The lake level was surprisingly low when I arrived at Mardale Head, allowing glimpses of the old field boundaries leading to the village now submerged beneath the reservoir. I tried to imagine the valley as it would have looked before it was flooded, but found it hard to picture fields and farms where now there was only gently lapping water. The trees, bracken and even some of the moor grasses were a blaze of autumnal colour, lending a cheerful note to an otherwise sombre scene.
We headed up towards High Street along the Rough Crag ridge, which to my mind is the most interesting and dramatic approach to an otherwise rather featureless mountain. As we gained height, the mist continually revealed and then concealed different parts of the skyline and small patches of sunlight briefly illuminated patches of hillside, before the gaps in the clouds closed once again. A brief gentle shower cooled us on one of the steeper sections but did not last long. From the summit of Rough Crag (2060 ft), revealing views down into Riggindale and towards Blea Water opened up, the surface of the latter showing very little disturbance from the wind.
Reaching the summit of High Street (2718 ft), the mist closed in once again and we started to feel the effect of the wind. Consequently, we didn’t linger. The day still being young, we decided to head over to Thornthwaite Crag (2572 ft) and as we did, we walked into clearer weather, with Windermere and Morecambe Bay both becoming visible. It seemed as though every man and his dog was at the summit, so after admiring the view of the Ill Bell ridge, we turned about face and took the path that contours around the head of Kentmere and towards Mardale Ill Bell (2493 ft). We were able to enjoy the view down into Kentmere before we were once again enveloped in mist as we neared Mardale Ill Bell.
Happily the mist was only thin and we were able to pick out the onward route to Nan Bield without recourse to map or compass. Part way down, we decided to drop down the Kentmere flank to find shelter for lunch. As we sat eating, we were rewarded with a sighting of a trio of red deer hinds at the bottom of the slope. This being the rutting season, I had hoped to see or at least hear the stags, but it was not to be on this day.
Reaching the summit of Harter Fell (2552 ft), we found ourselves on more featureless terrain, but as the cloud level had lifted, we were able to enjoy far reaching views down into Longsleddale and across to the Pennines. We dropped down to Gatescarth Pass and just beyond encountered the only truly boggy section of the whole route. A wide detour was required to outflank it, but we were soon heading up drier ground towards Branstree (2339 ft). Looking back towards Harter Fell, I was surprised by the craggy aspect that it presents in this direction. More moorland terrain followed as we continued to Branstree North East Top (2208 ft) and Selside Pike (2149 ft), interest being provided by a well-constructed survey pillar (built in connection with the reservoir) and a small but attractive tarn. The oddly-named Captain Whelter Bog turned out to be much less wet than we had feared an in fact was far less of an obstacle than the nameless quagmire at Gatescarth pass.
As we descended towards the old corpse road, we were hit by the only truly wetting shower of the day. Thankfully this too was brief and didn’t require the dreaded overtrousers! I was looking forward to the old corpse road as its history has always fascinated me since I first learned of its existence. I was interested to see that it appears to have been roughly surfaced in places and that even though it must now be many years since it was last used for anything other than recreation, parts of the surface are still visible. Even more impressive to me was that the dalesfolk had carried coffins up such a steeply-graded path. They truly were made of tougher stuff in those times.
Just before the final descent to the lake, we encountered a cluster of what I took to be shielings, which enjoyed a stunning view of the valley. Relict woodlands in the two gills to our left provided further autumnal spectacle. Did the people who had lived up here during the summer months appreciate the beauty, we wondered? Given the sense of loss that displaced people often describe (particularly the victims of the Highland clearances, and the Irish emigrants), I thought that they must have done. As we dropped down the final slope, I was reminded of Wainwright’s words describing his first visit, which he made just before the lake was dammed, but after the village had been evacuated: ‘I thought I had never seen a more beautiful picture. Nor a sadder one.’