Tag Archives: Harter Fell

Summer’s Almost Gone

The Kentmere Round

The Kentmere valley is a slice of heaven. It was gifted to Richard De Gilpin in 1206 as a reward for slaying the Wild Boar of Westmorland, and it remains one of Lakeland’s most remote and most beautiful spots.  The river Kent begins life high in the fells that ring the valley head.  A circuit of these peaks is a long and exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round.  As I follow the route on a glorious late summer day, I discover the valley is home to a vanishing lake, and also, it seems, a vanishing mountain.

The Wild Boar of Westmorland

Drive along the Crook Road from Plumgarths to Bowness and you’ll pass high-end hotels with names like The Wild Boar Inn and the Gilpin Lodge. Their billboards tempt the well-heeled traveller with warm hospitality and fine cuisine, but their names recall a time when this journey risked much more than a waxing waistline and damage to your wallet.

At the start of the 13th Century, a holy cross stood at Plumgarths and a chantry chapel on St Mary’s Isle, Windermere. Both sites were stops on the pilgrim trail, but it took a righteous faith to make the journey between them for the woods around Crook were inhabited by a ferocious boar with a fearsome reputation for attacking unfortunates who happened across its path.

Mercifully, deliverance was at hand. Richard De Gilpin, known as “Richard the Rider”, had accompanied the Baron of Kendal to Runnymede for the signing of the Magna Carta. His assistance was invaluable as the baron could neither read nor write. However, for De Gilpin, the sword would prove mightier than the pen. On his return to Westmorland, he tracked the boar through the forest to its lair near Scout Scar and engaged it in a fierce battle, eventually slaying the beast and emerging as a hero. The Baron of Kendal was so grateful, he rewarded Richard with the lordship of the manor of Kentmere.

Kentmere Tarn

De Gilpin had been gifted a slice of heaven. Kentmere is one of Lakeland’s most beautiful and remote valleys. Both the valley and the town of Kendal take their names from the river Kent, which has its source high in the fells at the valley head.

Say the words “Lake Windermere” to any good pedant and they’ll tell you that the prefix is redundant as “mere” means “lake”. A hundred years ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking Kentmere was a misnomer – its mere had vanished. Curiously, industrial interests have been responsible for its reappearance.

Kentmere Valley from Shipman Knotts
Kentmere Valley from Shipman Knotts

Kentmere Tarn lies on private land near the foot of the valley. Its shallow waters provide an ideal habitat for algae known as diatoms. When diatoms die, their organic matter decomposes leaving their hard silica skeletons, called frustules to sink to the bottom and form a layer known as diatomite. Over the centuries, the tarn silted up with diatomite, turning it into a boggy marsh. In the 1840’s, it was drained to improve the surrounding farmland, but the exercise was largely unsuccessful, and the land reverted to marsh.

Diatomite has significant heat-insulating properties and in the 1930’s, commercial operations began to extract the substance for use in insulating boards. Extraction ceased in the 1970’s, when it became cheaper to import, but forty years of dredging had restored the mere. Well stocked with trout, it is now the preserve of angling clubs.

The Kentmere Fells

A fine mountain ridge runs from the Garburn Pass, which links Kentmere and Troutbeck, to the Nan Bield Pass, which once linked Kentmere and the lost village of Mardale Green. Defined by the conical peak of Ill Bell and its smaller mirror-image in Froswick, the skyline is iconic; equally recognisable from the West Coast Mainline or the beach at Bardsea.

Beyond the Nan Bield Pass, the ridge swings around over Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike to Shipman Knotts to form a horseshoe. The full circuit is a long but exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round; and it’s my mission for the day.

The Kentmere Fells
The Kentmere Fells

A single-track road runs out of Staveley, crossing over the River Kent and roughly tracking its bank for about four miles until it reaches the picturesque village of Kentmere. Parking is limited, but it’s only 06:30 am and there are a couple of free spaces by the village hall. Twenty years ago, I might have considered it a “result” to be crawling into bed at the time I crawled out of it this morning. These days, I can imagine no finer time to be out.

It’s August – high summer – a time of dusty tracks and straw-coloured grass, wilting and yellowing as long warm days edge lazily toward autumn…

Only that doesn’t really happen anymore. Such notions are wistful nostalgia for halcyon summers, long-since lost to the vagaries of climate change. In recent years, August has become the rainy season. But today is a rare exception. The sky is a clear expanse of cobalt, streaked with slender strands of cirrus, and thanks to all the rain, the meadows are green and vibrant, retaining something of their spring vitality.

From a paddock, a huddle of herdwicks eye me with idle curiosity; birdsong fills my ears and the day feels pregnant with possibility. Faint wisps of mist cling to the valley’s pockets as I start up the Garburn track, passing the monumental Badger Rock: a prodigious rhyolite boulder and a popular challenge for rock climbers. I pass old gnarled trees, with twisted roots protruding, and craggy outcrops, dressed in purple heather. The stony track climbs steadily at first, then more steeply after Crabtree Brow. After about a mile and a quarter, it reaches the crest and I turn right on to the grassy path that climbs to the summit of Yoke.

The Badger Rock
The Badger Rock

Beyond the walled green meadows and dark woods of the Troutbeck valley, the long blue ribbon of Windermere snakes south toward Morecambe Bay; the sea, a silver haze, dissolving into the horizon. Across the valley, Red Screes rise above the Kirkstone Pass. Yoke’s eastern face is the formidable cliff of Rainsborough Crag, but on top it is a grassy hill, remarkable mostly for its views. From the summit on though, the ridge assumes a mountain countenance. The path makes a small dip then ascends to the imperious peak of Ill Bell.

Windermere from Ill Bell
Windermere from Ill Bell

A trinity of well-built cairns stands guard; little stone towers that bookend the vista over Windermere. This is a majestic grandstand. Ahead, the ridge sweeps on over Froswick to the wide grassy plateau of Thornthwaite Crag, then curves east over High Street’s shoulder to Mardale Ill Bell – Ill Bell’s namesake – which thrusts out a grassy spur in greeting.

The spur is Lingmell End and it splits the valley head in two. Beyond, lies the Nan Bield Pass, but on this side, Gavel Crag and Bleathwaite Crag enclose the deep bowl of Hall Cove, where the river Kent springs into life. You can trace the nascent stream as it cascades down the fell side to feed the Kentmere Reservoir.

Ill Bell Summit
Ill Bell Summit

Imagine for a moment, that you’re standing near an old stone bridge in Kendal watching the river gently lap its arches. Games of bowls play out before the Georgian opulence of the Abbott Hall Art Gallery. The scene is one of civic order and serenity; the river a benign presence, whispering an ambient lullaby. Out here though, you realise the Kent is born a wilder beast. When engorged and enraged by a storm like Desmond, it’s not hard to imagine how it could burst its banks and wreak violence on a trusting community that had mistakenly considered it tame… And how it would take a lot more than De Gilpin’s sword to stop it.

Thornthwaite Crag and Hall Cove
Froswick, Thornthwaite Crag, Hall Cove & Lingmell End

Beyond the summit, the stony path drops steeply to the saddle. A fell-runner stops to say hello, breaking her arduous jog up the slope. She’s the first person I’ve seen.

Froswick’s summit stands ever so slightly west of Ill Bell and gives an even grander view down Windermere. Ill Bell itself presents a steep green flank and the Kentmere Reservoir nestles at its foot. The reservoir is not a natural lake but was built in 1848 to provide a controlled water supply to a gunpowder mill, a wood mill, a snuff mill and the James Cropper paper mill, now the sole owner.

It looks half-drained. Perhaps the paper mill is conducting repairs. The water supply is no longer required for paper making, but James Cropper dutifully maintains it with an environmental focus.

Windermere & Ill Bell from Froswick
Windermere & Ill Bell from Froswick
Ill Bell & the Kentmere Reservoir
Ill Bell & the Kentmere Reservoir

Beyond Froswick, the path splits. The right fork leads on to High Street. I take the left and climb to the summit of Thornthwaite Crag, its fourteen foot cairn, known as The Beacon, a stately slate tower commanding attention. A drystone wall runs out to meet it then crumbles into a straight line of stones, stretching out into the distance like a Richard Long artwork.

Thornthwaite Beacon
Thornthwaite Beacon
Tumble down wall, Thornthwaite Crag
Tumble down wall, Thornthwaite Crag

Perception is easily tricked. You would swear Ill Bell is the highest of these fells – steep sides tapering to a point suggest elevation – but the flatter top of Thornthwaite Crag is higher. Higher still is High Street, the parent peak, rising in a whale-back between Hayeswater and Haweswater. Thornthwaite Crag is part of the High Street ridge, but it has its own ridge too, running out over Grey Crag to encircle the head of Hayeswater.

Gazing back, I spot the second person of the day. He’s carrying a mountain bike up the long slope from Froswick. He must have hauled it all the way from the Garburn Pass. He waves when he reaches the top, then mounts and heads off towards Mardale Ill Bell to ride the Nan Bield Pass. Providing he doesn’t catch a pedal and catapult himself into the reservoir, it’ll be an exhilarating experience. I hope so – it’s a long way to hike with a bike on your back for a thrill that will be over in minutes. Wraparound shades and a helmet can’t hide the look on his face, however. I know it instantly. It’s freedom.

The Missing Peak

After a while, I set off along the ridge towards High Street. I was up there a fortnight ago, so I’ll skip the summit and make straight for Mardale Ill Bell. Before I do, my attention is distracted by the view to the west. Hayeswater is an azure reflection of the sky, glistening at the foot of sun-gilded slopes. Beyond, wispy clouds part to unveil the brutal bulk of Fairfield and its northern turret, Cofa Pike, dropping to Deepdale Hause to rub shoulders with St Sunday Crag. Behind them, stands the entire Helvellyn range. Blencathra dominates the scene to the north, while further west, Great Gable is a mighty dome.

Hayeswater
Hayeswater
Fairfield from Thornthwaite Crag
Fairfield from Thornthwaite Crag

I’m transfixed. With the changing light, the scene is transforming, coming into ever sharper focus. I stop every few yards to take photos in the vain hope I might capture something of its splendour. I’m aware I need to bear right soon, but the sun catches Striding Edge and I’m fumbling for my camera again. I just can’t tear my gaze away.

Helvellyn & Catstye Cam
Helvellyn & Catstye Cam

When I do, I have a disorienting realisation – High Street has disappeared. It should be straight ahead. I wonder if I’ve missed a turn and come too far west. The summit must be further over, but I can’t work out why I can’t see it.

I cross a wall to the east side of the ridge, expecting to see the Kentmere Reservoir. And there, indeed, is water. Only it’s significantly bigger; and it’s gained an island.

There is a fell where Mardale Ill Bell should be, but it’s an entirely different shape. Everything is somehow familiar and yet completely wrong. It’s as if I’m drinking tea but expecting coffee and can’t make sense of it.

I look behind – I can see Thornthwaite Crag, but Froswick and Ill Bell are obscured by a large summit that wasn’t there before. On the left, a long ridge leads up to it, at once alien and familiar, like someone you know, but bump into out of context and can’t place. I reach for the map.

“Are you heading for High Raise?”, a cheery voice asks from behind.

I turn to see a white-haired man with a big smile and bags of enthusiasm. He sees the map and can’t help himself, he’s straight over to compare routes. “We’re missing out High Raise this time and heading straight for Kidsty Pike”, he says and nods at the shape-shifting Mardale Ill Bell.

With those words, I know exactly where I am, I’m  just at a loss as to how I got here. I look back at the large fell behind me. The wall runs up over the top with a scraggy path in tow, but a better path traverses the western side, a little below the summit. This is the route I followed, so entranced by the view, that I managed to walk all the way over the top of High Street without noticing.

My new companion is scratching his head. “I can’t make out where we are on here”, he says, puzzling over the contours.

“You won’t”, I reply. “It’s the wrong map”. High Street spans the divide between two. I dig out the one that covers the northern region and fess up about my half-wittery. He chuckles and I bid him farewell as he heads for Kidsty Pike. I look down at the lake where I thought the Kentmere Reservoir should be. It’s a reservoir right enough. It serves Manchester; the remains of Mardale Green lie below its surface. It’s Haweswater.

Across the valley, the ridge has every right to look familiar. It’s Riggindale Edge – the finest way up High Street and a route I’ve taken many times – most recently, just two weeks ago. And yet then, as on every previous occasion, I turned left at the summit and returned over Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell. Why have I never come this way to visit Rampsgill Head, High Raise and Kidsty Pike? They look magnificent and I resolve to return.

Riggindale Edge
Riggindale Edge

It’s a promise I’ll keep twice in the weeks to come. The first time, I’ll meet a man from Lincolnshire in the gloom as the cloud descends. Together we’ll seek out these summits in fog. A month later, I’ll retrace our steps in the golden light of autumn. This time, the fells will echo with the bark of rutting stags…

I follow the wall back to the top of High Street.

Last Rays

It starts to cloud over as I reach the summit of Mardale Ill Bell, adding drama to the vistas over Haweswater and Small Water.

Haweswater
Haweswater
Small Water & Haweswater
Small Water & Haweswater

The rocky path to the top of Harter Fell looks tough as I descend to the Nan Bield Pass but its bark turns out to be worse than its bite. The path zig zags up through the crags and doesn’t test tired legs as much as I feared. Before long, I’m standing by its strange summit cairn, wrought from old iron fence posts.

From here, I follow the fence south over increasingly boggy ground. The sun retreats behind the building cloud. It’s an unwelcome reminder that summer’s almost gone. As if to reinforce the darkening mood, the top of Kentmere Pike is drab and featureless. The perfect pyramid of Ill Bell rises opposite across a plain of russet grass, but it feels autumnal now – the late summer sunshine I enjoyed on its summit seems an age ago. The wind whips up and starts to nip. I plod on through black mud, trying not to sink.

Ill Bell from Kentmere Pike
Ill Bell from Kentmere Pike

But like a feisty boar, summer’s not so easily defeated. Ahead, shafts of light pierce the gloom and hit the Kentmere valley, conjuring a vivid green oasis beyond the sombre brown of the fell. As I reach a ladder stile and start the climb to Shipman Knotts, the clouds roll back, and summer’s reign is gloriously reinstated.

Where Kentmere Pike lacked interest, Shipman Knotts is a beguiling maze of tumble-down walls and rocky outcrops. Heather sprouts from the crags and bracken-clad slopes roll away to Longsleddale. All is lit with the warm glow of afternoon sun and a sense of deep contentment kicks in.

Shipman Knotts
Shipman Knotts
Wray Crag
Wray Crag

At Wray Crag, a steep descent down rocky steps brings me to the Sadgill to Kentmere track. I follow the track towards Kentmere, relishing the soft afternoon light. Shortly after joining the road, I climb a stile into the first of two bracken-filled enclosures. They lead gently down to a small wooden footbridge over the Kent. It’s pretty beyond compare – a leafy parade of dappled sunlight, sparkling waters and foliage in every shade of green. I’m still smiling as I walk through Kentmere churchyard and back to the car.

Footbridge over the Kent
Footbridge over the Kent

Some days are simply perfect. This has been one of them. A tremendous ridge walk and a late rallying of summer. With the coming autumn, the days will shorten, the green will fade, the leaves will wither, and a damp chill will pervade. But today will stay with me and its memory will bring warmth.

Many of our finest poets have extolled the restorative powers of the countryside, but it’s the Foo Fighters who are playing in my head, “Times like these, you learn to live again. Times like these – time and time again”.

River Kent
River Kent

To find a map and directions for this route, visit WalkLakes.co.uk


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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 early 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. The panicked government policy at the time wouldn’t allow for isolating the infected and protecting the healthy; instead, slaughter-men were summoned to dispatch the whole herd. Now, they were burning the carcasses and the air was thick with the smell of gelatin from the rendered hides and hooves. Animal gelatin is 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 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 trying 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. Half way up, I paused and 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, then 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, mind, 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. She’s the commandant now; and 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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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” for every tourist who’s seen a buzzard on a telegraph pole and sworn they’ve seen 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 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 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. The hill 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. I 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 escape route to Blea Water, I 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 its 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. I 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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