Tag Archives: Harter Fell

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.


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.”


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.

Enjoyed this post?

Like to receive free email alerts when new posts are published?

Leave your name and email and we'll keep you in the loop. This won't be more than once or twice a month. Alternatively, follow this blog on Facebook by "Liking" our page at https://www.facebook.com/lakelandwalkingtales

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 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.

Enjoyed this post?

Like to receive free email alerts when new posts are published?

Leave your name and email and we'll keep you in the loop. This won't be more than once or twice a month. Alternatively, follow this blog on Facebook by "Liking" our page at https://www.facebook.com/lakelandwalkingtales