusing, striking but inhospitable. Perhaps this is why it has earned the formidable name, Hell Gill.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill

Stepping stones afford a way across the water. A stone pitched path climbs the bank on the far side to the grassy moorland above, basking in the shadow of Crinkle Crags with the rocky summit of Bow Fell ahead.

From above, where the winter grass is a uniform blanket of yellow decay, Hell Gill is an oasis of vibrant green, but no less disorientating. Indeed, I hesitate to get too close, not only because the ground is slippery, but because staring down its sheer side is dizzying. Its walls descend through a series of steep stone trellises, like an Inca temple, bedecked with grass and spindly white trees. Its presence seems wholly out of context with the rugged mountain scenery, as if a chasm has opened up into another world.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill
The Climbers’ Terrace and The Great Slab

Eventually what remains of a path turns away from the ravine to follow the stream of Busco Sike. When it’s narrow enough, I step across and make toward the towering summit. In the foreground are the first people I’ve seen since Stool End. They’re following the path from The Band which crosses to the col of Three Tarns and a well-trodden route to the peak.

But there’s a more dramatic way to reach the summit and it lies over the ridge in front. I cross the Three Tarns path and climb the open fell-side. After a short scramble, I join a higher, narrower path that takes me over the crest to the start of the Climbers’ Terrace.

The east face of Bow Fell comprises three sheer rock faces:  Flat Crag, Cambridge Crag and Bowfell Buttress. The cliffs are precipitous and the slopes below drop steeply to the valley floor. Not a place to wander without ropes and climbing equipment you might think, but a narrow path leads across the foot of the crags, allowing the walker to venture where they otherwise might not. You need a reasonable head for heights as it does feel exposed but in dry conditions the going is easy and presents no real problems. I venture out on to the Climbers’ Terrace and the views take my breath away.

To my right, the Langdale Pikes are revealed in all their top-to-bottom glory; the conical peak of the Pike O’Stickle to the fore. Looking behind, the Pike O’Blisco rises over the ridge. Ahead, beyond the valley of Langstrath, distant Blencathra pierces the horizon. Everywhere, the sunlit winter landscape is a palette of warm ochre and purple shadow.

Langdale Pikes
Langdale Pikes
Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Blisco
Blencathra across Langstrath
Blencathra across Langstrath

As I approach Flat Crag I have an eerie feeling I’m being watched. I look up to discover a striking rock formation striped with blue, red and purple quartz; above, the crags have eroded to resemble a giant pair of eyes and a long flat nose. Rock face indeed! If Hell Gill had put me in mind of an Inca temple, then Flat Crag is Easter Island. I start to wonder what it was I poured on my cereal this morning.

Rock Face - Flat Crags
Rock Face – Flat Crag

I later share some photos on Facebook and Fred James recounts how he fed a mouse some malt loaf on the Climbers’ Terrace when it was covered in deep snow. A place of magical encounters it seems.

Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag
Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag

The spring that perpetually gushes from the foot of Cambridge Crag feeds a small oasis of green. It also marks the exit. There’s no way up Bowfell Buttress without ropes, but a scrambly path leads up beside Cambridge Crag over a “river of boulders”. I start to climb. When I draw level with the top of Flat Crag, another striking feature unfurls: the huge slope of polished stone known as The Great Slab. It’s a magnificent sight and the views across it to the Langdale Pikes are staggering. Wandering away from the boulders and out into the middle could be a short lived pleasure, however. One slip and you might find yourself in Mickleden, earlier than planned and in a great many more pieces.

Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Summit

Reaching the top I look back over the Slab to Windermere glistening in the distance; then climb the remaining boulders to the summit.

“Is that Scafell Pike?”

“Yes”,

“And that’s Sca Fell?”

“Yes, it is”. I’ve been joined by a beaming young man in combat fatigues.

“And that’s Great Gable?”

“No I think that’s Great End”, (I’m wrong, it’s Esk Pike but I haven’t had a chance to check the map and it looks like the end of the Scafell massif).

“Is this Great Gable?”

“This that we’re standing on?”

“Aye.”

“No, this is Bow Fell.”

“Ah right, Bow Fell. I’ve come from ‘Cisco”,

“Do you mean The Pike O’Blisco?”

“Aye right enough”,

“Over Crinkle Crags”,

“Aye probably”.

My new companion tells how he drove from Dumfries and slept in his car to be on these hills at first light. He might be muddling names but I get the impression he knows roughly where he’s going; besides, he exudes such a boundless energy and enthusiasm that, even if he doesn’t, I feel sure he’ll get there.

Windermere from the top of the Great Slab
Windermere from the top of the Great Slab

Over a few more boulders to the summit cairn and the world converges. I’m almost grateful for the breeze that starts to chill – without it I might have sat here all day. Eventually I pull on my rucksack and head north toward Esk Pike. My new Scottish friend emerges from over the crags to my right where, thanks to my mis-identification, he’s been searching for that very fell. He laughs when I apologise and we chat as far as Ore Gap, where he heads on up the real Esk Pike and I turn right for Rossett Gill.

Bow Fell summit
Bow Fell summit
Smugglers’ Foosteps

When Bow Fell’s northern ridge falls away, Rossett Pike is revealed to my right over the blue waters of Angle Tarn. I follow the path down to the water’s edge. It looks so inviting I’m tempted to dive in, but these hills were under snow last week and I doubt the water’s warmed. Besides, there are people picnicking; the sight of me skinny dipping would put them off their sandwiches. Instead, I walk up to Rossett Pass and climb to the Pike’s summit, which affords a fascinating retrospective on my route.

Angle Tarn
Angle Tarn

Back at the pass, I follow the good, stone pitched path that zigzags down beside Rossett Gill, a welcome replacement for the steep stony slog that Wainwright describes in “The Southern Fells”. Intriguingly, Wainwright also mentions an old pony-route, believed to have been used to smuggle illicit goods from the port of Ravenglass.

Lanty Slee was a legendary Langdale smuggler. Officially, a farmer and quarryman during the early 1800’s, Slee’s main source of income came from the stills he had secreted around Little Langdale: one in Moss Bank Quarry; another beneath Low Arnside Farm. To divert attention, Slee connected the latter to a long underground pipe, doubtless prompting passers-by to puzzle why steam was rising from a hedge in the middle of a field.

Lanty sold his moonshine for 10 shillings a gallon, transporting the excess to Ravenglass and returning with contraband tobacco. He was convicted twice and kept the Ambleside courtroom well entertained with the wittiness of his defences. The excise men routinely failed to seize his whisky however, and some may even remain stashed in the caves around these crags.

Rossett Pike from Mickleden
Rossett Pike from Mickleden

When Chris Jesty revised Wainwright’s works, he insisted no trace of the old pony-route remained, but in an excellent blog that describes another way up Bow Fell, Martin Crookall gives some canny pointers on how to follow its course:

https://mbc1955.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/great-walks-crinkle-crags-bowfell-esk-pike/

With tired legs and the tempting prospect of a pint in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, I leave archaeology for another day and follow the stone steps to the valley floor. The final stretch through Mickleden leads beneath the Langdale Pikes and the steep southern scree slope of the Pike O’Stickle. A couple of indefatigable souls are attempting a direct ascent. My thoughts turn from a notional axis to Neolithic axes – but that’s another tale.

Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Stickle

 

For a map of this route and detailed directions, visit Walk Lakes 


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This Is The Sea

Morecambe Bay, Hampsfell and Cartmel

Morecambe Bay is place of desolate beauty and treacherous tides. Its rich cockle and shrimp beds provide a living for local fishermen but have proved lethal for some.  One of finest views of the Bay is from Hampsfell, a hill bedecked with rare limestone pavements.  Below Hampsfell lies Cartmel, a medieval village still illuminated by its inspiring history.

Muddy bronze sands stretch all the way out to the sky, snaked with silver rivulets of residual water, stranded when the tide beat its retreat; the horizon a distant band of yellow in an otherwise monochrome landscape. Above, leaden clouds are fringed with pink and pierced with shafts of golden light, spearing the earth like the fingers of God in a William Blake painting.

Morecambe Bay
Morecambe Bay
Morecambe Bay
Morecambe Bay- photo by Leonard Osborne

For all its wilderness, there is industry here. A tractor rides a sandbank pulling a trailer on 200ft of rope through a channel of water. The trailer drags two large funnel nets to scoop shrimps from the shallows. These will be riddled (sieved) to remove the crabs and flukes (flounder). They will be shelled, cooked and potted in a spicy butter before being shipped to the far flung deli counters of London or the hotels of Hong Kong. Swap a horse for the tractor and this scene has changed little in a hundred years.

But the stark beauty of Morecambe Bay hides perilous hazards. Its tides sweep in twice a day, faster than a horse can gallop and with a force that can roll a tractor one and a half miles up the shore. When they retreat, they leave a lethal maze of ever-shifting quicksands. Inevitably, the bay has claimed its share of victims.

Indeed, in 1853 Grange-Over-Sands was nearly robbed of its first vicar. Historically, the sands provided a convenient shortcut linking the two parts of Lancashire (Lancashire North O’ The Sands now being part of Cumbria). The Reverend Rigg was en route from Manchester to take up his post when his coach was swallowed by the unstable ground. A delicate soul, Rigg had steeled himself for the journey by shutting the windows and shrouding himself in so many blankets he was utterly oblivious to the fact his carriage was sinking. It was with some effort that the coachman eventually got him out through the window, the doors already being too submerged to open.

Many others were less fortunate; in fact so alarming was the death toll that in 1501 the monks at Cartmel Priory appointed an official guide. That responsibility now rests with the Crown and the current Queen’s Guide to the Sands took up the post in 1963. A Bay fisherman since his teens, Cedric Robinson reads these sands like a book and has been instrumental in developing the Cross Bay walks that attract many thousands each year and raise princely sums for charity.

Cross Bay Walk
Cross Bay Walk

Before each walk, Cedric marks a safe route with laurel twigs. At the appointed hour, he leads the assembled party out across the watery desert. It is a strange and exhilarating experience, light dancing off scattered pools; the exposed sea-bed running as far as the eye can see – so flat that a solitary laurel branch can look like a tree (until a dog invariably runs ahead to pee against it).

Cross Bay Walk
Cross Bay Walk

It would be wrong to imagine the bay benign however, it’s fatalities somehow confined to former centuries. The band of volunteers who staff Bay Search and Rescue are kept busy and their amphibious Haaglund all-terrain vehicle is regularly deployed. But, in 2004, a tragedy occurred that neither guide nor rescue service could avert.

An abundance of cockles in Morecambe Bay coincided with a dearth elsewhere and their value rocketed. Soon the area saw a large influx of migrant workers, deployed by unscrupulous gang masters with scant regard for their charges’ safety. In his book, Between the Tides, Cedric recalls how ill equipped these parties were: knowledge of the tide tables seemed to consist of watching the local fisherman; some had little or no transport and were forced to walk the six or seven miles to the cockle beds.

It was an accident waiting to happen and tragically, on Feb 5th 2004, it did. A party of Chinese cocklers were cut off by the tide and twenty three drowned before the rescue boats and helicopters could reach them. Only Li Hua survived because he got so cold he left early and was picked up by a lifeboat on a sand bar after a brave but futile attempt to swim back to save his friends.

Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell
Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell

The incident had lasting ramifications, triggering changes in law and the creation of a Gang Masters Licensing Authority. Li’s evidence helped convict gang master Lin Liang Ren of manslaughter, but a wider picture of organised crime, human trafficking and enslavement of the desperately poor emerged. Li Hua now lives under the witness protection scheme.

The cockle beds were eventually closed and remained so until last year when limited access was granted on a strict permit-controlled basis.

Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell
Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell

A Nick Bloomfield film, Ghosts, upset the local fishing fraternity by portraying them as racists whose bullying forced the Chinese to work at night, an accusation vehemently denied by the fishermen who insist no such confrontation ever took place. Indeed, on the night of Feb 5th, locals tried to warn the cocklers of the impending tide and some even risked their own lives to assist in the rescue efforts.

Such a tragedy casts a long shadow and thirteen years on I am loathe to dwell on it, but that the story is so well known, its omission would seem oddly remiss.

For all their inherent danger, the sands possess a desolate beauty and while I have followed Cedric across these flats on more than one occasion, my favourite way to view the bay is from the top of Hampsfell.

Hampsfell
Hampsfell

From High Newton, I take the road past the post box, up the hill and over the road bridge. Here I turn left and then right, following the Cartmel signs, to descend Head House Hill.

A little way past the farm, a bridleway leads off to the left, becoming an intermittent tree-lined avenue dissecting pastures full of grazing sheep and curious cows. The path crosses a road and continues through a gate on the other side. After about quarter of a mile, a footpath sign points the way left into a meadow and the gentle climb begins, quickly affording impressive views of the Coniston fells.

At the top of the field, the path follows the line of the trees into the lightly wooded Hampsfield Allotment, then climbs on to open fell. A little further up, through a gate in a dry stone wall, the magnificent limestone pavements that adorn the summit come into view, jutting defiantly out of the hillside like ancient fortifications.

Limestone Pavements on Hampsfell
Limestone Pavements on Hampsfell

Formed under the sea some 350 million years ago from the remains of millions of small shelled creatures, the large upstanding blocks are known as clints and were scoured by glaciers during the ice ages, leaving them riven with gutter-like channels called runnels. These pavements harbour rare species of butterfly and moth and are a haven for badgers, stoats, weasels and even polecats. Only 26km2 of limestone pavement exists in the U.K. and in 1981, Hampsfell’s striking examples became the first in the country to be protected by a Limestone Pavement order under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell
Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell

As I reach the top, the vast expanse of Morecambe Bay stretches out before me. The tide is out and sand ridges spiral into elaborate patterns. The newly risen sun is starting to break through the cloud, turning patches of sky an ethereal yellow and gilding stranded pools beneath. Elsewhere clouds cast blue tinged shadows turning sky and sand into mirror images, blending into one continuous other-worldly landscape.

Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell
Morecambe Bay from Hampsfell

It’s hard to imagine a finer backdrop for an exotic limestone paved hill top; but Hampsfield Fell has further riches. At the summit lies the Hospice, a squat stone tower with an open door and an oft used fireplace; built in 1834 by Thomas Remington, vicar of Cartmel as a gift to weary wanderers and a testament of thanks for the beauty he encountered here on a daily basis. Inside are boards inscribed with verses bidding travellers welcome and eulogising the landscape; and one rather more pithy plea against vandalism with a delicious quote from Solomon: “though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle yet will not his foolishness depart him”.

Outside, steep stone steps lead to the roof where a viewfinder helps interpret the uninhibited 360 degree panorama. Swing north-west from the bay across the lush green of Cartmel valley and you encounter a fine parade of mountains: the Coniston Fells, the Langdale Pikes, Helvellyn, the Fairfield group, the Kentmere Pikes, the Howgills and finally, before you meet the shore again, the distinctive profile of Yorkshire’s Ingleborough. At a little over 700ft, Hampsfell is small-fry compared with such lofty neighbours, but its views punch far above its height.

Hampsfell and Coniston Fells
Hampsfell and Coniston Fells

I continue south over grass paths to the subsidiary summit of Fell End, marked with a large cairn, then descend past Grange Fell Golf Club to Grange Fell Road. Here I turn right then right again on to Haggs Lane to follow the hill down into Cartmel.

Hamspfell sheep with the Bay behind
Hamspfell sheep with the Bay behind

Chris Evans described Cartmel as “a thimble full of diamonds”. The Village Shop is a mini Fortnum and Masons, chock full of delectable goodies and famous for its Sticky Toffee Pudding. Unsworth’s Yard is home to a micro-brewery, wine shop, bakers and a very fine cheese emporium. The village boasts no less than four pubs and for the high end gastronome, it is home to Simon Rogan’s l’Enclume, winner of the Good Food Guide’s best restaurant for the last four years.

Cartmel Village Shop
Cartmel Village Shop

In muddy walking boots with a mere pocketful of change, I don’t rate my chances there, but the lovely people at Cartmel Coffee don’t seem to mind me traipsing across their stone floor to buy a coffee and a deliciously sticky chocolate brownie.

Outside in the square I sit on the steps of the old market cross and look across at the fine medieval arch of the Priory gatehouse. Built in 1190 and colonised by Augustine monks, the Priory lasted four hundred years until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, when several of its brethren were hanged along with the villagers who supported them. Unusually, the church was not razed because its founder, William Marshall, had granted the villagers the right to use it as their parish church and they successfully petitioned to keep it.

Cartmel Gatehouse, Market Cross and Fish Slabs
Cartmel Gatehouse, Market Cross and Fish Slabs

As the second son of a baron, William was not in line to inherit but won fame and fortune through his prowess on the tournament circuit and on the battlefield where he fought beside Richard I. His loyalty to the crown was tested, however, when John assumed the throne. Marshall was one of barons who held the errant king to account and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the closest thing we have ever had to a constitution enshrining justice and liberty from oppression.

Cartmel Priory Church
Cartmel Priory Church

In September 2015, to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Cartmel hosted a magical Son et Lumière. Projected on to the wall of the Priory church at dusk, the spectacle celebrated William Marshall’s legacy. At the climax of the show, a knight in shining armour galloped into the churchyard on a magnificent black charger; reared up, holding sword aloft, then galloped back into the darkness.

Under the steel helmet was Tracey Venter of Black Horses Friesians astride her fine Friesian stallion, Droomwalls. Tracey later told me her field of vision was so restricted by the visor she couldn’t see the assembled crowd. She said that if she’d realised just how many people had turned out to watch, she might have felt a tad nervous (words to that effect anyway).

Tracey Venter as William Marshall
Tracey Venter as William Marshall at the day-time pageant, photo by Sandy Kitching

From the square, I walk out past Cartmel’s intimate racecourse (another diamond) and follow the country lanes to Field Broughton; then back, via Barber Green, to High Newton and The Crown Inn, where a roaring fire and fine selection of local beers await. On offer is William Marshall Crusader Ale from the Cartmel Brewery, but there’s also award winning Loweswater Gold and beautifully balanced Hawkshead Bitter. Oh the agony of choice! Then again, this is my local – I don’t have to drive anywhere. I think I might just see a solution.


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Redemption Song

The Herdwicks of Harter Fell

From Eskdale, a walk up the heather-clad flanks of Harter Fell sets in motion a train of thought about the herdwick sheep and how they were nearly wiped out by foot and mouth disease. Recollections of those dark days in 2001 turn into a tribute to the remarkable men and women who brought this iconic breed back from the brink.

Epidemic

I’d lived in Cumbria for three years when foot and mouth disease struck in 2001. It was easy to tap into the collective anxiety as the news reports rolled in but at first it felt like something that was happening somewhere else.

Then one day I drove home from work to find the sky thick with black smoke. I didn’t put two and two together until I stepped out of the car and the smell hit my nostrils. I knew it at once and it evoked classrooms – familiar, faintly nostalgic, sickening it its current context – it smelt of glue.

Several animals on one of the nearby farms had tested positive for the disease and – in line with the panicked government policy at the time – rather than isolate the infected animals and protect the healthy, the slaughtermen were summoned to dispatch the whole herd. Now they were burning the carcasses and the air was thick with the smell of animal gelatin from the rendered hides and hooves, an ingredient in the sort of glue I must  have used at school.

Several other neighbouring farms followed suit. These were just over the county border in Lancashire where things were bad, but the toll in Cumbria itself would become the worst in Britain. In a desperate effort to contain the disease the government introduced a policy of “contiguous cull”, which meant all animals within 3km of an infected site were slaughtered. Farmers would sit with OS maps sprawled out on their kitchen tables anxiously awaiting the news bulletins and plotting the distance from the latest outbreaks to their own fields, breathing deep sighs of reprieve or collapsing into despair depending on the report.

Children in infected areas were not allowed to out to go to school as the virus can survive for up to two weeks on contaminated clothing. Teenagers studying for A levels were sent to stay with friends and not permitted to return for the duration of the epidemic. Yet in the distant halls of Westminster Margaret Beckett announced that “farmers aren’t in quarantine”.

Large areas of the Lake District National Park were closed to prevent visitors spreading the disease. Businesses built on tourism were hit hard and farmers who’d diversified by building holiday lets on their land suffered a double-whammy.

Every day heart-breaking stories were recounted, not only of the slaughter itself but of its bungled government-directed execution: calves discovered alive under the carcasses of their mothers; ill-briefed slaughtermen killing the sheep dogs along with the flock; dead animals left to bloat and rot for days before their burial or cremation could be arranged; and, almost inevitably given the depth of despair among those who had lost everything, there were suicides.

The exact number of animals culled has never been admitted but the Visit Cumbria website that worked hard to make information available during crisis estimates the national toll to be in the region of 20 million. Visit Cumbria’s Foot and Mouth pages are now closed but they have left in place four poignant reports from those dark times, which you can find at: Visit Cumbria – Foot and Mouth Disease

They all warrant reading but perhaps the most harrowingly evocative is Annie Mawson’s Open Letter to the People of Cumbria:

An open letter to the people of Cumbria

As an “offcomer” with no root in the local farming community, Foot and Mouth was something I glimpsed from over the wall, but Annie was right in the heart of it. At one point in the letter she says this, “I have always compared the herdwick sheep to men like my dear Dad, who once farmed the Wasdale fells: just like them he was wise and hardy, strong and sensitive, gruff and gentle, and for the first time in 10 years, I am glad he is not alive to witness this hell on earth.”

Herdies

Nothing is perhaps more iconic of the Lake District than the herdwick. These hardy mountain sheep are remarkable. I recently watched one on a rocky outcrop on Dow Crag caught between two sheer gullies and apparently in some distress. I feared the worst and could hardly bear to watch, convinced she was about to fall. Ten minutes later, the reason for her agitation became clear – she wasn’t distraught about how to get down, she was wracking her brains to find a way up to sparse patch of grass on a little plateau above. When she figured it out, she stood grazing triumphantly on the most precarious pasture imaginable. Half an hour later, she had found her way back down to the bottom of the crags with no bother at all.

Year old Herdwick
Year old Herdwick

Herdies, as they are affectionately known, are born black but turn a chocolate brown within a year. After their first shearing their fleece lightens to a grey which whitens with age. They are hardy enough to withstand the harsh conditions on the high Cumbrian fells. Each flock knows it’s own territory or “heaf” and stays within these invisible boundaries. This knowledge is passed down from ewe to lamb. Cumbrian farms traditionally have small amounts of privately owned “in bye” land in the valleys but hold common grazing rights to the fell sides. As the turf knowledge of each heaf rests with the sheep, the animals change hands with the land, meaning some flocks have been in residence for centuries longer than their current owners’ families.

For those of us who love to walk the Lakeland hills, these ovine custodians are an inextricable part of the landscape, but that nearly changed forever with Foot and Mouth. The majority of herdwicks are farmed within 14 miles of Coniston, a concentration that made them very vulnerable to such an outbreak. As the virus spread and the culling escalated there were real fears that this rare breed, so emblematic of the Lakes, might be wiped out completely.

But Cumbrians of both the two-legged and four-legged varieties are made of sterner stuff. In 2015, after Storm Desmond wreaked havoc in the county, artist Andy Watson produced a variation on the standard flood road sign. It’s image, snapped in situ on the approach to a Carlisle bridge, went viral. It said simply:


Welcome to Carlisle
Weak Bridge
Strong People

It’s an epithet that’s been earned time and again but never more so than in the wake of Foot and Mouth when farmers and shepherds began the painful and painstaking process of rebuilding their flocks, herds and lives. With herdies, there were added complications as the territorial knowledge that resided with the animals had been largely lost and shepherds had to re-“heaf” newcomers, spending long hours out on the hills teaching the sheep to recognise their invisible boundaries.

It wasn’t the first time herdies had been threatened. In the early twentieth century, farmers were largely turning to other more commercial breeds. Children’s author, Beatrix Potter bought a farm with the profits from her first book and together with her shepherd, Tom Storey, began breeding herdwicks. During the 1930’s she won several awards at county shows and even became president of the breed association for a period. By the time of her death, Potter owned 15 farms spanning some 4,000 acres, which she bequeathed to the National Trust on the understanding they continue to breed herdwicks. As such, herdies owe their persistence, in part, to a carrot-pinching, blue-jacket-wearing rabbit called Peter.

This wasn’t a train of thought I was expecting to follow when I bagged the last roadside parking place at the foot of the Hardknott pass just beyond Boot and Jubilee Bridge. As I crossed the stream and turned right up a path to the grassy slopes of Harter Fell, nothing but the joys of a Saturday morning hill walk in the south western Lake District were drifting through my mind.

Looking west from Harter Fell
Looking west from Harter Fell
Harter Fell

I veered left at Spothow Gill to follow the cairned path that winds up to the summit through the swathes of purple heather and I gazed west over the wild expanse of Birker Fell toward the Irish Sea shimmering in the distance. As I turned my eyes back to the slopes before me, I recalled Wainwright’s perfect description, “not many fells can be described as beautiful, but the word fits Harter Fell, especially when viewed from Eskdale. The lower slopes on this flank climb steeply from the tree-lined curves of the river Esk in a luxurious covering of bracken, higher is a wider belt of heather, and finally spring grey turrets and ramparts of rock to a neat and shapely pyramid”.

Looking out to sea from Harter Fell
Looking out to sea from Harter Fell

But as I sit here on the highest of the three rocky outcrops that comprise the peak, looking out over this timeless terrain, and I watch two herdwick ewes with their young lambs, jet black apart from the white rings around their eyes and mouths that make you think they’re wearing balaclavas, and two more, playfully vying for the pre-eminent position atop a lofty boulder, I appreciate how easily this might not have been. It’s daunting to think how bereft these slopes would be without the herdwicks that define them; and I acknowledge, not for the first time, that this county I have made my home and which I have come to love so deeply is not just about spectacular landscapes, it’s also about some pretty remarkable people and some very resilient animals.

Herdie ewes and lambs on Harter Fell
Herdie ewes and lambs on Harter Fell
Herdies vye for position on Harter Fell
Herdies vye for position on Harter Fell

It also has the most bloody fickle weather imaginable. The Met Office promised sunny spells and excellent visibility and on the way up that looked a likely prospect. My planned descent to the crest of Hardknott Pass is famed for its spectacular views of Scafell Pike, but just as I’m leaving the summit, a bank of low lying cloud rolls in and obscures the Scafell Massif completely. I have one of those disconcerting moments where the path forks and my instinct is to keep right but, with the key landmarks hidden, I check the compass. It is unequivocal in directing me left. This feels completely wrong but experience has taught me to distrust instinct and in the event the compass doesn’t let me down. The descent is boggy and the path sketchy. In the end, I lose it completely and decide to follow the line of a fence knowing I must cross it at some point lower down. Progress is painstakingly slow as the grass is long and covers a quagmire so I have to test every step to ensure I don’t sink.

Clouds roll in on Harter Fell summit
Clouds roll in on Harter Fell summit
Hard Knott Roman Fort

It’s with some relief that I attain the road that runs over the pass. This is surely England’s most scenic white-knuckle drive. The gradient is 1 in 4, even 1 in 3 in places and the hairpin bends are ridiculously tight. You might question the wisdom of stepping out on foot on to such a treacherous-sounding thoroughfare, but at walking pace you’re not going much slower than the traffic.

I walk down to the first hairpin where a girl is cycling up the impossible gradient with all the steely determination of a herdwick. When she reaches me she stops for a breather. I express my admiration and she tells me she fell off lower down and shows me the grazes to prove it. I leave her to tackle the next section and turn right away from the road on to a footpath and promptly sink almost knee deep in black bog water. Cursing myself for taking my eye off the ball, I extricate myself and tread more carefully over the intervening ground to the Hardknott Roman fort.

Encountering the well-preserved remains of a Roman fort high on a Cumbrian fell is an impressive experience but you’re left in no doubt as to why they built it here. It commands panoramic views over Eskdale, breathtaking for the leisure walker but no doubt of more strategic significance to its original inhabitants. It would have been harsh in winter, however, and there must have been many a young auxiliary, used to gentler Mediterranean climes, who stood shivering on guard duty cursing that flirtatious dalliance with the captain’s daughter or whatever indiscretion earned him this remote posting.

Hard Knott fort
Hard Knott fort

I read an information board that tells me I’m standing in front of the Commandant’s house. It would have been quite a residence in it’s time, befitting of status and rank, with a central courtyard and easy access to the communal bath house. Today a herdwick ewe grazes within its walls. It’s on her heaf and she’s the commandant now. Who am I to argue?

Post Script

In 2012, Lakeland Herdwick meat was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, putting it on a par with Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies. This means that only animals that were born, reared and slaughtered in Cumbria can be sold as “Lakeland Herdwick”. It’s a vital step to safeguarding the authenticity and quality of the breed and provides a justly deserved protection for the farmers. With Herdwick lamb and mutton finding its way on to the menus of top London restaurants, Cumbrian farmers can now enjoy a measure of financial security in reward for their commitment.


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Trial by Water

Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine from Braithwaite

The fate of osprey chicks born on Bassenthwaite Lake this summer, the last days of Force Crag mine, an innovative ecological solution to deal with its legacy and what the legend of Long Meg can teach us all feature in this account of a cracking fell walk up Grisedale Pike.

Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds

I was descending Skiddaw when I first really noticed Grisedale Pike. A gloomy ascent dogged with fog was compounded by a viewfinder at the top taunting me with hints of what lay beyond the all-enveloping cloud. Resigned, I picked my way back along the summit ridge, squinting to discern each cairn through the murk, humming Husker Du’s “Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds Makes No Sense At All” and cursing the Met Office to a solitary Herdwick, my only companion.

Then fortune smiled and the forecast came good – a sudden flash of blue sky and the cloud broke revealing a striking vista down to Derwent Water, looking cool and inviting where it lapped Keswick but dark and Arthurian on its southern shore where the clouds still rolled above.

My journey down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the heartlessly named Lesser Man was bathed in glorious sunshine. Across the lake, the slopes of Catbells were lush and green; but to their right a narrow U shaped valley, ringed with fells caught my attention. At its forefront a mountain rose steeply from the valley floor to a needle sharp pyramidal peak high above the village of Braithwaite. A path ran unbroken from base to summit, appearing almost impossibly steep at the pinnacle.

A quick study of the OS map revealed the valley to be Coledale and the mountain, Grisedale Pike. I vowed then to return and climb it. Today I’m making good that resolution.

As I approach Braithwaite along the A66, Grisedale Pike rears above and I wonder why it has never stood out to me like this before. I drive through the village to the informal roadside parking area opposite Hope Memorial Park, at the foot of the Whinlatter Pass. From here, steps lead up above the road, through a thinly wooded area and out on to the open hill side.

Skiddaw
Skiddaw from Grisedale Pike

The stiff initial gradient means the views reward early. To the east, Skiddaw looks magnificent as the October sun illuminates its plunging western slopes. To its right, Derwent Water shimmers as wisps of cloud drift low over its silver waters. To the north, the edge of Bassenthwaite Lake glistens under a clear blue patch of sky.

It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s fancy that Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake in Cumbrian waters and a stay at Mirehouse, overlooking Bassenthwaite provided him with the inspiration for his Morte d’Arthur.

Bassenthwaite – The Return of a Raptor

In summer, visitors to Dodd Wood on the lake’s shore may be lucky enough to spot an osprey diving to snatch a trout or perch from the water. These fish-eating raptors with a five foot wingspan were once common in Scotland and probably in England too, but persecution saw their numbers fall during the 18th and 19th centuries until the last nesting pair were destroyed in 1916, leaving them extinct as a breeding species in Britain.  Happily they returned in 1954 when a visiting pair nested in Strathspey. An intensive wardening programme was established to safeguard breeding and Scottish numbers have gradually increased to around 160 pairs.

During the 1990’s the Forestry Commission and Lake District National Park Authority in partnership with the RSPB worked hard to encourage visiting ospreys to stay at Bassenthwaite, even constructing a purpose-built nesting platform. In 2001, their efforts paid off and the first eggs were laid. Since then, over 150 chicks have hatched here. A dedicated team keeps watch during the summer months to document developments and deter egg thieves. They have installed a webcam over the nest. They ring the chicks and fit transmitters so they can track the birds through their autumn migrations and their overwintering in Africa.

Three chicks hatched this year but tragically two were taken by Magpies while only a day or two old. Magpies had been observed stealing fish tails and leftovers from the nest in the absence of the parents but had never been known to take a chick. Naturally fears were high that the third chick would meet the same fate. Against the odds, she survived and was ringed and named Bega in June. She made her first fledgling flight in July.

Bega migrated to Senegal in September but has since moved on to Guinea and sadly the team has lost contact with her transmitter. It’s possible the transmitter is damaged or detached but first migrations are fraught with danger; only 20-30% of young ospreys make it to full adulthood and go on to breed themselves. There will be some anxious days in April at the Whinlatter Visitors’ Centre as the team wait to see if Bega returns to her place of birth. You can follow developments at http://www.ospreywatch.co.uk

Peaks and Pies

The initial slopes give way to a grassy depression, beyond which a broad bank climbs seriously to a thin ridge below the sharp rise of the summit. When I spied Grisedale Pike from Skiddaw its flanks were green. Now autumn has turned the dying bracken brown and the sun adds a hue of red to the steeper reaches in splendid contrast to the bright blue sky. The green line of the grass path dissects the ruddy expanse like a Richard Long artwork and the peak towers slate-grey above. Nature saves its most flamboyant finery for its dying days.

Grisedale Pike
Grisedale Pike

The unexpected clemency of the weather means walkers pause here to stuff fleeces into rucksacks and steel themselves for the tough pull ahead. On finally attaining the ridge, layers are rapidly retrieved as the breeze picks up and begins to bite. It’s been a long pull up but the steepest and most exposed section still lies ahead. Ominously, across Coledale, Causey Pike is veiled in low-lying cloud and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches here. Happily the sky is still clear as I haul myself up the final rock steps to the summit where the ground drops away precipitously on both sides and the wind again ups its game.

I find shelter on the north side just below the summit and hunker down to enjoy the view while I can. It’s a view that stretches all the way to the Solway Firth. Whinlatter forest is a rich canvas below, broad swards of evergreen jut against a dappled palette of deciduous decay. And in my bag I have a Toppings pork and chilli pie so right now there is no finer place to be. Oh I know lard is not necessarily the fell walkers friend – energy bars and bananas are a far more effective quick-burn fuel  – but the unrelenting pursuit of health and efficiency is a soulless exercise and perching in the lee of a mountain peak with the northernmost part of England stretched out before you demands a pie!

View Hobcarton Crag
View from the ridge

To my left the ridge drops away to Hobcarton Crag then veers round and climbs again to Hopegill Head. I gaze at it to pick out the next section of my route then all of a sudden it disappears, lost as the mist rolls in.

Just then I hear voices. I get up and hoist my rucksack on to my bag as a Geordie couple appear on the summit. “I could see the Solway Firth five minutes ago!” the woman exclaims. “I know it was lovely till you arrived” I joke, “did you have to bring this with you?” They laugh and tell me this always happens to them up here. They are planning to do the Coledale Horseshoe taking in Hopegill Head then following the high level route back to Braithwaite via Eel Crag, Sale and Causey Pike. They are worried they might get all the way round and not see anything, but the cloud is already thinning so I think their concerns are premature. Within minutes it is almost clear over Hobcarton Crag. We make our way down together as the last low lying wisps blow across the path like smoke, then lose each other as we variously stop to take pictures en route to Hopegill Head. By the time we all reach the next summit, the cloud has lifted considerably and we can see the north shore of Crummock Water to the west. A mountain rescue helicopter flies past and we hope it’s a training exercise.

Hobcarton Crag
Hobcarton Crag

We part company and I make my way over the grassy top of Sand Hill and down the steep scree to Coledale Hawse. Eel Crag lies ahead but the horseshoe will have to wait for another day. Today there’s something I want to see in the valley below.

Coledale Hawse
Coledale from Coledale Hawse
Heavy Metal Plunder – Force Crag Mine

From the hawse the path zig zags down toward the head of Coledale. As I near the bottom the sheer dark face of Force Crag comes into view on the left. Force Crag was mined from 1860, initially for lead then later for zinc and barytes. Barytes are used in oil drilling, car production, medical imaging but also in the manufacture of munitions. During the Second World War, this tiny corner of the Lake District was a hive of activity with trucks carrying ore from adits high on the fell side down a precarious track known as the Burma Road.

grisedale-pike-and-hope-gill-head-110

Force Crag outlived all other mines in Lakeland but conditions were harsh and with large quantities of water flowing through, it was a constant battle to keep the mountain from caving in on it. One of those battling to keep the levels open through their final days was Alen McFadean. In his blog post, The Black Abyss, he gives a fascinating account of “sloshing about in knee-deep water” to “shore up rotten timber work then spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist.” Harsh working conditions by anyone’s standard but to Alen it was a labour of love. You can find his full account (and his recollection of this same walk) at: https://becausetheyrethere.com/2010/01/06/the-black-abyss-grisedale-pike-and-force-crag-mine

Ultimately it was a battle the mountain won.  In 1990 a collapse occurred in level zero from which there could be no recovery. Today nature is slowly reclaiming the ground, the corrugated iron of the buildings rusting to resemble the autumn bracken of the slopes that surround. In its death throes the mine dealt a wounding blow however. The water that has built up in the disused levels leaches metals from the exposed rock, contaminating Coledale Beck and pouring up to a tonne of zinc, cadmium and lead into Bassenthwaite Lake each year. A study for the Environment Agency identified the environmental impact as one of the worst in the UK. Metals like zinc are toxic to fish. If fish populations decline, the ospreys will go too.

Force Crag Mine
Force Crag Mine Buildings

It’s a problem common to disused mines. Elsewhere large, costly water treatment works have been built to fight the problem with chemicals. At Force Crag however, an innovative ecological solution, devised by The Coal Board in partnership with Newcastle University, is underway. The water is diverted into two vertical flow ponds, created from recycled parts of the old mill workings. These ponds are lined with a geomembrane and filled with a compost treatment mix, which filters out the metals. From there the water flows through reed beds that trap more of the solids before it finally discharges into Coledale Beck. The scheme is performing even better than expected, removing between 94% and 98% of the contaminants. The fish and the ospreys can rest easy.

Why Are We Still Hanging Witches?

Coledale Beck babbles beneath the old mine track that I follow all the way back through the valley to the parking area – and it gets me thinking. Drive east to Little Salkeld, just beyond Penrith, and you come to one of Britain’s largest stone circles, Long Meg and Her Daughters. Legend has it they were a coven of witches turned to stone by the thirteenth century wizard, Michael Scot for profaning the Sabbath. It is said that no-one can count the stones twice and come up with the same number. If anyone ever succeeds, the spell will be broken and bad luck will rain down upon them. If Long Meg herself is fractured she will shed real blood.

Long Meg
Long Meg and Her Daughters

It’s all delicious hokum of course – the circle dates from the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age era while the name itself is thought to derive from a 17th century witch, Meg of Meldon. As Simon Sharma points out in The History of Britain, history often reveals more about the time it was written than the time it describes and the same is true of folklore. The fact that people in the 17th or 18th centuries invented supernatural stories about the origin of the stones reflects the widespread fear of witchcraft in Britain at the time. In those days, if a stream was poisoned and the fish died or the crops failed or villagers fell ill for reasons no-one could readily explain, people were likely to blame black magic and look for a scapegoat to punish. Hundreds of women were hung for no crime other than being poor or different; barbarism born of ignorance and superstition.

Today we’d like to think we live in more rational times. Yet when the failings of our political and economic systems leave large numbers homeless or without secure jobs, or with falling wages or reliant on food banks, or feeling the pinch, we are quick to lay all the blame at the door of “benefit scroungers” and immigrants – the poor and the different. Populist politicians ignore the evidence of experts and fight elections by fanning these fears and exploiting such prejudice.

That we can devise brilliant ecological schemes to strip pollutants from our natural water courses and undo the damage of our industrial past, or encourage an endangered species back from the brink of extinction bears witness to a new era of enlightenment. In certain respects however, we’re not quite out of the Dark Ages.

 

Click here for detailed directions at WalkLakes.co.uk


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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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