Don’t imagine this is where Mrs Roman shopped for a designer toga whilst Mr Roman sat sipping a little wine, idly flicking through the back pages of the papyrus. Sometime in the 1st century AD, the Romans built a road which linked the forts at Galava (Ambleside) and Brocavum (Brougham, near Penrith), a distance of about 25 miles. It would have been an engineering feat today, let alone almost two thousand years ago. The route ran across bleak high ground, where there was less chance of ambush, and there wasn’t a shop until you got to your destination. It must have been one of the loneliest highways in Provincia Britannia and it’s still pretty isolated, right on the roof and edge of the English Lake District, where the main traffic is not troops and supplies, but walkers and sheep. Anyway, thanks to our Roman ancestors, we are stuck with a fell, or mountain, misleadingly called ‘High Street’. Actually, there’s a possibility that the surveyors and engineers who mapped and made this road so long ago laid it on an even more ancient pathway. In a 15th century copy of a 13th century land grant, it is identified as Brethstrett, Brethstrede, or Brethstrette – street or track of the ‘Brettas’, or Britons. ‘High Street’ rolls off the tongue more easily, though - don’t you think?
I was conscious of a little role-reversal when my son suggested that we ‘do a walk’. Not my favourite one, a short hop to The Old Ruptured Duck, but a strenuous and probably lung-bursting experience up High Street, the mountain. It was undoubtedly time my poor, bloated, body was given an airing – preferably somewhere with as few witnesses as possible – so I agreed. Alfred Wainright, fell-walker extraordinaire, writer and lover of the Lake District, described High Street as “the most massive of the fells on the far east of Lakeland.” It’s actually part of a long ridge running roughly north-south and, as with the proverbial snuffing out of a cat, there are a variety of ways you can approach it. Serious hard-core walkers trek the entire length, but you need at least a day for that as well as a means of getting back: and did I mention that you need to be a serious hard-core walker too? Our choice was a more modest circular route from Mardale, a remote valley reached by car via the fleshpots of Shap and Bampton along narrow stone-lined lanes. A scenic drive – keep your eyes peeled for rock falls - takes you along the shores of Haweswater, now a reservoir formed of two smaller lakes, to a small car park at the end.
Beneath the waters of Haweswater, at the head of the valley, lie the remains of Mardale Green. This centuries-old community ceased to exist when the dam was created in the 1930s to provide water for Manchester, 90 miles away. I don’t understand this, because it seems to rain every other time I visit Manchester; what on earth do they do with it all? In any event, the people were ordered to leave their homes, the authorities blew up the buildings (including a rather nice looking pub), dismantled the medieval church, dug up the corpses from the cemetery and let the floodwaters cover old Mardale Green. The outlines of farms and homes still appear, when the level of Haweswater drops during prolonged periods of dry weather. In years long gone by, the residents of the now defunct village used to fetch a feast with barrels of ale on the backs of horses up to High Street, where they’d hold sports, particularly horse racing, and have a bit of a knees-up. To this day, the top of High Street (2,717 feet, or 828 metres) is marked ‘Racecourse Hill’ on maps.
You won’t want all the gory details of our walk. The image of an aging fat bloke breathing heavily and dragging himself up a mountain isn’t a pretty one; don’t dwell on it. I tried to keep myself going by getting into a rhythm, muttering “Sinister, dexter, sinister, dexter…”, but this only brought pitying looks from my young companion and ridiculous mental images of ‘Carry on Cleo’, which made me giggle. They say this is the only place in England where you’re likely to see a Golden Eagle; but Golden Eagles are not attracted to things that make noises like an asthmatic yeti. So we were left with crows – and slightly puzzled-looking sheep.
On the way up, we skipped (I use the term cautiously) across some stepping stones, skirted Small Water – a perfect, glacial, tarn - and passed some rough shelters; a reminder that you don’t mess about in these hills. The summit is always over the next brow but, every time I venture up a place like this, I tell myself it’s worth it when you get there. Whenever that is. Even in poor weather, provided you’re dressed for it, there’s something special about perching on a nice comfy rock, sucking a squashed cheese and pickle sandwich and breathing air so fresh it's as though heaven just released it. I really mean it. If the weather’s good, you get the views too – and I must say the outlook over Hayeswater and beyond was stunning.
The top of High Street is a broad pasture. The only real features are a drystone wall and the course of the old Roman road, which run parallel to each other. I tried to hear the tramp of feet, the clinking of armour, jangling of harnesses, muttering of men looking forward to a pizza – and so on. Nothing. Nor could I hear the shouts of old Mardale folk, a little worse for too much ale, cheering on their favourite horses. High Street’s ghosts weren’t playing and my walking mate made no secret of the fact that he thought his dad was bonkers. Reluctantly, he allowed us to backtrack to see if we could spot any traces of the original Roman stonework; we couldn’t.
So I was forced to face the ordeal of descent. Stupidly, I argued against going down the best (and shortest) way along Riggindale Crag and we negotiated the slope of Kidsty Pike instead. By the time we reached the bottom, I was quite ready for a nice glass of warm milk and a lie-down. Next time, perhaps he could take me to the swings.