High Street and Harter Fell
Arriving at Haweswater feels like stepping into another world. A world far removed from the trappings of modern life. One where the balance is shifted in favour of nature and where humans aren’t necessarily in charge.
Even on the greyest of days, it’s like someone has turned up the intensity dial. The diversity of flora and fauna jumps out with a vivid clarity. You might see deer and red squirrels. The dawn chorus is as loud as the silence is deafening.
Haweswater is a favourite haunt of walkers looking for a wilder experience of Lakeland. It offers fantastic walking, along with a sense of stillness that the other Lake District honeypots can only dream of.
It’s ironic really, given humans have had such an impact on the landscape here. You can’t help but notice the whopping great dam holding back the water, a reminder of the valley’s controversial past, when the pretty villages of Mardale Green and Measand were flooded to provide drinking water for the people of Manchester. Our mark was even made in this part of the Lakes long before, when the Romans built a road across the tops, connecting forts at Penrith and Ambleside.
Notwithstanding these human interventions, it feels like the balance is slowly being restored in favour of nature. Its remote location, paired with the work done by initiatives like Wild Haweswater, offers a secluded environment for wildlife to flourish.
Alfred Wainwright recognised that ‘animal and bird life is much in evidence’. He described the Far Eastern Fells as perfect for the ‘strong walker, of keen observation and imagination’. And it’s these sentiments which drew me to this particular walk over High Street and Harter Fell.
The Connoisseur’s Route
My route begins at the Mardale Head car park, ideally situated at the head of the reservoir. The shoreline was much further back than I’m used to, given the unseasonably dry and sunny weather we’ve had during lockdown. Parts of the village of Mardale Green were clear to see, freed from their watery grave. The scene felt quite eerie on this early misty morning.
Admiring the colours of the foxgloves along the path, I spotted what looked like a large woodlouse. On closer inspection it was not like any I’ve seen before. It had a shiny black body with striking horizontal, golden stripes. I’ve since learnt it was a pill millipede – apparently not uncommon but a first for me. Only a few minutes into the walk and the wildlife of Haweswater hadn’t disappointed.
Wainwright describes the ascent of High Street via the Rough Crag ridge as ‘the connoisseur’s route’. And it’d be hard to disagree. The ridge forms an arrow-straight line of approach to the summit plateau right from the valley, with many highlights along the way. It’s a fine way to ascend the mountain.
Once you’ve located the start of the ridge, there’s little to worry you in terms of route finding. As long as you don’t drift too far left or right over the crags which flank the ridge, you can’t go too far wrong.
If you like to bury your head in the map as you go, you’ll soon tick off a list of crags: Swine Crag; Heron Crag; then Eagle Crag on your right. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness at the loss of the magnificent golden eagles in the Lake District. A fate which I hope isn’t destined for many of our remaining raptors, which continue to suffer at the hands of those determined to poison, trap and otherwise shoot these magnificent creatures.
As you gain height, the views over your shoulder just get better. It’s the perfect excuse to stop for a breather, as you turn around to take in the scene over Haweswater. But the views are impressive in all directions. The imposing crags rising steeply above Blea Water, the deepest tarn in the Lake District. Its dark blue waters gleaming, even on this grey and murky morning.
Reaching the summit of Rough Crag feels like an achievement in itself. The ridge plateaus slightly after this point, leaving just one more obstacle standing in the way of the summit of High Street. Long Stile looms ominously ahead but its bark is definitely worse than its bite. Although you’ll need to put hand to rock on this easy scramble, it never feels like the end is nigh and it’s easy to pick a line to meet a large cairn at the top of the ridge.
I’d walked into a bank of cloud, so wasn’t hit with knock-out views of the whole of the Lake District as I reached flat ground. Instead, I walked forwards to meet a wall before turning left to find the summit trig point of High Street. Some playful lambs guarded the summit. Their initial display of bravado soon getting the better of them as they scurried back to their mothers, allowing me to bag the peak.
Despite there being no chance of a view, the noise of the skylarks singing overhead was deafening. I went through a phase of fearing and even actively trying to avoid mist on the hills. But I’ve learnt to appreciate the atmosphere it creates and enjoy the feeling of solitude and the stimulation of other senses.
While it probably didn’t take much imagination to name High Street, given the whopping great road running over its summit, the next objective for the day tries to be just as descriptive. Mardale Ill Bell probably takes its name from the nearby summit of Ill Bell on the Kentmere Round, which means ‘the treacherous, bell-shaped hill’.
The Kentmere version feels more worthy of the name; there’s nothing particularly treacherous, nor indeed too exciting about the summit of Mardale Ill Bell. But with the mist starting to lift, I could see the huge summit cairn on nearby Thornthwaite Crag and the hulking mass of Harter Fell ahead.
Dropping from the summit, you’ll soon reach the important crossroads of Nan Bield Pass. You can cut the walk short here and drop steeply to Small Water below and return to the car park. But only do this if you have nothing left to give in your legs. The final climb to Harter Fell looks intimidating but it’s nowhere near as tiring as it looks.
Heading towards Harter Fell, I had to look twice when I saw a herd of cattle grazing perilously close to the edge of the crags above Small Water. It’s nice to see cattle in the hills, but my brain couldn’t compute these large creatures wandering around with all the deftness of a mountain goat.
I soon reached the summit of Harter Fell, where you can survey the entire route. There’s a particularly good aspect of the initial long ridge from The Rigg, which you tackled earlier in the day. You also get to enjoy views of the Pennines, an added bonus afforded to this part of the region. And there’s an essence of sculpture in the summit cairn, which incorporates metal fence posts and takes on the appearance of an osprey’s untidy nest.
With the final fell conquered, all that’s left is the gradual descent to the Gatesgarth track from where you can return to the car park. But some days you just aren’t ready to come down from the hill. So with a little extra time in the bank and the proposition of a quick out-and-back to the summit of Branstree, I took on the steep and featureless grassy slope to tick off this summit as well.
So with a bonus peak ticked off the list, I returned to the car and took one last look up to the fells. The mist now lifted and the crowds building, you can’t always expect to have Haweswater to yourself. But despite its popularity, it’s still one of the finest wild places of Lakeland.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Mardale Head car park
Distance: 8 miles (12.7 km)
Wainwright count: 4
Navigation: Straightforward but take care in mist
Terrain: Pleasant ridge walking and easy scrambling followed by good mountain paths
Facilities: Nothing nearby, other than the Haweswater Hotel
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.