The Roman fort and Eskdale

The Roman fort at Hardknott Pass – known as “Mediobogdum” – and the view down into Eskdale that explains why they built it there.

Date completed: 22nd August 2012. With Clare and Joe, though they only did the first of the day’s two fells (Harter Fell); I did the second (Hard Knott) alone.

Weather conditions:  Same crap. Different day. Sun in parts, no rain, but both summits were reached in low cloud and there was a chill wind throughout.

Yew Crags and Brotherilkeld

Yew Crags (part of Hard Knott) and the farm buildings of Brotherilkeld

Fells climbedHarter Fell (2140 feet above sea level, number 200), Hard Knott (1803’, no. 201)

Distance:  10.25 miles approximately.

Total ascent:  3050 feet approx.

Start and end points: Started at the Stanley House hotel, next to Beckfoot station (Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway), and finished at the Woolpack Inn further up Eskdale. These two establishments have shared ownership, so a ‘minibus‘ ran between the two. This was an old Army truck, which in terms of discomfort matched the couple of days I spent last year in a Land Rover being flung around the sand dunes of Fraser Island in Australia, but it was very convenient, and counts as ‘public transport‘ to me.

The River Esk

The River Esk, near St Catherine’s Church

Pub at end:  The Woolpack is a large-scale establishment, with big beer gardens, a playground, comedy nights, two different restaurants and a pizza delivery service – not to mention the semi-posh accommodation annexe (including self-catering chalets) down the dale at Stanley House. At the same time it still manages to feel fairly cosy.  Everybody liked the food.

'Knight's Head' rock, above Eskdale

This rock sits on the slope of Harter Fell, above Eskdale. Looks like a knight (chess piece) to me, or maybe a lion’s head?

Route: Whether you start at Beckfoot or Dalegarth station, aim for St Catherine’s church and take the path upriver from there.  We crossed at a footbridge and ended up on the other side, going past Low Birker, but it seems from the map you should also be able to stay on the original side. Either way, you want to come out at Doctor Bridge and then take the drive down past Penny Hill Farm.

We stuck on the valley path until passing a 3-way signpost, one arm going back the way we came, one a way we did not want to go (Whahouse Bridge) and one the way we did (‘Public Footpath’) – though this way up was not as clear as I expected. We had first to go across a footbridge and then take a rather obscure-looking path up behind the wall. There’s a lot of bracken around (Joe decided that Harter Fell should be called ‘Bracken Fell’) but the path does continue upwards until reaching a gate.

Looking into Upper Eskdale

Looking into Upper Eskdale: for tomorrow’s walk…

After the gate, bear to the left to head up to Harter Fell (instead of over to the Duddon Valley). However, it did seem that we took a more circuitous route up the mountain than it appears from the map. No way of confirming this for sure, though, so let’s assume we went via the marked path.

The summit of Harter Fell is a series of rocky tors which are good fun to scramble around on, but the topmost one needs some care: the only safe route is round the other side from the one with the trig point on (which can be reached easily – that presumably being why it was built there). This will prove difficult for the less-than-agile, although it’s easier than Helm Crag’s summit rocks.

Demming Crag

Demming Crag (or is it the other one), on the way down from Harter Fell

The path down to Hardknott Pass is fairly clear throughout, but the going deteriorates into boggy patches and the scenery is nothing to write home about. Keep to the right of the two craggy protuberances (Demming Crag and, er, the other one) and you will eventually reach the tarmac of the Hardknott Pass road, although until the last few yards before you do it seems amazing that a road could actually be driven through this remote area up in the mountains; there is no prefiguring of its existence.

The climb to Hard Knott starts from the cairn at the very top of the pass. I once again did this in cloud and followed my instincts when it came to the route – there is a path, of sorts, most of the way but it is never very clear.  Certainly I followed nothing that bore much resemblance to the text-only description of this ascent on Wainwright’s page Hard Knott 5 – there was no ‘scree run’, for instance – but it did get me to the summit, and afterwards, I just retraced my steps.

Top of Hardknott Pass

The cairn at the top of Hardknott Pass

The descent of the Hardknott Pass road is no easier or safer than walking on rough ground (the tarmac gives little grip and you also have a procession of cars to deal with, whose drivers have realised there are still one or two things they yet need to learn about propelling their lumps of metal), so escape from the road at a ‘Public Footpath’ sign which takes you round to the right, across the old parade ground and into the Roman fortress through a side entrance.

Once you’ve had a look around, you can then take a path from the opposite side down to Jubilee Bridge, which is just above the junction to Brotherilkeld. It’s worth staying off the road, which is narrow and rather unsafe for pedestrians (my route card shows me staying on it as far as Whahouse Bridge but that’s exactly why I talk from experience here). A public footpath sign leads you straight across the road at Jubilee Bridge and through fields and woods until you are back at the bottom of the track up to Harter Fell which you passed a few hours ago.

From here, either retrace your steps all the way to Dalegarth or, at Doctor Bridge, come back onto the main road where the Woolpack Inn awaits.

The outer wall of the fort

The outer wall of “Mediobogdum”.

Mediobogdum meandering commentary:  We are staying in Stanley House for three nights. It’s always been a hotel – yesterday (Tuesday 21st, largely a day off walking) we saw a picture of it from the early years of the 20th century, in the R&ER museum at Ravenglass station. It’s comfortable, provides a good night’s sleep, and lets you make your own packed lunches from the supplies in the fridge.

Unfortunately though Eskdale can deliver comfortable accommodation it can’t deliver the kind of weather I have been craving. I might be seeming ungrateful. Once off Hard Knott it could even be said that the sun came out, at least for some periods of time. But the real drag, the thing that most erodes the rewards that fellwalking in the Lakes can offer, is the low cloud, which was clamped over both of today’s summits like a dirty grey towel. I’m so tired of it.

White How, from Harter Fell

White How – a protuberance on the side of Green Crag – seen from Harter Fell

But here we all are, deliberately spending time around on the district’s western side to pick off the last few hard-to-reach fells in the last stretch of time, between now and January, when I can take the time to do this kind of thing. Harter Fell and Hard Knott just can’t be done on a day trip from home – I’ve checked – and even one from Morecambe is pushing it (the problem being getting round both and back to Dalegarth between the arrival of the first train from Ravenglass and the departure of the last one: it’s possible, but very tight, with no margin of error). So it’s got to be done.

Clare and Joe are with me on this one: Joe primed by promises of the rocky towers on top of Harter Fell and the Roman camp. It transpires he actually thought there were real, Lord of the Rings-style towers up there, but anyway.

Cockley Beck

Cockley Beck, at the head of the Duddon Valley, between Wrynose and Hardknott passes

It takes us all a little while to find a mutually-agreeable pace for the walk, but we do, and the ascent is a fairly agreeable one (although it would have been less so had the bracken been wetter). Joe is momentarily entertained by being up in the clouds for the first time in his life, but the appeal doesn’t seem to last very long: and why would it? The towers on Harter Fell may not be orc guardhouses, but they’re still appealing, and I do make the genuine summit. But I just get upset about the weather, not looking forward to doing this all again tomorrow in more crud and, for a while, wondering whether I should postpone the planned hike up Crinkle Crags in favour of one of my other (few) alternatives, or even not walk at all.

The trudge down to Hardknott Pass and then up the eponymous fell doesn’t do much to change my mind, being no less cloudy up there, and without any rocky towers to scramble on either. But then – almost mocking me, but I still forgive it – the sun does begin to emerge and the Roman fort is reached in relatively blue skies, which add to the vibes of what is a pretty atmospheric spot. (I parted company with Clare and Joe at the Pass, so they didn’t do Hard Knott; I met up with them again at the Woolpack.)

Clare and Joe approaching Harter Fell

Clare and Joe approaching Harter Fell

There’s not much to actually see, but it does provoke the kind of speculation indulged in by Wainwright on his page about the camp – what must the soldiers stationed here have thought of it?  Did they ever go fell walking? Harter Fell looms right up above, and looks good: but would the thought of just nipping up to the top (and clambering up and over the towers, etc) have any appeal? It’s just a modern thing really, this idea that a mountain is worth climbing ‘because it’s there’. I guess the modern fellwalker doesn’t run the risk of being impaled on the weapon of some hairy-arsed ancient Briton, either. But I can’t believe no Roman stationed here ever tried it. Hell, maybe some of them even stuck around and shacked up with some local girl. You never know.

The final walk along the valley was a bit longer than needed but at least we didn’t have to go all the way back to Stanley House. Having bypassed the Woolpack on both my previous visits to Eskdale I did make it this time, and it was worth the time, with decent food that in the end we got for free due to where we were staying (both establishments share ownership), and a lift home in an old Army truck – uncomfortable but a great benefit at that point of the day.  And some celebrity-spotting too, as we (Clare and I) are both convinced after a while that one of the fellow customers is the actor Bill Nighy. Certainly looked and sounded like him (in fact it was the voice that I recognised first). If that kind of thing impresses you. (Clare also claims that yesterday in Muncaster Castle she spotted some woman off Breakfast TV, but even when she told me her name and insisted she was well known, I had never heard of her.)

View towards Scafell from the Hardknott fort

View towards Scafell from the Hardknott fort

A pretty good walk in the end, then, despite the clouds on the summits: and at 9 miles (for them – my 10.5 minus the walk to and from Hard Knott), the longest walk Joe has ever done, I think. But I go to bed, committing myself to another long one tomorrow – deciding in the end that I may as well – but the forecast is no better.

One Response to “Walk 63: Eskdale and Hardknott”

  1. […] off the four-day break in Eskdale with two further walks: walk 63 took me round Harter Fell and Hard Knott and walk 64 up the valley pictured here – Upper […]

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