Walls and Mardale Head

Looking up to Mardale Head, from the shore of Haweswater. Harter Fell is the peak in the background.

Date completed: 8th June 2020.

Weather conditions: Dry and still, but cloudy, grey and rather cold on the tops. At times I regretted not having brought fleece and gloves. Still, this is normal for early June in the UK, which is invariably worse than late May — ‘flaming Junes’ (like 2018’s) are exceptions rather than the rule.

Summits bagged: Branstree (2339 feet above sea level, number 246 of my second round), Harter Fell (2552’, no. 247).

Sheep and Small Water

On the descent of Harter Fell. Small Water immediately below.

Branstree was first bagged on walk 65 in August 2012, Harter Fell on walk 35 in April 2011.

Start and end point: Started and finished at Mardale Head, though not quite from the road end. Instead I began at the parking space at the bottom of the ‘Old Corpse Road’. This is about ¾ mile from the end of the tarmac road, at roughly NY479118. There is room for two or three cars to park here.

There might have been buses to Mardale in the 1920s, but not any more. This walk has to be done with the help of a car. See the commentary.

Distance walked: 7.75 miles approximately.

Total ascent: 2,300 feet approx. The starting point has an altitude of over 800 feet, which reduces the amount of climbing to be done, but you also lose a substantial amount of height at Gatescarth Pass.

On the descent of Nan Bield Pass. High Street in the background.

Pub at end: 90 years ago or more you could have slaked your thirst in the Dun Bull Inn, which was located more or less where the walk ends, but that’s long been drowned under Haweswater. There is nothing at Mardale Head any more.

The Haweswater Hotel is about a mile up the road from the starting point. I have never been in it so have no idea what it’s like, but going on appearances (and the web site), it’s posh, but would normally serve non-residents. On the day I did this walk it was closed due to the Great Fear.

Route: Overall, this is a very good walk. The second half of it is better than the first, both because of Small Water, which has superb scenery, and then the final walk along the shore of Haweswater, which is a tranquil spot. Views of the immediate area (Mardale and Kentmere) are good, but you see very little of the rest of the Lake District.

Small Water

Small Water.

I did it after a long spell of dry weather (note the ten-foot high tidemark visible on my pictures of Haweswater), and found the ground good, but probably there will be soggy patches on Branstree in normal conditions. I wouldn’t do this walk in mist, and in summer the start and finish will be affected by bracken — I did it about two weeks before the reaching of critical mass.

From the layby, head towards Mardale Head a short way. Ignore the first, signposted path, the ‘Old Corpse Road’ to Swindale, unless you are a rabid Withnail and I fan as it is up this path that Withnail does his “I’m gonna be a star!!” moment in the movie. But it takes you the wrong side of Hopgill Beck, unfortunately.

Kidsty Pike and Haweswater

Kidsty Pike, above Haweswater.

Instead, cross the road bridge over that stream then go through the inconspicuous gate to the left, and start climbing. This is a good ascent at first (albeit brackened); steep, but with great views of the lake and the fells on the other side, particularly Kidsty Pike. But once things flatten out, the path drifts out of existence and the going gets a little tedious for a time, though this passage doesn’t last long.

Branstree summit

Branstree summit, with its ‘ring’ trigonometrical point.

The impressive twin stone columns that you eventually reach are not the summit of Branstree, but of its subsidiary, Artlecrag Pike. Don’t be too disappointed though as this is a much better summit than that of the parent fell, which is in any case only a short and easy walk away.

Once over the top of Branstree, go straight on in the direction of Harter Fell, which is obvious. Drop to Gatescarth Pass and then go straight on up the clear, pale track ahead. This reaches the very good viewpoint for Haweswater (see Wainwright’s illustration on page Harter Fell 10) and then a little further, Harter Fell’s summit.

Take a rough right turn on the top and pick your way down the path to the shelter at the top of Nan Bield pass, then turn right, following the sign down to Mardale. This is a reasonable descent, not to be rushed but not an ordeal either. Small Water becomes increasingly impressive as you descend into the coombe below, and once you reach it, this would be a fine spot to sit and chill out for half an hour or so on a nice day — it’s one of Lakeland’s best mountain tarns.

Nan Bield Pass

The summit shelter of Nan Bield Pass.

At the outlet, it is not immediately obvious that the path crosses the beck. Follow the stream down, coming out at the car park at Mardale Head. Assuming you parked where I did, however, your car is still about 20 minutes’ walk away. But don’t take the road — it is far more interesting, not to mention safer for pedestrians, to follow the ‘Lakeshore Path’, which is clearly signposted.

Just after this path crosses Hopgill Beck, turn right up the side path signposted Swindale, and after a final steep little climb, you will be returned to the road and hopefully your car will still be there waiting for you.

Drowned buildings

Drowned buildings in the reservoir.

Lost civilisation commentary: A paraphrase from The Big Chill:
Michael (played by Jeff Goldblum): Don’t knock rationalisations. I don’t know anyone that can get through a week without two or three juicy rationalisations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam: Ah come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: You reckon? You ever gone a week without a rationalisation?

Dealing with the day’s rationalisation first, then. According to official advice I am still not supposed to be using public transport for such fripperies as a walk in the countryside. I don’t feel like bickering about this at the moment.

Haweswater

Looking down Haweswater from the lakeshore path.

I decided it seemed a valid option to pick off a walk that, without public transport, was going to remain a major logistical challenge until the end of the secound round. Since the Burnbanks bus was reduced to a fragment, my only other options for doing Branstree and Harter Fell involved coming up all the way up Longsleddale from Staveley station, and that would have been a monstrously long walk up both fells’ dullest sides. End of rationalisation.

Nor do I have any intention of talking about **r***v*r*s. Really.

Harter Fell summit cairn

Harter Fell’s summit cairn. To the left, Ill Bell, and the right, Froswick.

But I will say a few words about Mardale Head and Haweswater. Until the late 1920s the surroundings of this walk would have been very different. The original Haweswater was less than half the size of the present version. Hopgill Beck, up which I began the walk today, would have come off the fellside and passed right by the old Dun Bull Inn, still at least half a mile from entering the lake. 19th and early 20th century Mardale was a thriving community, with two villages, Mardale Green and Measandbeck, the former busy enough to sustain the pub and a church. And as Robert Gambles’ very good book Story of the Lakeland Dales attests, people in these times might have been rather damp and cold, but they didn’t go hungry, with vast amounts of game available on the fellsides, and fish from the lake.

Tarn Crag from Harter Fell

View south from Harter Fell. Tarn Crag is identifiable by the survey post on the summit.

In 1935 all this ended. I doubt such a wholesale eradication of a community could happen now: not for reasons that are anything to do with paternalism, but just because such a village would nowadays be inhabited by owner-occupiers. At that time, though, everyone in Mardale was a tenant, so could just be evicted despite popular protests. Sarah Hall’s novel Haweswater is a pretty good (although depressing) account of what might have happened around this time.

Building the dam raised the level of Haweswater by 95 feet, totally submerging Mardale Green and everything around. The two maps on Haweswater’s Wikipedia page show the difference clearly. The water in the reservoir today was low enough to reveal the outlines of what must have been old buildings towards the head of the lake, as I picture on this page. These could not have been from the actual village, which was nearer my starting point: those ruins have been revealed only in times of genuine drought.

High Street and Kidsty Pike

High Street (left) and Kidsty Pike, seen from Branstree.

Nevertheless the walls are a poignant sight. A sign that there was once something else here, a different environment and way of life. That the land and life within it has not always been as we see it now. Residency of a place is not an innately permanent thing. We should remember this.

I don’t want to start getting into the habit of driving to these walks: it’s an emergency measure, it’s not a permanent change. I hope that this was the last of these interruptions to normal behaviour, but we will see.

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