Like the Eskdale Harter Fell, my first visit to its Mardale namesake was with my family. In 1975, I had still never been to Mardale nor seen Haweswater, not even in a distant view, though I had suggested a number of walks that would at least give me a chance to see it. But it was an unspoken bargain that if the family were to take a holiday at Ullswater, we would finally visit Haweswater since it would no longer be too far to drive. We headed over there on the Wednesday, a long, roundabout route that was outside and then back in. My Uncle stopped the car by the dam to let me get a good look at it and a photo, then it was down to the head of the Lake and into out walking gear. It was a cool, blustery day. I don’t remember having any input into what we were going to do, and the Mardale Harter was actually a bit higher than the normal run of fells we would tackle in that half-decade, but the approach was straightforward and simple, and on grass all the way. This was out of the parking area and turn left to head for Gatescarth Pass. It may have been grass every step of the way, but I drunk all of it in, because I’d never seen any of this before. There was no path from the top of the Pass to Harter so, with me as bookholder and guide, we followed the wire fence uphill to the lowly hillock of Adam a Seat, then followed the fence as it angled across the flank until it reached the summit ridge at the north end of the long top. The classic full-length view of Haweswater from the third cairn was mere yards away and I was allowed to divert to it for a photo if I promised to be ultra-careful of the wind and the nearby cliff-top. As if I, with my vertigo, was going to get near enough to it to go over in the face of the wind! We then walked back to the actual summit, which was second in height only to Lingmell amongst those ascents we’d completed thus far. I expected us to reverse our steps back towards Gatescarth but I was in for a surprise. With the excuse of wanting to see down into Kentmere, where the Reservoir was a bright spot under increasingly dark and threatening clouds, gather overhead, we crossed the top until it was visible. Then, to my shock, we went down that way, towards Nan Bield Pass. It was only the second time, and the first with my Uncle, that we had not descended by the exact same route as our ascent. Well-wrapped up, we got to Nan Bield and that classic view to Haweswater over Small Water, and wound our way down the other Pass to the car. I was to come back to Harter, unexpectedly, before the end, a Sunday there-and-back to Mardale and as close to the valley head as I could. This was another of those half dozen days that, at the drop of a hat (or, more practically, twenty-five years) I would repeat enthusiastically. High Street by Rough Edge and Long Crag, Mardale Ill Bell, the previously unclimbed purpose of the day and, back at Nan Bield with time to spare and plenty of walking yet in my legs, the impromptu decision to go back over Harter, straight up and over, trailing in the wake of a lady walker whose black stretch pants were so stretched that it was less a case of VPL (Visible Pantie Line) as VPC (Visible Pantie Colour). I descended via the third cairn along a brand new path direct to Gatescarth top, that had been walked not only into existence but into erosion in the less than two decades since I had been here before. And there was one more visit, though not an especially successful one, post-Wainwrights. I wanted to do the Kentmere Horseshoe, from Shipman Knotts to Harter Fell in the morning, and returning from Thornthwaite Fell to Yoke, but with walking days becoming fewer, my stamina was ebbing away. and it was a hot day and I ran out of water before descending to Nan Bield, leaving me no option but a very long, very slow and very dry retreat down the valley until, almost back at the village, I knocked on a door and had my water bottle half-filled with cold tapwater that I guzzled eagerly, but which was not enough to stave off a sun-induced headache that I tried to medicate with paracetamol back at the main road, one of which I promptly brought up in the road.
I would always have had to climb Branstree, but actually did this on a last minute whim. I was in Longsleddale, tackling the two most easterly outliers, Grey Crag and Tarn Crag, and rather than make an immediate descent to the valley, this having taken no real time at all, and being in a strange and lonely place I was unlikely to visit too often, I followed the ridge north, intending to drop down to the valley much further up and make my way back along it. Eventually, I came down to the Mosedale Watershed, a green and empty place which felt like somewhere that it would be incredibly easy to get lost in, without the prospect of anyone coming along and finding your bleached bones any time in the next hundred years. The original idea would have been to bear left and circle down to the the upper part of Longsleddale above its gates, but it was still early, and the conditions seemed too much of a good thing to ignore. So I crossed the watershed and made my way, slowly, steadily, tediously, up Selside Brow, until I’d reached the walltop on Branstree’s highest level. No-one short of the most meticulous surveyor will ever identify the exact highest point, but just being here was as close as I needed to be and there was little to be seen past the flat surrounding grass. So I veered off at a forty-five degree angle and found the equivalent flat, tedious, grassy slope down to the top of Gatescarth Pass. This was beside a fence that reputedly had discarded wire coiled hidden in the grass so I kept an eye open, whilst also casting my gaze across to Harter Fell. Thirteen years earlier, when last I was there, the opposite slope was no more than grass, and the ascent of Harter meandered alongside a wire fence. Already a direct path from Gatescarth to the corner by the third cairn was looking ragged and scarred. I turned left, descending the pony route through the steep gates of the head of Longsleddale and a long, flat, straight return to my car at Sadgill.
I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m jittery as f-u-c-k, what shall I do? I know – let’s go on an imaginary holiday.
Let’s go up to the Lakes again, in my imagination. Let’s pretend there was one more week, one more Sunday to Friday, divided between Ambleside and Keswick, on which the sun shines but the fells are cool, the atmosphere is clear and the views and the photographs are fantastic.
Let’s pretend that this holiday is the big one, the one that catches all the places I never got to go properly, the summits under cloud, the views unseen. All of them swept up in one go, in my prime of twenty odd years ago, before the knee became a problem.
So the car is packed, only because this is imagination I can cheat. Suitcase and rucksack, anorak, waterproofs and boots, but we don’t need the cassette player to provide me with music in the evenings, and instead I carry my mp3 player and headphones, and there’s a small space for my laptop, instead of a writing pad and spare pens.
And the alarm goes on a Sunday morning in North Reddish, Stockport. I’ve been to Old Trafford yesterday afternoon and United have won, won in the style we’ve lost, terrified the opposition into submission, reaffirming our position at the top of the Premier League. The tank is full of petrol, and here I go.
Romance is an essential component of the imagination, so let’s forego the latterday, get there as fast as I can route of motorways, and revert to that old AA ‘Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6’ route that my Uncle obtained in the Sixties, and which I still know by heart.
Leave through North Manchester, bypassing Bury on the M66, to Rossendale and that dual carriageway route that by-passes the drive over the moors to and through Burnley. Then it’s up through Pendle and Nelson and cross-country, briefly returning to civilisation by driving through Gisburn.
At Long Preston, I join the long A65, along the edge of the Limestone Country, through Settle where Dad would always settle for a doze in the car, under the massive presence of Ingleborough, one of a tiny handful of non-Lake District mountains I have climbed, towards Kirby Lonsdale and beyond, until I cross the M6 and make for Milnthorpe. In my imagination, the Flying Dutchman is still open, offering the sausage butties that I was never allowed at home, and just as all our three visits in 1966, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is playing as we walk in, because for a moment I am surrounded by people long gone.
Beyond Milnthorpe I head north for the long road across the foot of the Lakes. The full run would take me through such places as Haverthwaite, Lindale and Greenodd and to the moors from which there’s that glorious view of Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man, and along the Water.
But this time I regretfully turn off at Newby Bridge and follow Windermere all the way to Ambleside, because even in imagination time is not elastic. The hotel that overlooks the park has my old room available and they haven’t yet jacked up the price for singletons, so I unload my case and stuff, change into my walking trousers and boots and set off up the street.
My starter walk is Wansfell, for which I walk down the main street towards Windermere before diverting off along Old Lake Road and starting to gain height. This was a starter walk once, a sunny afternoon of the kind we have today and I ascended to the ridge via the first of Wainwright’s options from Blue Hill Road, which disappeared with Jesty. No wonder: it was a poor line that got tangled in rough fellside, leaving me no option but to traverse awkwardly over to the other path (now repaired), to emerge on Wansfell Pike above the most spectacular full-length view of Windermere, exactly the right distance below.
With my camera still in the hotel room.
So now I’ve got my camera, and the shot turns out to be perfect, of course. The problem with Wansfell is that Wansfell Pike is such a perfect summit in a perfect position, but Wansfell is higher and further back, involving a stroll along the ridge with the dull views directly ahead.
The descent is by the same route, save that I drop down further to cross Stock Ghyll, picking up the lane that leads directly into the heart of Ambleside.
A quiet evening, a nice dinner, a pint in the Ambleside Tavern and some music.
I sleep well and eat a cooked breakfast on Monday, complete with tea rather than coffee at the table. I am sensitive about the kinds of coffee you get in Lake District hotels and guesthouses. Today’s plan does not involve severe effort, so I have time to wander Ambleside and drink in the atmosphere.
Then off to Grasmere to do the same thing, and to pay my traditional visit to the Heaton Cooper Studio, which is as much a part of my Lakeland holidays as trips to Ravenglass and the Ratty were for family holidays. There isn’t room for a trip westwards this time, unless I retrospectively decide to extend the holiday backwards, travel up on Saturday, spend my first Saturday night in the Lakes since my Wedding Day, and go for a ride on Sunday.
Either way, this is Monday, I’ve had a hot tuna melt for lunch and it’s time to drive round to get as close as parking on the main road will place me to the Travellers Rest Hotel.
Seat Sandal was a walk on a rainy, cloudy day that offered no entertainment, but was on ground both familiar from previous a visit, and easy to follow. We’d ascended by Little Tongue Gill on a day that turned to rain, heading for Grisedale Pass, though we’d stopped at the hause above Grisedale Tarn, which is a little lower than the official head of the Pass.
They were rebuilding the path along Little Tongue Gill that day, had got about two-thirds of the way to the top. The contrast was striking: when I reached the end of the paved area, I stepped into a foot deep trench.
The cloud was down on the hause and the Tarn invisible, but today the sky is clear. Cloud dots the sky in clumps. I take another photo and turn to the steep slope to my left. There’s an initial scramble, to the right of the wall, which rapidly eases off. No need to guess where to cross the wall and stroll to the broad, flat cairn this time.
It’s a view I’ve never seen, not an extensive or brilliant one, even to the open west, but one of four denied by rain and cloud that I am ticking off. And under the sun, there is no need to return to the hause, to traverse across the top of Great Tongue and descend its length. To do so would bring back memories of that first visit: I took the lead descending, on my own, ten yards in front of everyone else, and so full of energy that I could have turned round at the bottom and done it all over again immediately.
But on such a day there’s no reason not to descend by the south western cairn and the slowly-narrowing ridge, with the Vale of Grasmere below and views all the way. There’s time to enjoy the return.
Tuesday is traditionally transition day. I check out of my first venue of the week and cross Dunmail Raise, this time northerly, to check in at Keswick. I have had a number of regular places here over the years, and my last place is my favourite, but this is taking place entirely within my own head, so once again a room in a hotel overlooking the park becomes available, and when I get back from my walks, a parking space within easy distance will also miraculously appear.
I have two small fells within easy reach of Keswick to reascend, on either side of Bassenthwaite Lake: the question is which to take first. I leave Keswick onto the A656, along the east shore of Bass, and when the road swings round in the direction of Cockermouth, I turn into the woods and the narrow, undulating roads to Wythop.
This was another Sunday afternoon starter walk, a long time ago. I made an afternoon out of it by taking in Ling Fell and Sale Fell together, the improbable ‘Sentinels of Wythop’
Ling Fell, on the far side of the village, deep in the narrow cleft of its valley and its mill-race, is round, unlovely and uninteresting. It’s not in my mind to return, but the only parking is on the high road, on that side of the valley, so I have to get close to it.
That’s not too bad, except for when it means coming back, because Sale Fell is on the other side of the valley and it’s accessible from the lower road. So I march up the valley, drop down via the cross road, deep in the woods of the lower Wythop Valley, and under the same sun as the day I walked here in reality, follow the road up to the farm, Kelswick, at the furthest extent of the valley.
A clear, well-angled path doubles back towards the cleft on the ridge, but this time, when I arrive at the top of the path, the weather doesn’t explode into a cloudburst. I am free to wander up my gentle green ridge, enjoying the vista across Bass Lake and the side-on view of Skiddaw, rising above the Long Side ridge. I say wander: last time, I was marching into the teeth of a howling wind, my head bowed, my glasses removed to my anorak pocket (there was nothing to see so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see it).
But I’m constitutionally incapable of walking slowly unless the terrain won’t let me pass apace, so I stride out contentedly, contrasting the openness of this climb with the claustrophobia of my real visit. There’s a mixture of paths nowadays, whereas I remember just the open ridge – not that I was the most reliable witness that day!
Then, I reached the tiny cairn, walked round it and started heading back without a pause. I had not been beaten. Now, I can sit down on the springy turf, doff the rucksack, have a drink, admire the view at last.
Two down, two to go, and one within sight.
Down the ridge again. I don’t have to walk back to Kelswick, there’s a path dropping directly down, beside the wall, onto the lower road, down which I march to the village. Time for a sit on the bridge wall, admiring the mill race: perhaps this time the sky is bright enough to enable a decent picture to be taken of it.
An unwelcome stroll back uphill to the car, where I sit for half an hour, enjoying the sandwiches I bought in Keswick and then, without having removed my walking boots, I belt up, reverse out and drop back through Wythop to the main A656 again. But not to return to Keswick. Instead, I angle round the quiet roads beyond the foot of Bass Lake, aiming for the A56 Carlisle Road, and turn Keswick-wards there.
Just as Sale Fell is part of a pair with Ling Fell, separated by the Wythop Valley, it’s part of a pair with the third of my missing views, separated by Bass Lake itself. This is Dodd, that tree-clouded outlier of the Skiddaw Range, only not so tree-clouded now, after a mass-felling sometime prior to 1999. Like Seat Sandal, this was a walk for a wet day that otherwise gave me nothing to do: on a day with no views, what better fell to climb than one from which there were no views to begin with?
That was one of the few days on which Wainwright failed me, his ascent from Dancing Gate proving impossible to follow after less than a quarter-mile. I ended up struggling uphill through trees, never my favourite method of approach, until I emerged on a forest road, from where I threaded together a very heavy-legged approach to the little path onto the wooded top. There were pale glimpses of the Lake below, but nothing else.
Rather than return that way, I descended to Long Doors and began to march downhill. It came on to rain, but I had established a metronomic rhythm, left – right, left – right, without need to pause or halt, all down the simple gradient to the cafe, and all down the A56, using up little or no energy, until the car came in sight.
There’ll be none of that today. Downhill marches are one thing and regular movements are easily attainable on regular ground, but even at my most enduring peak, the same effect isn’t going to occur going uphill. Unless I manage that even, slow-measured tread I struck that time on the Long Side ridge, and that eats up both distance and time, because it’s slow.
Steadily, I gain height, in the tuck of land between the steep sides of Dodd and Carl Side, until Long Doors, when I can escape right and round, into the open. Now Dodd’s summit is clear and warm, and I can enjoy the view even Wainwright couldn’t, without even having to stretch up on my toes.
I’ve done this kind of split-walk expedition on only a couple of occasions before, once by design, the other on impulse. The second half of it is always a bit odd, psychologically, and is slower. Once back at the car the first time, both mind and body relax, automatically: the energetic stuff is over, time to kick-back. Then going out again, even with the reminder that these are walking boots pressing down upon the accelerator and clutch pedals, not the softness of trainers, is harder to do. Even on simple walks like this, where for once I have no more feasible plans than returning to the car by the identical route. Trodden ground indeed.
It’s an early return to the hotel so I slip out into the Park, hire a putter and tackle the Crazy Golf. With long practice, I got the round down to about 39 shots: I reckon that, letting a bit of realism creep in, the rust will be enough to push me back to about 45. Then Tuesday night in Keswick. Beef-filled Yorkshire Pudding and a pint at the Oddfellow’s Arms.
Wednesday is, in a sense, a free day. They’re all free days, really, but there is only one walk remaining to complete sweeping in those fells on my list. I can go anywhere I want, without compulsion. Shall it be flood-ravaged Cockermouth, restored in my memories, and a quiet half hour browsing in The New Bookshop before driving down Lorton and exploring the Buttermere Valley? Or Patterdale via Dockray and Matterdale, into the pre-flood Glenridding, where I was married? Or further east yet, out and round into Mardale and Haweswater?
In light of Thursday’s plan, east it shall be, and by this I mean the Far Eastern Fells, and distant Mardale. I’m going on a nostalgia trip. It’s not the Second Drought Summer that re-calls me, 1984 and walking through the remnants of Mardale Green. Let the lake be full, let all the bare strips, the untidy, ugly tidemarks be covered in good honest water. I m going back to 1975.
It was the first and only time the family had holidayed outside that rigid arc from Ambleside to Wasdale, and for my benefit. I had seen Ullswater and Patterdale only once, and at last Haweswater/Mardale wasn’t too far to drive. We came here on Wednesday. On Friday, we made an attempt on Helvellyn via Striding Edge that only I completed, symbolising the breach I’d made by announcing I would go on no more family holidays after this. The last summit I reached with them was Harter Fell, Mardale.
It’s a simple re-tracing of steps: the left-hand fork beyond the roadhead, the steepish zig-zags to where the corner turns into that green hanging valley beneath Gatescarth Pass, the meandering, silent ascent of relaid stone, the broad grass col. Gatescarth, for some reason, always feels a lonely place, further away from your fellow man than other spots in the Lakes.
From here, in 1975, I had the Wainwright, I had the lead. It wasn’t really needed: there was no path on this flank, but a wire fence led up to Adam-a-Seat, before turning across the fellside, tracking an old boundary to the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn and its fabled full-length view of Haweswater.
Now, and since before 1988, there’s been an already-eroded path, direct from Gatescarth to this wall-corner, even of gradient, easy of ascent. In sunlight, and free of the wind that brought the unnecessary warning not to go too near the edge to get my photo – as if I, with my vertigo, would ever get that close! – it’s the highlight of the walk. Then the long stroll over the flat summit to the distant main cairn.
In 1975, something amazing happened here, that I was in no way responsible for. My family, who had never yet reached a destination without walking back exactly the same way they’d come, decided to descend to Nan Bield Pass and return by Small Water!
Dark cloud massed over Ill Bell, Kentmere Reservoir was cold and still as steel. We descended to Mardale via Small Water, the first photo I had ever seen looking down towards Haweswater, spread out before us. It had become a cold afternoon, since Gatescarth onwards, and we were well wrapped up against rain that never came.
All my holidays alone built up to the Big Walk on Thursday, and the slow retreat home on Friday. There’s one walk, one summit left, from which the view was obscured by clouds (yes, that is a Pink Floyd reference: please do not hold it against me).
This is why I went east on Wednesday, not west. Today is the day to go to Buttermere because I’m going to climb High Stile.
To drive, I’d say my favourite Pass is Whinlatter, because of its ease and simple gradients, but if I’m heading for the Buttermere Valley itself, and an early start is mandated for a long walk, then the only way to go is Newlands. This side of the Pass is not too bad, until the very end: in any car I’ve driven I’ve tried to get up some speed on the straight section, to help me up the last, steep bit to the summit, but Newlands has a ninety degree right hand bend just below that bit, on which all momentum is lost, requiring a laboured limp to the top, in second gear if I’m lucky. Not even imagination can overcome that turn, and I have never reached Newlands Hause without pulling in to let the engine recover.
One of these days, perhaps in another imaginary holiday, I’ll leave the car here and take off up one of the paths from the Hause. Knott Rigg is easy walking, trainers and jeans stuff apparently, though I’d want the boots for the ridge to Ard Crags which would have to be part of the walk.
Once the engine has had time to cool down, it’s down to Buttermere Village, and this is the brake’s turn to take the strain. Because it’s downhill all the way, and it’s steep downhill, and I have never tried to come up this side and never will, not even in my head. At the Village, I’m going to need to park for the day, so let’s assume that the quarry just down the road towards Crummock Water is still operating, and I can get my gear on there.
This is a straight repeat, and it’s a repeat of a walk I’ve not that long ago written about, so let’s insert a link here and not describe the route in the same detail. My memories glide through the long diagonal ascent across Red Pike’s foreground, the rocky ledges that lead to Bleaberry Tarn’s outlet, and scaling the path to Red Pike, only this time the light stays good, the sky is well above my head, there is nothing to darken the day, or enforce any gloom, and I can relish the view.
And there are no concerns about disappearing into the cloud on High Stile, no issues about where the path might lead and whether I’m getting too close to invisible cliffs. So I make it to the summit of High Stile for a second time and I can see all there is to see, and the purpose of this holiday is fulfilled.
I wander downhill to the vantage point that offers me dramatic, near vertical views of Buttermere Village, and take multiple photos. Then it’s time for the long retreat, the narrow ridge to High Crag, the steep continuation to Scarth Gap, the scramble downhill. This time, there’s no One Man and his Dog in the valley below, and I reach ground level and take my time strolling along the lakeshore path, Buttermere lapping gently beside me, until I turn across the fields, back to Buttermere Village, and the car.
This being my imagination, I have enough time to drive along beside Crummock Water, and through gentle, spacious Lorton, to Cockermouth. Like all things in this week, this is the Cockermouth of old, undamaged by floods, and The New Bookshop is what it was, and I have time to browse in the way I used to before I became used to instant access through Amazon and eBay.
And because this is my fantasy, and it can take in whatever I want, there are books that never existed, there for me to buy. I very rarely came out of The New Bookshop without three purchases. So, one at a time, I discover that there is a fourth Master Li and Number Ten Ox story from Barry Hughart, another Dortmunder Gang book from Donald E Westlake and, most precious of all, one final Sam Vimes and the City Watch book from dear old Terry Pratchett, written at the peak of his powers, before the first onset of the Alzheimers, and it’s written to incorporate the ending I had envisaged as a perfect Last Discworld Book, only Terry does so much more with my skeleton than I’d ever imagined possible. I know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
And it’s morning, and it’s time to go home. Register out, drive round Keswick. Take the Penrith road, but cut through Matterdale, through unravaged Glendridding, and over Kirkstone Pass. It’s far too early for the Inn to be open but I stop and wander around, making the goodbye as long as I can because I don’t know how long it will be before I can be here again.
Then down, through Troutbeck, without stopping, through Kendal, with one final stroll and one final bookshop because in my imagination the walls of my pokey little flat are elastic and I can bring in an infinite number of book, especially imaginary ones.
But at long last, it’s the M6, south and home. No drawing it out through Settle and Gisburn, just M6, M61, M602 and Salford and Manchester’s inner ring road, and Hyde Road, Reddish Lane.
And I am back to reality, to where I really live, not where I used to live, from which I departed on this Imaginary Holiday.
I think I’ll do this again.
Longsleddale, even after all these years since Wainwright’s Far Eastern Fells was first published, is an Obscure Corner, and deservedly so. Not because it is dull and drab and deserves to be overlooked, but because it is quiet, shy and beautiful, and should be allowed to retain that character.
The valley is a long, straight affair, some six miles in length, a deep trench opening in secluded circumstances onto the A6 Shap road, a few miles north of Kendal. Though it is seen daily by thousands of motorists travelling north, Longsleddale offers no hints of what lies beyond its wooded mouth, and so it remains for the most part unspoiled.
I say for the most part, because in the past when I have visited, there was rough space beside Sadgill Bridge, where the Longsleddale road ends, for three to four cars, and that was sufficient, because three to four visitors at a time was all this sentinel of peace commanded. Now, a proper car park has been built by the Bridge, a sign that Longsleddale’s peace may be under threat.
That sense of isolation is, for me at any rate, compounded by the fact that the only road access to Longsleddale is from the A6: like Swindale, and even Mardale to the north, there is the feeling that to get to Longsleddale it is necessary to go out and come back in from outside the Lake District. No road crosses Gatescarth Pass (may that remain so eternally), no road from Kentmere enters the valley at mid-level.
The eastern flank of Longsleddale is more obscure even than the valley, for Grey Crag and Tarn Crag are the Lakes’ most easterly outliers: this is up against the edge.
From the east itself, Grey Crag can be reached from the A6 by four ridges. When I was still reading the Wainwrights obsessively, wondering about places it seemed unlikely I would ever see, the two pages that cover those routes were among the most fascinating. They spoke of places outside, names not shared with any other fell: Huck’s Bridge, the Jungle Cafe (long gone but from the name alone a busy place to conjure in the mind).
But none of those ridges are properly thrown out by Grey Crag, though from Sadgill, the ascent does make use of the fell’s one true sub-ridge, thrown out south, culminating in the lower height of Great How, topped by a survey post.
The walk starts opposite the car park, a gate into a grassy enclosure, the stile at its top left corner already visible. Walk uphill to this. Rough ground and rock appears above: make fo the base of an easy, grassy gully and veer right across the slope for the next stile, which lets you out onto the open fellside at the base of Great How.
Those who wish to save Grey Grag until last should turn back along the wall at this point, gradually rising across the pathless fellside until it is possible to make a near bee-line for Tarn Crag’s summit, but a better plan is to go straight ahead, curving up steeper ground until emerging by the survey post. Stop here to admire Longsleddale.
From here to the summit of Grey Crag is an easy uphill walk. Follow the ridge along its easy, shelving back, angling across Grey Crag itself, until a fence comes into view, on the narrow tongue between parallel streams. Swing to the right to cross the waters that become Stockdale Gill, lower down, and make uphill to the summit.
Here is Lakeland’s most easterly peak. Beyond is the edge, the point at which Lakeland becomes not-Lakeland, in the indefinite ridges between here and there. If you have expected something exceptional about this place, here you will be disappointed. Grey Crag is no peak, it holds little of interest as a top. In theory, it should command stunning views, outwards and eastward, but it is not high enough, in itself or in its elevation above the spreading ridges, to command a panorama, and the chances are that whatever might be of value in this view will be blurred by haze, or dullness, or cloud: clear days on Grey Crag are few, and such clear days are usually a demand to go somewhere more worthy.
But we are here, close by the edge. Those ridges and their lesser tops may now be collected in The Outlying Fells, still without recommendation, but they remain outside, across a border that exists only in the heart, and we are here today because this is as close as can be to that border.
Tarn Crag lies north and west. Wainwright recommends heading north initially, to pick up a fence at the apex of a tight corner, and Jesty indicates a rudimentary path leading the way. The fence leads left behind Tarn Crag’s top, requiring only an easy detour to its top. A more direct route is not recommended as being too marshy,though on my visit I found the direct route far drier and firmer that its reputation. Curiously, this corner being Obscure because of its solitude, I made this traverse in the company of an older walker who joined me just below Grey Crag.
Tarn Crag allows a first sight of the upper valley lying beyond Longsleddale’s narrow and rocky jaws, where the staid levelness of the valley gives way to a sudden, steep climb. From here, Harter Fell and the head of Gatescarth Pass come into view, and a sense of even greater loneliness and isolation appears: ironic, since that area will be far busier with walkers than here where you stand.
There are options from Tarn Crag for a direct descent to Longsleddale, either by the route towards the base of Great How, or north of west, accompanying a nameless beck and a wire fence, to the head of the quarry road, above the gorge. Better though to continue north, on open, featureless grass flanks, as far as the peaty, low saddle separating the upper valley, left, from the head of another of Lakeland’s Mosedales.
This latter curves in dull and grassy loneliness around the base of Branstree, directly ahead, debouching above waterfalls that tumble prettily into Swindale. It also offers access over a low ridge to Wet Sleddale, and there is a bothy, Mosedale Cottage, a half mile in that direction. But I’m bound to say I found it a cheerless place (Mosedale means ‘dreary valley’ after all), possessed by an emptiness that I found distinctly off-putting. It felt as if walking in Mosedale would take longer than the actual clock measured: far longer.
Here, decisions must be made. The enthusiastic walker, whose energy has been barely tested by the walk so far, or the Wainwright bagger keen to count coup, will want to ascend Branstree. It’s dead ahead, we’re here, there are no complications: ascend towards the prominent wall and follow it, on your right, to nearly the summit. Descend alongside the fence left, to the head of Gatescarth Pass and turn left again for Longsleddale.
However, be warned that the walking is dull and tedious both ways, that Branstree’s summit is dead flat, making its highest point a matter of guesswork, and you will be tiring yourself in a far from good cause.
Better to follow the indeterminate track left from this saddle, descending carefully, in view of the wetness underfoot, into that hidden upper valley where the quarry used to be and the wreckage of industry still fascinates.
From here, bear left to reach the top of the quarry road. The steep descent between the rocky jaws on Longsleddale is absorbing, especially when considering that ponies used to negotiate this road, pulling heavy loads of stone. At the foot, the road becomes level and eay and there is no more than an afternoon stroll back to the car.
The hills are eternal.
That’s been said probably since man first started going up into the hills for pleasure, and like so many things repeated endlessly, it is true.
I first ascended Scafell Pike in April 1985. It had been there for centuries, millennia, before I climbed it out of Eskdale, via the Cowcove ZigZags and Cam Spout. And if I were somehow to be translated a hundred years, a thousand years, into the future after my death, I would be able to climb it by that same route, or by any of the other approaches I used to reach it in later climbs.
Unless we have, before then, carried out our unspoken threat to destroy this planet and all life upon it, such an experience will be unchanged from that sunny May day when I set off so late.
Because the hills don’t change as we do. Because no matter how much later we go back, they are as they were when first we set boot to path, in our buoyant youth of endless energy.
Many years ago, I discovered that those seemingly trite words are true in a less concrete but equally valid sense.
Let me first go back to the August of 1975, and my last holiday with my family. I was nineteen, approaching twenty and the third year of my Law Degree at Manchester University. Two weeks previously, I had gone on my first holiday with ‘the lads’, a week in Blackpool. The family holiday was the first we had ever taken outside the south-west quarter that had confined our operations (a few, rare exceptions otherwise) to the arc from Langdale to Wasdale.
We were in the north-east, a few miles from Pooley Bridge, the consequence of my increasing urging that we try other areas of the Lakes, instead of writing them off as ‘too far to drive’. I had never seen Haweswater before. I had only ever seen Ullswater, Queen of the Lakes, once, on a 1970 coach-trip with my grandparents. At last, these places were no longer ‘too far to drive’.
It was ironic, then, that it took little more than 24 hours for me to decide, and communicate, that I was never going on another family holiday again.
Part of it was, undoubtedly, that I had had my first holiday with ‘the lads’ only a fortnight earlier, a week in Blackpool: I was no longer prepared to accept being treated like a little boy who was expected to do and go what and where he was told. And, to be honest, at nineteen, and full of energy, I was beginning to get very frustrated at the limited walking we could do to accommodate my mother and my uncle.
That said, for walking purposes, that week was our most successful, with three expeditions and three summits. On the Wednesday, I got my long-held wish, a trip to Mardale, my first sight on Haweswater. From Mardale Head, we ascended the grassy zig-zags towards Gatescarth Pass and, from the top of the pass, followed Wainwright’s directions, letting the old wire fence guide us over the trackless flank, first to the summit of the subsidiary top, Adam a’Seat, and then in a wide curve across the fellside to the wall corner at the north end of the summit plateau, by the third cairn, with its famous and magnificent full-length view of Haweswater.
And glory be, once we had reached the summit, the highest top we’d ever reached (Coniston Old Man didn’t count, thanks to our ignominious retreat less than 100 yards from the cairn), we didn’t simply retrace our steps all the way we’d already come but, with the wind rising, we walked towards Kentmere and its Reservoir, descended to the top of Nan Bield Pass and came down via the perfect jewel of Small Water.
Two days later, on our last day, we set off towards Helvellyn via Striding Edge where, on reaching the Edge’s furthest end and finding that progress required descending a ten foot rock chimney, my mother promptly declared that my thirteen year old sister was not going down that, and we would start back.
I’ve no doubt that my face conveyed exactly what I felt at that moment, but I am sure that it was what I had said about this being the last time I would ever go walking with the family that caused her to say that there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own.
This was almost unprecedented: we walked together, as a family. I recall only one previous occasion, at Tilberthwaite, when I had been trusted to put one foot in front of another without being watched to see I didn’t break my neck. I took the chance to go solo, to set my own pace and make my own decisions with such alacrity that I was on Helvellyn’s summit less that fifteen minutes later!
Flash-forward now fourteen years, to 1989. I have gone from being a naïve 19 year old struggling to escape from the confines of my family to a bearded 33 year old qualified Solicitor, with a long term (if volatile) relationship and his own house and mortgage. Instead of being subject to other’s choices of walking, and their transport to get to fell foots, I have my own car, and an already decent history of solo walking, with over 100 Wainwrights under my bell and not so much as a twisted ankle. And I was paying my second visit to the long, straight, secluded loveliness of Longsleddale.
My previous visit had seen me take to the ridge separating this valley from Kentmere, using the unnamed pass that’s a direct continuation of the Garburn Road to get me to Shipman Knotts and, beyond it, Kentmere Pike. This time I was bent on the eastern wall of the valley.
I’d always been fascinated about Grey Crag in the Far Eastern Fells. It was the outer edge of Lakeland, of Wainwright’s Lake District, the easternmost fells, and it had those pages of long, lonely ascents from outside, with names and places that appeared nowhere outside those few pages: Huck’s Bridge, the Jungle Café, another Wasdale and Borrowdale. Not that I planned an assault from that direction.
The climb out of Longsleddale was unexceptional, its highlight being the revelation, as I ascended, of a path on the opposite side of the valley, zig-zagging up the flank of Shipman Knotts, unrecorded in Wainwright, its beginning impossible to discern beyond Sadgill. It drew the eye, invited attention, demanded climbing, though I’ve yet to return to Longsleddale to see if I can trace its start.
Grey Crag was the edge. Out there to the east, in the indistinct haze, the low ridges and the low vantage point, Lakeland became something else, the high lands changing their character imperceptibly, merging slowly into the Howgills, and beyond the Pennines.
I wasn’t just after Grey Crag, but also its neighbour, Tarn Crag, and I struck out north, accompanied by an elderly fellwalker (elderly compared with me now). I don’t remember the ridge being anything like as bad for peat as it reputedly is now, but this was – as most of my late year expeditions were – a sunny week at the tail end of a sunny summer.
From Tarn Crag, I continued north. It had been the limit of my fixed plans, but the hours had been few and time was ample, and ahead, beyond the indefinite head of Mosedale, lay Branstree. It’s an unlovely fell, of long, featureless grassy slopes up which the walker can only trudge, topped with a plateau on which finding the highest point is guesswork, without views unless one is prepared to walk until an edge is found.
But it needed walking, and this was a golden opportunity, the right place with the right amount of time, so I trudged up Selside Brow, duly ticked off my third top of the day, and turned my head to the long, grassy descent towards the summit of Gatescarth Pass. Where I had not been since that day with my family, so many years before.
That’s when I understood that the hills were eternal in more than just the standard sense. The hills not only stood the test of time, they repelled the passage of it. They existed in a Time of their own, a perpetual now, where the edgy, uncertain 19 year old with ambitions he didn’t know how to pursue, ascending from Mardale, and the solid, settled 33 year old with the will and the means to go everywhere he wanted, descending from Branstree, both existed, the years between then vanished and dwindled to a non-existent point.
My Uncle was gone. My mother was slowly being strangled by emphysema. My sister was a married woman who had lost all interest in fell-walking.
But all that existed elsewhere than here. Above Gatescarth Pass, where I would arrive and depart in exact counterpart to my other presence, the hills were eternal and I felt a part of that eternity in me.
Paradoxically, what inspired this insight was change, the impression of time. In 1975, we had followed the fence in a roundabout arc on a trackless fellside. But in 1989, a path left Gatescarth top, making an easy-angled beeline for the wall corner by the third cairn. At one and the same time, it looked as if it had been there forever, and as if it were a hallucination, something impossible to accept on a bare fellside.
(A few years later, I used that path as a descent from Harter, at the end of a superb Sunday spent walking the Mardale Skyline: it was already eroded, in need of National Trust repair when less that twenty years before it did not exist. Can you think of anything more frightening than that?)
The path hung over my eyes, an illusion imposed on the landscape that was and still was in my eternity. I had been here once, and I had not so much returned as recreated myself. A quarter century later, knowing that I have only to close my mind to bring forth an unending parade of scenes, I know myself to be part of that eternal time, away in the fells, that isn’t a part of our ‘real’ life in which changes occur, yet which is realer than anything we will ever experience.
From Gatescarth, I descended the long route into Longsleddale, to Sadgill and my car. I haven’t been back since, and the chances aren’t great for that being soon, but the hills are eternal and I dream of being there again, and returning to then.
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!