IF I HAD LOOKED across Mardale Head to the mountains of Kidsty Pike in 1936 I would have seen the village of Mardale Green, which consisted of a pub, the Dun Bull, a church, surrounded by yew trees and some whitewashed cottages. The lake would have had natural beaches where primroses fringed the banks. In his Coastto- Coast book, A. Wainwright reminisced of hedgerows sweet with flowers and wild roses. But it’s the 21st century and Mardale has crumbled beneath the wall of water, which formed when the valley was dammed to feed Manchester.
The autumn and winter months are a lovely time in Mardale. Haweswater is full so there are no sterile shorelines. The winter snows had yet to arrive on the day of my visit, and the larches still glowed with fiery red and gold, contrasting dramatically with black clouds moving across blue skies.
The black clouds were disappearing fast by the time I passed the beautiful tarn of Small Water and only white fluffy ones were left at the high pass of Nan Bield. I remembered the time I arrived here from Kentmere when doing the Lakeland to Lindisfarne long distance walk some years ago. Visibility was zero and the gale-blown rain horizontal. My wife’s knees had almost given up and there were several more miles to go to Bampton Grange in the north.
Today I looked across Kentmere and its small reservoir to one of my favourite mountains, Ill Bell, which like its name suggests is bell-shaped and dressed with fine steep rocks. Confusingly my next peak was also called Ill Bell but this one was Mardale Ill Bell. The peak, while not as well sculpted as its Kentmere neighbour, offers splendid views back down Mardale, where the yawning stretch of Haweswater seems like an extension of Small Water.
The wide main path carries on directly to High Street but I chose a neat little left fork which rounds the Kentmere side to visit the great stone beacon on Thornthwaite Crag.
The onward journey to High Street is by way of the Roman road, which linked forts at Bracovum (Ambleside) and Galava (Penrith), then a right fork path by the ridge wall. The top of High Street, the mountain, is quite extensive and it’s no surprise that this used to be known as Racecourse Hill, a name dating back to the times when the locals from the lost village of Mardale Green used to congregate here for an annual festival, which included horse racing. The same horses were also used to carry ale and provisions for the revelry.
Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast walk took me along the Straights of Riggindale to the rocks of Kidsty Pike. I could have made a direct descent to Haweswater but I had time for a longer walk so I headed over Rampsgill Head, which gives fine views down the deep scoop of Martindale, and rejoined the Roman road to the rounded grass summit of High Raise. Here it was time to leave the ridge and a narrow path led me over the cairn on Low Raise. All traces of a path are lost north of Bason Crag and it is best to round the coombe, then head north-eastwards down the rough, grassy slopes north of Laythwaite Crags. If visibility is good, head in the direction of the white radar dome that crowns Great Dun Fell on the horizon. By doing this I located a winding rutted track that led me down to the footbridge over Measand Beck, a lively stream with some waterfalls peeping through the rowan bushes and thorn trees.
It was fairly late by the time I reached the ‘lake path’. I suppose lake path is a misnomer as it climbs quite high at Flakehow Crags and cuts a corner by climbing over the shoulder of the Rigg. Mine was the last car left in the car park but the lateness mattered not a jot. I was staying at the Haweswater Hotel, where my wife, a nice bottle of claret and a juicy steak were waiting to reward my efforts.