That one of the most enchanting hikes of my life came as a casual half-suggestion from the mouth of a hotel concierge was unexpected. “If you want to walk, perhaps start from the carpark down the end of the road there,” he said. “That’s the base of a few nice walks”.
No mention of sweeping district views, high hidden fell lakes, serene ewes perched on green cliffs peering out over Haweswater dam. So, as we left the carpark at Mardale Head behind, veered left and started climbing the side of Little Harter Fell, we weren’t to yet know the charm that lay ahead.
It wasn’t long, after zigzagging up and up past the small Gatescarth Beck, before the views back down over the Haweswater Reservoir, built by the Manchester Corporation from 1929 which sank the villages of Mardale and Measand (read the brilliant Haweswater by Sarah Hall for a fictionalisation of these events), were as breathtaking as the climb had been.
Under a sky of patchy clouds that warned of oncoming rain, we kept ascending until we were at the top of Harter Fell. Walking along a high ridge, we came across a family or two of sheep. One ram was particularly threatened by our presence, and bleated his distress at us, protective of his ewe and baby sheep. Being close enough to the side of a very tall mountain (Harter Fell is 649m high), we jumped a fence to pass the family, partly from fear of being chased over the edge, partly to calm the nerves of the shaken animal.
As we veered left along the fence line, we reached the summit probably an hour into the hike. There were multiple rocky cairns at the top, one of which had parts of a mangled old iron gate weaved among the rock. There were plenty of rocks stacked there to mark the achievement of hikers, barely any of whom we saw that day. I couldn’t believe that there were so few hikers on this incredible patch of land – was this a relatively secret walking spot or did the patchy weather dissuade others? I was grateful that it wasn’t as famous as it deserved to be. It finally started to rain.
Once past the summit, the terrain becomes a series of vistas, with high fell lakes filling the valleys. You descend and ascend again along the winding rocky path, weaving among some stunning grassy mountains. It was a beautiful mix of charming and rugged. Eventually we reached Nan Bield Pass, where a group of some kind of teen scouts had taken off their huge packs and were resting by the stonework shelter. We rested a little too.
Around the lower lake called Small Water there was scattered rock smeared across the descent, surely the scene of some kind of seismic movement. We had to watch our step. And there was always grass, but sometimes low-lying flowers were growing over the stones or Creeping Thistles with barely-flowering purple heads were rising out of their spikey leaves. Slowing for rest stops had the added benefit of time to take notice of these little wonders.That’s one of the things I love about hiking – the grand landscapes that make you feel like a small being in a big wild world, and then the tiny flowers and details as well. Especially in a foreign country where the flora is different from home. I bought a little Collins Gem Wildflowers guide so I could identify some as we travelled about England through the summer.
We spent some time sitting by Small Water, which was a deep emerald colour, reflecting the grass from the sides of the surrounding mountain. Little shelters has been built down by the water so we sat among them, hesitant to make our final descent. We had been walking for probably close to 3 hours by this point, with about another half hour to return to the Mardale Head carpark where we began. It was such an unexpectedly enchanting hike, wandering around high up in the Lakeland fells. I was certainly smitten by the landscape.
To have this kind of overwhelming beauty come to be a casual suggestion speaks to the richness of the Lake District. Oh, this lil thing! I wasn’t sure if this left me with a desire to move here and spend a lifetime discovering the other Harter Fells of the District, or whether I was ready to leave, knowing that every future visit to the area would ignite the same kind of spark as this hike did. But we got on the road, packed the guide (The Northern Lakes: 40 Shorter Walks from the Easy to the Adventurous by Dominic North) away and brought it back to Sydney (via Liverpool) with us, and now it sits on the travel shelf, with 39 walks left so far unexplored…
Have you done any walks in England or the Lake District that you would recommend? Please share them below!