Great Walks – The Mardale Skyline


High Street Head of Lake

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.

High Street Rough Crag

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 Blea Water

Blea Water

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.

High Street Small Water

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.

High Street Harter

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!

Behind the Scenes with The Justice Society of America – Part 1: Something for the kids to buy


All Star 3

As I’ve previously observed, sometimes in comics the story of what happens behind the page is as interesting as the brightly coloured adventures that take place one them. I’ve long since been a fan of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team, and the story of how they came into being, and what influenced their fortunes, is in many respects more absorbing than even the best of their fantastic adventures.
So I figured I’d write about it.
The JSA’s story starts in 1940, in All-Star Comics 3, published by All-American Comics. But to properly understand that beginning, it’s necessary to go back to the very start of comics as we now understand them. Fortunately, that doesn’t involve going back very far.
The American comic book was invented when a handful of people, among them Charlie Gaines, came to the more or less simultaneous realisation that you could print comics art half-sized and fold it into a cheap, colourful pamphlet. In an era where most printers functioned as money-laundering facilities for the Prohibition gangs, anything that kept the presses working longer and harder was welcome.
Originally, such comics reprinted existing newspaper strips under licence, their cheapness exemplified by the possibly apocryphal but completely believable story that one editor refused to allow his staff to waste time sorting an adventure serial into chronological order because the readers wouldn’t know the difference. But gradually new, hopeful publishers started to offer original material, created by young, raw, enthusiastic writers and artists, boys who were too young, raw and, in some cases, untalented to make it in the world of strips.
One such was former Cavalry officer, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who established a small stable of very successful titles as National Comics, including Fun/More Fun Comics and Detective Comics. The first issue of this latter title, long thought to have been the very first comic book to present wholly original material, included two-fisted detective Slam Bradley, from the Cleveland partnership of teenagers Jerry Seigel (writer) and Joe Schuster (artist).
Wheeler-Nicholson’s comics were printed by Donenfeld Brothers printers, helmed by the effervescent, diminutive salesman Harry Donenfeld who, it is strongly rumoured, had connections with Prohibition mobsters. Donenfeld had long been involved in both publishing and distribution, constantly sailing close to the wind with ‘spicy’ pulps that attracted the attention of New York’s authorities. Donenfeld needed something lucrative that wouldn’t appear on the DA’s radar, and here was the impractical Major, sitting on a money-maker. Donenfeld, and his accountant Jack Leibowitz, was expert at manipulating his publisher-clients into severe cash-flow problems and either taking their business in lieu of printers bills or, if they proved stubborn, forcing them into bankruptcy court and snapping up their assets for the proverbial song.
So Wheeler-Nicholson disappeared and Donenfeld took over his little publishing stable.
This consisted of Adventure Comics, Detective, More Fun and a commitment to put a fourth title on the news-stands. The new title was incomplete: ten more pages were needed before it could go to the printer, and the deadline was less than a fortnight away. It was a moment of history.
Editor Vin Sullivan knew that the reliable Seigel/Schuster team had a character they’d been unsuccessfully hawking, which had already been turned down at National as being too crude and juvenile. But it existed, and could fill a space. He cabled an offer to buy the feature if Seigel and Schuster could get ten pages of art and story delivered to him in New York within ten days.
The feature was in existence, but it was laid out in newspaper strip format. The boys got their friends to help cut and paste the art into comic-book form, with transitional panels drawn where necessary. Then they sent it off, with a cover, within the deadline. And Action Comics came out on time, with its classic cover of a blue and red clad man lifting a car above his head: Superman was born.
Seigel and Schuster contracted to exclusively produce Superman’s adventures for the next ten years. Their story is a salutary one, but not part of this story. They’d come up with one of the most successful and influential characters in ‘literary’ history. Nobody realised, at first, just how popular the Man of Steel was until sales figures came in on the first half dozen issues of Action: issues with Superman on the cover massively outsold those without: the Man of Steel took up permanent residence.
Meanwhile, ambitious artist Bob Kane (with the considerable but officially unacknowledged assistance of writer Bill Finger) came up with his own fantastic long-underwear character, this time a man without any superhuman powers. Batman débuted in Detective 27 and was just as big a hit as Superman before him.
Suddenly, everyone wanted mystery men (as the superheroes were originally termed). Charlie Gaines, who was National’s chief salesman at that time, wanted to set up his own company. With capital from Donenfeld, who became a 50/50 partner, Gaines leased offices of his own and established All-American Comics. The two companies, though legally separate, operated jointly. The Superman DC logo appeared on A-A’s titles, the companies cross-advertised each other’s lines, and Jack Leibowitz, at Donenfeld’s insistence, was accountant to both companies. Gaines loathed Leibowitz, but Donenfeld held the purse-strings: not only did he want a ‘spy-in-the-cab’, but he wanted to secure Leibowitz against setting up in his own right.
(There is another story, this one definitely apocryphal, but only in degree, that Victor Fox, junior accountant at National, took one look at the sales figures for Action 1, went out at lunch to rent offices, and had set up his own comics company in the afternoon.)
Superman and Batman were selling so well that National, or Detective as it was now becoming known, collected their early stories into reprinted solo comics, aimed at the kids who hadn’t been quick enough to get in at the beginning. When these sold massively, they were continued with original material.
At A-A, Gaines looked at this thoughtfully. He was convinced that he too had characters that could carry titles by themselves. All that was needed was a little more exposure. So he ordered up All-Star Comics, an anthology that would feature characters with series elsewhere, chosen by the readers for popularity. All-Star even featured characters from National/Detective, with the blessing (or might it have been at the insistence?) of Donenfeld.
Two quarterly issues went well, and All-Star 3 was in preparation, when Gaines had an inspiration. This line-up would include The Flash (research chemist Jay Garrick who ran at superspeed due to a lab accident with hard water) and The Hawkman (socialite/archaeologist Carter Hall, a reincarnated Egyptian Prince who took to the sky with anti-gravity wings), both from Flash Comics, plus The Green Lantern (radio announcer Alan Scott, wielder of the magic Power Ring that gave him Power over Metals) and The Atom (College student Al Pratt, who was short but packed a big punch), both from All-American Comics.
These four were characters published by A-A, and they were joined by four more heroes from National’s stables: Dr Fate (archaeologist Kent Nelson, gothic wielder of magic) and The Spectre (the ghost of murdered Police Detective Jim Corrigan, a being of supernatural might) from More Fun, and The Sandman (socialite Wesley Dodds who put crooks to sleep with his gas-gun) and The Hour-Man (meek chemist Rex ‘Tick-Tock’ Tyler who invented the Miraclo Pill to give him superpowers for an hour at a time) from Adventure.
It’s an obvious idea in retrospect, but no-one had thought of it until then: Gaines reasoned that if the kids would buy a comic with all their favourite heroes in it, they’d be even more excited to buy it if the heroes were all teamed up together. And the Justice Society of America, the first ever superhero team – the first ever story in which two or more heroes from different series met each other – was born.
The one problem was that it was far too late to organise a JSA adventure for All-Star 3. Gaines wasn’t prepared to accept a delay of three months until issue 4, so Editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox came up with a brilliant bridging notion. The Justice Society of America – and no-one has ever laid claim to be the inventor of that title – descended on a swanky Gotham Hotel to celebrate their first official meeting… by having dinner. Comic relief character Johnny Thunder, another Flash Comics alumnus, would gatecrash the affair, mishandle his magic Thunderbolt into making the food vanish and pay his way by suggesting the heroes relate their most recent adventures. Thus, with pages added to enable one hero to hand over to another, the solo stories were melded into a long and enjoyable tale.
Among the additional pages was a cameo drawn by Mayer himself, featuring his own creation, The Red Tornado, a supporting character is his series Scribbly – the adventures of a Boy Cartoonist. The Red Tornado, the first ever superhero parody, was brawny housewife Ma Hunkel, who thus pre-dated Wonder Woman as the first costumed heroine.
Of more significance was the request, halfway through, from the chief of the FBI for a JSA representative to meet him in Washington. This was, of course, a case for The Flash, who returned in time for the end of the issue, with the news that the FBI wanted the JSA to meet them, next week, for a mission.
That week would elapse three months later, in  All-Star 4.

Next: Part 2 – Fulfilling the Mission