I made two different ascents of High Street, at different times, by different routes, but unless you, like me, are planning on accumulating Wainwrights as quickly as possible, I can in good conscience recommend only one. And whilst I have by no means exhausted the approaches to High Street and the highest point of the Roman Road, I cannot imagine that there is a better or more enthralling way up than the one I used on my return visit. The accumulating route was, of course, my Hayeswater Round, as already mentioned a couple of times. So many fells cluster around this side valley with its former reservoir, now diminished to its natural size once this latter function was removed. Certainly, those on the western side of Mardale turn their backs on Hayeswater, which is why I can’t recommend the walking. High Street lies between Thornthwaite Crag and Rampsgill Head on this route. The walking is simple and undistinguished on the approach, a stroll across a grassy plateau following on the footsteps of the long-dead glorious Legions (spellbinding memories of ‘Heros the Spartan’ in Eagle with fantastic art by Frank Bellamy). The road rises to cross the long whaleback of High Street without visiting its summit: once you reach what feels like the highest level, break off right across the wall and follow trackless grass uphill until the top is underfoot. Here you can exercise your imagination about the past. The Legions might not have come all the way up to the highest point, unless on the equivalent of a modern-day fag-break, but High Street was also the annual meeting place for the farmers and families of the surrounding valleys at midsummer: to meet and gossip and buy and sell and exchange, wrestle and run races and enjoy the ability to relax with friends. No doubt there was also courting. Just imagine this place full of the sights and sounds of the Westmorlanders of old. Little’s to be seen of High Street’s best features from here but a long walk across the short-turfed top towards invisible Mardale will bring Haweswater into view, and the long curving ridge down to the lakeside below that is a spectacular sight. No need to return to the summit from here, a beeline can be made towards the northern end of the top to rejoin the road and the wall down to the Straits of Riggindale, where the ridge narrows astonishingly, to progress to Rampsgill Head. I was still collecting Wainwrights when I paid my return visit, a Sunday out from Manchester. There was only one new top to collect, that of Mardale Ill Bell, but though I still took my progress seriously, it was very much secondary to the opportunity to climb High Street the exciting way, by the Rough Crag/Long Stile ridge, from Mardale Head. It was a glorious ascent, every step. I could have cut an early corner out, making a direct scramble to the right and cutting out the Rigg, but I wanted to savour every step of the walk. A long, narrow, curving ridge, steep and shallow sections along an airy crest, with Haweswater below seeming to turn itself through forty-five degrees as I looked down. Beautiful views down to Blea Water for so much of the way, and across to Small Water as I gained height. The final rocky crest of Rough Crag and a descent to level ground before the steep scrambling attack on Long Stile, until I returned to the edge of the summit where I had stood before, and then a quiet uphill walk on grass to the cairn. So much better an approach, so much more satisfying. These were the days that were infinitely satisfying, that I got to enjoy and my Dad didn’t, which was life at its most unfair. He’d have relished every minute of it. And that was only the first top of the day!
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.
In 1935, the village of Mardale Green in Mardale, Westmorland, was drowned when Haweswater dam was completed and the former High Water and Low Water rose up to create the modern day Haweswater reservoir, one of the two main suppliers of Manchester water.
Twice at least in the last century, in the drought summers of 1976 and 1984, the water level in Haweswater has dropped so much that the ruins of the village have reappeared. In 1976, I remember Stuart Hall reporting from the foot of Haweswater Dam – on the reservoir side! – and in 1984, in September, I walked some of the old lanes of the village myself. My mother, holidaying the previous week, had also visited Mardale, and crossed the bridge over the beck, but the levels were rising by now, and though the bridge was clearly visible – and safe and intact after all those years – the rising water had closed it off and both ends and the western part of the village could only be looked upon.
The current hot spell has exposed Mardale Green’s remains again. It is, I believe, the earliest in the year that this has happened.
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.
Given my current status of fitness, not to mention the stability of my right knee, I’m reliant now on my memory for the kind of long, peak-heavy walk I used to organise for the last walking day of my twice-annual holidays. When it came to peak-bagging, the Fairfield Horseshoe was one of my best tallies, eight summits in the course of a day, but that didn’t set my record. There was one walk on which I went one better, visiting nine summits in a single walk that was better than I’d originally planned. And a walk that had at least a claim to being semi-original.
By that I mean that it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wainwrights as a recognised walk, unlike the Fairfield Horseshow or the Mosedale Horseshoe. It is a horseshoe, of its kind, but when I came up with it myself, from a study of the Far Eastern Fells, I actually called it the Hayeswater Round.
It was an obvious piece of design and I calculated that I could reach eight tops, none of which I had previously climbed, starting and finishing at the village of Hartsop, tucked away in its little valley off the side of Patterdale. And, in keeping with my basic instinct about such things, I proposed to walk anti-clockwise.
This meant starting off by scaling Gray Crag, a narrow, steep-sided, steep-nosed fell at the end of a flat-topped ridge emanating from Thornthwaite Crag.
The direct assault on Gray Crag from Hartsop was steep and long. This kind of ascent did not seem the most sensible for the start of such an ambitious day, and especially one that promised to be very sunny, so after studying the relevant chapter, I decided to approach the ridge a little more obliquely. This meant leaving Hartsop by the track to the filter house, crossing the beck there and completing the ascent to the shores of Hayeswater, where the path petered out into nothingness.
The early stages of this were hot and dusty and a bit of a grind, but by the time I was in Hayeswater’s narrow valley, there was fresher air, the grass was sweet underfoot, and the sun sparkling off the water was delightful.
There were no paths on this flank of Gray Crag, so I simply took a sighting on the skyline behind me, at a suitably gentle upwards angle, and set off across the grass, trying always to angle up. Once I gained the prow of the ridge, there was nothing for it but to start the serious climbing, scrambling between outcrops, until the gradient eased and the rest of the ascent was just an uphill stroll.
Gray Crag’s shape is that of a promontory. I had a long, lazy gentle stroll, crossing a disused wall three-quarters of the way along, until the final rise onto the top of Thornthwaite Crag, whose summit lay half right, distinguished by its monumental cairn, Thornthwaite Beacon. This was an ideal spot to take lunch, under the sun, with a gentle breeze and gentle slopes all around, especially when my next top was going to be the highest point of the walk.
From Thornthwaite Crag, it was an easy, mostly flat or very gently graded, grassy walk to High Street, along High Street. I strolled back from the massive cairn, descending into the grassy bowl that lay back from the head of the Hayeswater valley, and onto the whaleback of High Street.
This was the old, the famous Roman Road, high above the world, the place where troops in armour, with red cloaks and leather sandals, had once marched, from Ambleside to Penrith. This is the place where the walker of imagination, with romance and history in their souls, can close their eyes and hear the jingle of metal, the creak of leather, the murmur and tramp of the Legions, out above the world.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t conjure them into my mind, to trick my eyes and ears. It was just me, curiously alone, on a broad path that leveled out below the summit, by-passed it on the west by some distance, that I had to leave and struggle up featureless grass to the broad, flat top. The Legions would not come to me in the Twentieth Century.
I had left the Legions behind, and the history that should have swept around me at this point was that of the countryfolk of the valleys, Racecourse Hill and the annual meet of the dales folk, climbing out of their valleys for three days of revels, of conversation, games, racing, courting, trading and all those things we take for granted, but which then was denied by the daily struggle to earn a literal living.
That should have been evocative too, but once again I couldn’t conjure the visions in front of my eyes. It was just a flat, green top, with a cairn on the highest point, and an edge to the panorama that was a long way away all round and revealed nothing of those adjoining valleys and little of the fells beyond.
It ended up being a long walk east from the cairn before I got a glimpse of Haweswater lying deep in the curve of Mardale. Because this was the last lake I got to see, years after first visiting the Lakes, because I had to badger my family into holidaying in a completely different part of the Lakes than usual before they’d even drive out there, because it is remote and distant and it feels as if you have to drive out and back in to even visit Mardale, I’ve always had a fascination for Haweswater above all the other lakes, and it was essential that I see it on this walk. It didn’t look in the least impressive from that angle. I couldn’t even see the distant dam because the valley curved so much.
I decided I didn’t need to return to the summit so angled back to meet the wall just above the surprisingly steep descent to the surprisingly narrow Straits of Riggindale, beyond which it was a long haul up to the summit of Rampsgill Head, with its splendid view of the wide-open, very straight but not particularly interesting valley of Ramps Gill.
My next destination was Kidsty Pike, whose odd, angular peak was not far distant. It was similar to crossing from Swirl How to Great Carrs in the Conistons, except that wainwright had set no time trials on this ridge route. I ticked off Kidsty’s top having really seen little of the best of the fell. I assumed I would one day make a return visit from the valley, on a more entertaining ascent, but though I did that for High Street, and had a brilliant day of it, I never got back to Kidsty.
Technically, like Wandope in the Coledale Horseshoe, this was not part of any geographic Hayeswater Round, but was too close to pass up. However, it was the furthest point of my planned route: except that it was still only early in the afternoon, I had gained a lot of height, and it was only three-quarters of a mile up the ridge to High Raise. This was a fell I needed to claim at some point, but which appeared to be quite a distance away from valley – or more pertinently road – level.
It meant an extra mile and a half I hadn’t budgeted for, but on the other hand I was here, I had the time and it was too convenient to ignore. I tramped north on the continuation of High Street, along an open, empty, rounded ridge, without incident or excitement, until I was level with High Raise’s top and diverted off to the right.
It was, or so I thought at the time, my 100th summit. When I checked my records on returning home, I discovered I had miscounted. No. 100 had gone uncelebrated, back on Kidsty.
Having diverted so far out of my way, I needed to get back on track, so I tramped, with a slight bit of trudge creeping in, back to Rampsgill Head. There was no need to return to its cairn, so I contoured pathlessly across its northern face, aiming to pick up the path for Patterdale, descending from its summit.
This brought me out at the foot of the Knott, and another Wainwright time trial: anyone full of the joys of spring should be able to make it from the wall corner in two minutes, a test I passed, just, though as I was full of the joys of early September, I claim a special exemption.
I still had two more tops on my round, the first of which was Rest Dodd. This is the key to The Nab, deep in the Martindale Deer Forest which was, in those days, firmly out of bounds. I had no plans to make an attempt on the hidden fell from its reasonably innocuous rear, not that day and not after the miles I had covered, though I would come back several years later and collect The Nab.
But on both occasions I quickly found Rest Dodd to be a tedious and draining ascent. Some fells are like that, with no seeming reason. they do not have steeper flanks, or rougher ground, but the walk drags, and the energy is depleted quickly.
This first time, I was dropping down from The Knott’s little top and heading straight across the Patterdale path, downhill in a straight line, to a deep dip in a small dell, with virtually no level ground, just an immediate climb, still following that straight line, to the top of the walls angling across Rest Dodd’s Hayeswater face. Even the short climb up unmarked grass, where the two wall ends form an angle that, for no apparent reason, do not meet, was tiresome, and i spent little time on the summit of Rest Dodd, enough only to study the ground northwards into Martindale, before retreating down the other wall until I regained the Patterdale path.
It had been a long day and a long walk, and I had been under a strong September sun the whole day. I was growing leg-weary and welcomed the gentle gradients of the path as far as Satura Crag. After that, it was a case of leaving the path for the trackless ground to the left and picking Brock Crag’s summit out of the indefinite outcrops on the edge of the valley.
Unfortunately, the day had just been that little bit too long and that little bit too sunlit. The valley wall down towards Hartsop was steep, and the tracks zigzagging exposed to the sun, and I was sudfdenly out of the breeze that had kept everyuthing cool. It was stuffy and unpleasant and I wasn’t more than a third of the way down before I was struck with a blinding headache, a good old-fashioned razor blade across the eyeballs job, which tended to blur my recollection of the final stages.
Of course, I swallowed a couple of tablets the moment I had got my boots off – nothing but nothing precedes removing the boots at the end of a long day in the fells – but it made for an unpleasant drive back to Keswick, with the headache still paining, and my stomach starting to churn, sufficiently so that at one point, exiting the Matterdale valley, I had to pull up and crouch in the verge in the belief that that days sandwiches were making a break for it.
But such misadventures are all part of days in the fells. The inclusion of High Raise may, in retrospect, have been ill-judged, but it took my tally for the day to nine summits, and I have never had some a productive day before or since, and I have never been in a position whereby I could have revisited it. So I regret nothing and remember with glee my own, self-designed, Hayeswater Round.
As I’ve written before, when my parents first decided that we would henceforth spend our Lake District holidays in walking, I wasn’t the most receptive of children. My boots were too tight, too heavy, it was too far, too steep, I didn’t like it, and the fact that my younger sister seemed perfectly happy wasn’t helping any.
I got over that stage when we set out to climb Sty Head out of Wasdale Head. I had a purpose, a cause: ever since I had learned of its existence, I wanted to see Green Gable. Everybody could see Great Gable, but its slighter, hidden cousin fascinated me, and Sty Head was going to be my first chance.
And my enthusiasm was confirmed when we reached the point where the path slid across the great scree fanning down from the distant Napes Ridges, and my mother took one look and decreed that my sister would go no further, not across that. They would retreat to the beck, paddle their feet, whilst Dad and I would go on alone, the men of the party.
I have far too few memories of being around my Dad alone: father and son together without interruptions. I wanted to see Green Gable, I was trusted to go ahead with him, I wanted to live up to his expectations, I wanted to be the son we all want ourselves to be at that age, and so we went on, and I didn’t grumble, moan or complain, and we came out onto the top of the pass, saw Sty Head Tarn, ahead and below, saw a sliver of green slope out beyond the curve of Great Gable’s breast that meant I’d fulfilled my aim, and then we set off back, to get our share of paddling.
That didn’t mean I was cured. There was a visit to Mill Gill, an attempt of Harrison Stickle via Pike How, on a day that began with blazing skies before transmuting into low cloud that imprisoned us perhaps no more than a hundred feet below the summit until we gave in. That early part of the day was scorching, the fellside unbelievably steep, my whole body unwilling to proceed. Doubtless I whined again.
The pains in Dad’s shoulder, that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, kept us away from the Lakes for almost eighteen months. After he died, the end to weeks and months of strain as his body failed, an impromptu holiday was set up, a week away that involving taking we children out of school, no objections raised. It wasn’t a success, we chose a poor week for weather, I’d gotten hooked on pop music by then and Medium Wave reception in the Lakes was pants.
But holidays continued as they always had, just without Dad. We chose self-catering cottages, got away twice a year, went walking. It was still the same.
In 1972, in pursuit of fundraising for something of which I have no memory, Burnage High School held a sponsored walk. It was on a Tuesday, and the School would be closed for the day and everyone would participate. It wasn’t compulsory: those who didn’t want to walk, or couldn’t, could withdraw, but that amounted to maybe three boys out of a School of 700.
We would walk the length of the Peak Forest Canal, from Denton in Manchester to its terminus at Whaley Bridge, in north Derbyshire, a long way down the A6, sheltered under the moors that protected Buxton. It was an awkward, uneven length that, for official purposes, was designated to be 20km. We were issued with sponsorship forms and duplicated diagrams, breaking down the route.
I looked forward to it. I was sixteen, young and fit, and I was already a walker. True, this was not walking as I knew it, 99% flat (there was a section, approximately midway, where the canal ran through a long tunnel, either in too poor a state to negotiate, or else deemed too long to risk boys not falling in, which was by-passed by a brief diversion off-route, steeply uphill for maybe 150′, and just as steeply down again). But I had a bit of a rivalry going on with my mate Brian, aka Zack, one of only two boys whose nicknames pursued them into the Sixth Form, where we started using first names for the first time, who was loudly boasting of how he’d walk my legs off and finish miles ahead of me.
We had to turn up at School at more or less the usual time, then mill around until the coaches shuttled us off to Denton and the start. Zack and I ended up on different coaches – we were in different forms – and I was five minutes ahead of him when we were discharged on this back street in Denton, racing down to the towpath and turning left for Whaley Bridge.
I had my boots, and walking socks on, a good thick pullover, and my anorak in my rucksack. I set off with a will and didn’t stop. It was the first time I’d been let off the leash, allowed to walk at whatever pace suited me, and I took full advantage.
For a flat canal, it was an interesting and varied walk in the morning hours. We passed through tunnels where once bargemen would have walked their craft along, their feet to the tunnel roof. We crossed a high brick aqueduct, one of us quite gingerly. It rained two or three times. None of it stopped me. I pulled my anorak on and off on the march, ate my sandwiches whilst stomping along. Some of it was the desire not to have Zack catch me up and overtake it, but most of it was the sheer freedom to do so. I didn’t stop because I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to wait for anyone else, or gear myself to their frailties. I was sixteen and I walked on because I could, and I liked knowing that.
When I reached the lunch place, hundreds of boys lazing around, I didn’t stop. I wasn’t tired (besides, I’d already eaten all the butties) and it was back to the towpath and through New Mills, passing the backs of factories, having missed the women coming out to eat their lunch snap in the open air. Then a short rise to cross the main road, and all the towns were behind us.
The latter half of the walk was a bit more tedious. The weather had settled, grown warm, enough to be just slightly stuffy. My legs were beginning to ache. And we were out into the country now, following the curve of a long, slow, green valley. It ought to have been more my style but it wasn’t. Nothing changed. I stared at the same wooded hillsides, with nothing new entering the view.
The last diversion was to cross a road, join the final stretch of the Canal along what seemed like a spur, into the barge-filled basin that marked the end, beyond which sweaty boys of all ages set up a barrage of chatter. A check of my watch, four hours, almost to the very minute, twenty kilometres in four hours, non-stop. I settled to wait for Zack, already smug.
It was a long wait, forty-five minutes before he rolled into sight. Deduct the five minutes between coaches at the School, I had been forty minutes faster than him. Which, by the strangest of coincidences, was exactly as long as he’d spent at the lunch-place, or so he said. I had little enough chances for superiority back then, I wasn’t going to accept that.
It had been a great day. Unfortunately, it was to do me no good at all when it came to holidays in the Lakes. Nothing had changed, except me. I had had my eyes open as to what I was capable of doing, and having that limited to the slow progression and frequent halts of the elders chafed. I wanted to get off ahead, see the next horizon, and the one beyond it as well, not spend all day in the same valley. I wanted summits, and once I reached one (which was usually our limit in a seven day holiday) I saw no reason not to go on to the next one, instead of returning by the identical route we’d used to ascend.
I was at University now, eighteen and older, but still I counted for nothing, was a child to be told what I would do and where I would go, and that wasn’t going to change. There were other things that frustrated me: the day over, the evening meal consumed, the pots washed, I would persist in asking where would be going tomorrow, despite the answer being some minor variation on ‘you haven’t finished with today yet’.
Yes, the mere idea of thinking ahead, of setting a destination for the next day (if the weather’s decent, we might go down Eskdale and walk to Throstlegarth), seemed to be an anathema. In my mother it was a complete difference of personality: she could never understand me working out what walks I wanted to do on a week away, didn’t know why I bothered walking them if I’d already worked out where I was going, couldn’t understand the joy of planning, anticipation, the satisfaction of a plan working coupled with the complete freedom to do something totally different if I felt like it, or the weather changed.
It wouldn’t have mattered as much if they hadn’t been so bloody slow in the morning about deciding where to go. Breakfast, and pots, cups of tea, making butties and an absolute refusal to consider where they might take us until they were ready to get into the car, and even then it would take ages to make a decision. As the next couple of years progressed, it got so slow that it would usually be 11.30am before we even left the cottage, hours of good walking time wasted and me bored skullless, waiting for something to happen.
I may be projecting what I want to think on my absent Dad, but to me he was the driving force. He’d wanted to go fell-walking, he was thrilled by the Wainwrights, he looked ahead. He only ever reached three summits, Middle Fell and Lingmell in Wasdale, and Haystacks, and I credit him for the fact that we actually climbed a fell outside of that quarter from Wasdale round to Langdale. My mother even said that she was only interested in that part of the Lakes, a claim I still cannot comprehend. How can you love the Lakes and not want all of it? Not want to gulp all of it down and see all the beauty it can offer? I believe my Dad felt that, that he wanted to see new things, not only the same old places over and again, that he was only waiting for my sister and I go be old enough…
There was one more thing on top. My Uncle developed some kind of stomach condition, I know not what, that meant that once he had eaten, further uphill progression became painful. He’d go on as long as he could, but eventually he’d have to eat… One more governor, one further limitation.
Somehow, I have no idea how or why, I got my own way for once. In August 1975, we foresook South West Lakeland for the North East. A cottage in Stainton, a base for Ullswater, the long awaited chance to go and see Haweswater, now it wasn’t ‘too far to drive’. August 1975, a prelude to the following year’s Drought Summer. I wanted to revel in it, in all these new views around me, but I had made another mistake.
You see, I’d just been away on holiday. With the lads. A week in Blackpool, six days at home, a week in the Lakes. I’d had a week of doing things for myself, taking responsibility. One of four, like in the Lakes, but one with a voice, a say, an equal share in what we chose to do. Saturday to Saturday, then, a Saturday later it’s off to the Lakes, nineteen years old, staring down the barrel of my third and final year at University, but still a kid, still nothing, still to be told what to do and where to do. Even when we were on the holiday that was chosen for me.
It was ironic that, by early-evening on the Sunday, I was telling my mother that this was the last family holiday I was coming on. And it was.
As I’ve already said, the week endied in an appropriately symbolic fashion. We set off to climb Helvellyn, significantly higher than anything we’d ever climbed before, and by Striding Edge. We got to the far end of the Edge, the bit where you have to climb down a ten foot rock chimney, and just as on Sty Head, almost a decade before, my mother took one look and decreed that my sister wasn’t going down that.
It was the ultimate frustration. I was furious, though I knew better than to let any of it slip. But Mam surprised me. We never talked about it, but I think it was because this was my last day with them. It was a gesture, or apology, or understanding, of release, but she stunned everyone by saying there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own, reach the summit, meet them back at the Hole in the Wall.
Of course I had to be roped up to be let down the chimney (there were always strings attached, literally in this case) but after that I was on my own, trusted. I forgot all of them. I was so adrenalised by my freedom that I shot up the screes from Striding edge to the summit plateau in ten glorious, furious minutes of scrambling. Look what I can do!
The next year, and the years that followed, they went away and I stayed home, enjoying a week of freedom. Without a car, or the money to own and run one, the Lakes were out of reach for years. My next visit was the only other time I went to the Lakes again with my family: a Bank Holiday Monday day-out with my sister’s boyfriend and future husband making up the party. We went to Wasdale Head: it was baking hot, the lake shone like a silver coin, we had nothing to do and Department S’s “Is Vic There?” was playing on the radio.
Two months later, I bought my first car, to get to the Roses Match at Headingley. In October, I went up to the Lakes to practice driving round narrow, winding roads. The next time I went there, again on my own, encumbered by no-one, I took my boots. I put them on for Helm Crag. A lot followed.
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!