Google+ A Bit About Britain: Roman High Street Google+


Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 8 August 2014

Roman High Street

High Street, Small Water, Haweswater, Cumbria, Roman

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?

English Lakes, glacial features, Small Water, tarn, Mardale
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.

Walk High Street, shelter on mountain, visit Cumbria
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.

Roman road, High Street, English Lake District
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.

Hayeswater, High Street, walks in the Lakes
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.

Riggindale, Lake District, Haweswater

Sheep, hawthorn


  1. just beautiful! i love the look of disdain on that sheep's face - apparently at the asthmatic yeti with a camera. :)

  2. Well, from what you say, Mike, I'm quite glad I didn't meet you huffing and puffing, as that would have made two of us and I agree it is embarrassing all round. Also tumbling down descents is embarrassing but I assume you didn't do that. Despite the hardship though this looks like the most wonderful walk. I have been missing long, high up walks in remote countryside, it is too long since I did one.

  3. wow, what a gorgeous view. now that is a hike to take. love the stones. it looks like a great place for yodeling. i have always wanted to try that. i will fly there now. ha. ha!! ( :

  4. Absolutely gorgeous scenery!!
    I love seeing Roman Ruins, Bath England is one of my favorite places for that!
    I hope you have a great weekend,

  5. It might be an isolated place, but my, is it starkly beautiful!

  6. That's quite an unusual but gorgeous scene! Thanks for all the info.

  7. What a treat Mike! I wish I'd been there!
    All the best,

  8. Thank you for your visit and helpful comment on my Blog, Mike.
    Your walk sounds too strenuous for me, but looks absolutely delightful. What beautiful scenery, and as lovers of Roman history, we would enjoy being there very much. Great post!

  9. Never mind ruptured ducks, there used to be Golden Eagles nesting every year at the head of Riggindale. I wonder if they're still there. It's a walk I've done many times; often when the weather has meant that there's been no scenery at all! Glad that you were able to get such good views.

  10. Although I once spent a month on an Outward Bound course at Ullswater, we never ventured up High Street, sticking mainly to Blencathra and Helvellyn, but I often wondered how it got its name. Thanks for the info!

  11. I will have to try the 'sinister Dexter' next time my son decides to make me walk things that are just not in my age bracket anymore! Thanks for your lovely walk up the High Street, and not a penny spent!

  12. Glad you did the walk. The views must have been worth it!

  13. Thanks for the comment on my blog, I appreciate your visit!
    That must have been some hike, so glad to hear you made it back down for a rest! Your photos are stunning:)

  14. My Sheep!!! You found him! Those are my favorite. You totally crack me up. Anyway, I have always wanted to go to this part of your world. It's beautiful, charming, and I can hardly wait to take that brisk walk up and down the fells. (Does one go up AND down the fells, or just down?) 'Fells' seems like a really appropriate word to me. I hope I did that link right. Otherwise I'll be back to fix it.

  15. What a hike that was! I'm not sure if I would survive such a thing but the beauty of the scenery makes it very tempting!

  16. That is quite a hike! How interesting though with the beautiful views and the history of the area. I think I'd also be looking for a rare Roman coin amongst the rocks.

  17. Enjoyed this post very much, Great shots and text.
    I used to consider myself an expert in all Wainwright matters as I covered them all in a 10 year period. However my memory is starting to get a little thin and maybe I need to digitalise some photographs as it was 1996 when I was last here ... up Riggindale, Rough Crag (no, I never saw any Eagles either) and down Gatesgarth. Always meant to go back in periods of drought to walk down Mardale High Street but it proves not to be an accessible place when based in the Lakes. Too many other dangling carrot mountain routes. Only managed to get to the mountains once this year ... Hall's Fell ridge on Blencathra.

  18. What an amazing post, and your photos are just beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. oh...I really look forward to looking through your archive.


Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.