The Head of Mardale – l-r: Harter Fell, Mardale Ill Bell, High Street (behind Rough Crag), Kidsty Pike
Great Walks don’t always have to be engrossing or challenging from end to end. Sometimes, a walk will have a particular feature that is the highlight of the day, and if the rest of the walk doesn’t match up to the heights this reaches, the walk may still be thought of as Great: even highlights need sufficient background in order to stand out in full relief.
There are no such concerns about the walk usually known as the Mardale Skyline, and incorporating High Street, Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell. It’s a marvellous day out, high fells, a certain remoteness even now, magnificent walking, but there’s no doubt that the absolute highlight of the day comes at its beginning, the ascent of High Street via the Rough Crag/Long Stile ridge, the very best ascent of the fell. If the rest of the day falls below this level, it only serves to demonstrate just how good this route is.
As the name of the route attests, the walk is based in lonely and distant Mardale, home to Haweswater Reservoir. Haweswater is, by virtue of the dam constructed in 1929, the fifth largest lake in Lakeland, and its easternmost body of water. Access to the valley involves a long drive round into the Lowther Valley, home to the A6 and M6: the easiest approach direct is across the valley from Shap, during which an interesting view of the dam and the waters it contains can be had if the sun is shining.
A single road follows the eastern shore of the Lake to its head just beyond the furthest extension into the valley of the Rough Crag ridge. There is an extensive car park at the road head, but this can be filled quite quickly in good conditions, and an early start is, as always, mandated. Off-road parking is limited and adds to the walk, especially at the end over tarmac.
A gate gives on to the valley and there is an immediate three way fork. The path to the left, which will be used in descent, leads to the summit of Gatescarth Pass and Longsleddale, that directly ahead, which will be used for return in the event of deterioration of weather or body, makes for Nan Bield Pass, and Kentmere. The third option is our route: it crosses the fields to the foot of the fells and doubles back along the highest waters of the Lake (whose extent is dependent on how much rain we’ve recently had).
Ignore a track turning up the hillside and continue to the wooded end of the Rigg: the ridge deserves walking in its full extent. The walk starts in earnest from an area of level ground above the trees, a superb platform for a view along the lake towards the dam, invisible beyond the eastward curve of the valley. The casual walkers make it to here for the equivalent of a picnic: serious walkers view the immediately steepening path turning back on itself, and will find themselves grinning in anticipation.
Looking up Rough Crag
Route finding is not an issue. The ridge is narrow and direct and the path keeps to the crest of it throughout. There are rocky sections where the use of hands is advisable, and the view back to Haweswater broadens with every step, although the ridge itself has a near 90 degree curve along its length, so that by the time Rough Crag itself comes under foot. Instead of looking along Haweswater, the backward view is all but sidelong.
Haweswater is not the only highlight of the route as, from an early stage, views open up on the left of the two tarns known collectively as Mardale Waters. Blea Water lies in a deep hollow beside the Rough Crag ridge, deep and cold, backed by the rugged inelegance of Mardale Ill Bell, and Small Water, lying in a parallel hollow the other side of the bowl holding Blea Water, peeps into view, offering irresistible camera opportunities.
The ridge changes at Rough Crag itself. There is a brief descent to Caspel Gate, a level and open col, beyond which lies Long Stile, a broad but steep upwards scramble towards the plateau-like top of High Street itself. Savour the steps.
High Street is a famous name: the Roman Road from their camp at Galava (Ambleside) to Penrith runs along the further edge of the plateau, avoiding the summit by a hundred feet or less. The best views are from the edges: the summit is perhaps best used as a place to project yourself into the past, and to call up scenes of history. The Legions, marching hardily. The people of the adjoining dales climbing up here to enjoy an annual meeting, free from the cares of daily subsistence for a day or so, enjoying talk and games and races and peddler’s stalls: the fell is also known as Racecourse Hill in memory of such occasions.
That this is the highest point of the walk already is unimportant. When ready to leave, turn south on the wide path heading lazily towards a lower plateau, in the broadness of the ridge between High Street and the next fell towards Ambleside, the massive Thornthwaite Crag. To improve the walk, and shave an unimportant corner off, angle left towards the cliffs overlooking Mardale Waters, for views below, and follow these as closely as is comfortable to you, until the ground begins to rise again, and the ridge curves east to round Mardale.
From here, return to the main path which, if followed uninterruptedly, will descend on rough and steepening ground to the top of Nan Bield Pass. Ignore the direct route, and when another track turns off left, follow this on rock to the untidy top of Mardale Ill Bell, with further excellent views of the Reservoir, extending throughout its valley below.
The next objective, the top of Nan Bield Pass, is in view together with its wall-shelter. There is no path initially, but if you aim to the right of the direct line, one will be picked that will descend roughly to the main route. If mist should intervene, bear carefully in mind that the summit of the Pass is the second depression on the descent.
Looking down Nan Bield to Small Water and Haweswater
The summit of Nan Bield, the most steep-sided, narrowed-col passage in the Lakes, is the point at which to consider progress. If there is any cause to cut the walk short, turn down left, and enjoy a delightful descent, first to the shores of the sparkling Small Water, and then following its outflow down into the valley and the gate and the head of the car park. This route is safe and unmistakable in bad conditions, and is a worthy walk in its own right.
Better yet though to cross the col, and take the path upwards aiming for Harter Fell. This looks, from below, to be something of a grind, but though steep enough to demand effort, is anything but: a simple ascent which gains height rapidly until below the rim of crags overlooking the pass, at which point it turns to the right around these and emerges on Harter’s expansive top. Cross to the fence coming up from Kentmere Pike in the south and follow this to the summit cairn.
Once more, the width of Harter’s top restricts the views, though its most famous vista is on the route home. Continue along the wall, passing the second cairn, until the fence turns right and the path doubles back back upon itself and begins to descend the grassy fellside. Do not leave the scene without walking on a few yards to the third cairn, which offers a spectacular full-length view of Haweswater, which should under no circumstances (except possibly a 100mph gale from behind) be missed.
Harter Fell and the Head of Mardale in dryish conditions
Not that long ago, or so it seems to me, this flank was pathless: walkers bound for Gatescarth Pass were advised to follow the wire fence, which meandered somewhat circuitously, over the subsidiary point of Adam-a-Seat. Between 1975 and 1989, a full-blown direct path, visible from across the Pass, sprang into being and, by 1993, was eroded and in need of attention. By now the National Trust may have rebuilt it. If that’s not a frightening story, what is?
Once down at the head of Gatescarth, turn left to return to Mardale. When last I tramped this way, the walk was in a two foot deep trench for long sections, but these have no doubt been filled in by now. There is an easy walk down a hanging valley which turns left onto a steeper set of zigzags, dropping directly into Mardale. The car park lies at the end of the path: boots off!