High Street Wainwright Walks


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High Street

Julia Bradbury follows in fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright's footsteps and climbs to the summit of High Street, the most well-trodden high ground in the Lakes.


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Nestled in the far northwest of England, this is the Lake District.

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A land defined by its natural beauty.

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Known to millions who love the Lakes was the late Alfred Wainwright -

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author, guide writer and talented artist,

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but above all, he was the greatest fell walker.

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Wainwright's guides have inspired generations of walkers

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to roam these glorious fells

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and now, a century after his birth,

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it's my turn to go in search of the real Wainwright experience.

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Today, I am in a remote spot in the far eastern area of the Lakes,

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in the Haweswater Valley, to climb to the summit of High Street.

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Now, as the name suggests, it is quite literally a "high street" -

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an ancient route, well-trodden for at least 2,000 years.

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Today, I'm setting out to discover why legions of Roman soldiers

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who trudged across this glorious fell

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fired the imagination of the young Alfred Wainwright.

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The name High Street intrigued Wainwright so much so, he climbed it

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during his first visit to the Lakes in 1930, when he was just 23.

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'This range forms a spirit along the eastern fringe of Lakeland,

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'providing a splendid full day's march

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'at a consistently high altitude,

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'but is distant from the areas most favoured by fell walkers

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'and is comparatively unfrequented,

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'appealing mainly to lovers of mountain solitude.'

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High Street gets its name from the Roman road which once ran across

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the fell tops and through the valleys

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between two forts at Ambleside and near Penrith.

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It is so very quiet here

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and dramatic. It's easy to see how Wainwright

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would be captivated by the isolated beauty and tranquillity

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of the valley and then that imposing ridge.

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But behind all this scenery hides a very intriguing story.

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Haweswater itself may look like an unspoilt stretch of Lakeland Valley,

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but the view here is almost entirely man-made.

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Back along the Mardale Road sits an enormous dam.

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It was built in 1935 and turned the valley's natural lake

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into a huge reservoir that could supply drinking water to Manchester.

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But beneath the surface today lie the flooded remains of two villages.

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Hundreds of thousands of gallons are now pumped south every day.

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At its maximum capacity,

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this reservoir holds 18.5 billion gallons of water.

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That's enough for everyone on the planet to have three baths!

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Before I set off on my walk today,

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I am meeting local journalist Karen Barden

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to find out more about the history of the valley floor.

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Karen, there must be some real ghosts in this valley?

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Yeah, there really are.

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It's hard to think that this lake isn't a natural lake

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and it is, in fact, a huge reservoir.

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Underneath it are the dismembered remains of Mardale,

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which was described as one of the most beautiful

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and tranquil villages in the Lake District.

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When Wainwright first came here, he described it as a ghost town.

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It was before the reservoir had been completed.

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There must have been some resistance from the locals in the village.

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Surprisingly, there didn't seem to be that much resistance.

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You've got to go back a bit -

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the Haweswater Act was passed by Manchester Corporation in 1919.

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It gave them the right to buy every bit of land you could see.

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The idea was they would put a huge dam at the top,

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which was described as monstrous plug at the time, and then they would flood the whole valley.

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People didn't protest as much as they should have.

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Remember, this was just post Great War.

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There was very little for the men to come back to.

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This was going to provide 200 jobs.

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I suppose, for a lot of people, that was a positive step -

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there was going to be all this work.

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Why was Mardale chosen?

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Because the original Haweswater was, I think, the highest lake in England.

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It was about 1,700 feet above sea level.

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That was really important in the logistics of getting water the 80-odd miles down to Manchester.

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Try and describe what was here all those years ago.

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Basically, it was a farming community.

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As you see the headlands sticking out,

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if you imagine that about halfway between the headland on the other side,

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that's where the Dun Bull pub was.

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When you say headland, you mean this protuberance here?

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It's called The Rig and it would have looked very different in the time of Mardale village.

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The Corporation planted it with conifers, as was the fashion in those days.

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In the '30s, by the time that Wainwright would have seen it,

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it was down to about 40 inhabitants and there was a vicarage and a beautiful church,

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one of the smallest in the Lake District.

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In August 1935, it was going to be the last service.

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Only 75 people could get in and tickets were issued, but in fact, 81 squeezed in the door.

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All the others were just outside.

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It is said that as they sang the hymn Lift Up Thine Eyes To The Hills,

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the tears were the first tears of the reservoir.

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What did they do to the buildings? Did they demolish them or just flood them?

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By and large, they demolished them.

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They allowed the Territorial Army in to practise blow-up procedures on them. Nice(!)

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Only the church was spared and that was taken down stone by stone.

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Quite a lot of the materials were used to build the draw-off tower

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for the reservoir, which is the tower-like structure you see halfway down.

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Presumably, there would have been bodies to deal with, buried bodies. What happened to them?

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There were about 100 bodies in the churchyard and they were all exhumed

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and taken to Shap. A special little area in the cemetery was made over

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to the former residents of Mardale.

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Do you think visitors to this valley now understand the sadness?

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Oh, some of them do and particularly in times of drought.

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What can you see during those times?

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You can see the stone walls, you can see roads

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and you can see little piles of stones

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and outside the Dun Bull, you can see the definite square of a tennis court.

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But it's a very, very sad time.

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In '95, it was quite remarkable because the whole lake just receded and receded and receded,

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so again, it became a huge, huge tourist attraction.

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The valley was flooded again, but with people this time.

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There were hot dog sellers and ice cream vendors and it became a complete circus.

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Thanks. I shall think about things very differently as I take my walk today.

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-What should I be looking out for?

-The golden eagle, definitely.

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-It's the only one in England.

-I will do. Thank you very much.

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I hope the rain stays away.

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'The hamlet of Mardale Green would be drowned.

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'The church, the inn, the cottages, and the flowers would all disappear,

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'sunk without trace

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'and its history and traditions be forgotten.'

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That's where I'm heading, so let's take a look at the route.

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From the car park, the walk begins from amidst the reservoir's headwaters.

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My route now follows the lakeshore, before reaching the conifer plantation on The Rig.

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The path now strikes up a well-defined ridge.

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I'll pass along the summits of Heron Crag, Swine Crag,

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Eagle Crag and Rough Crag.

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From the ridge, the view looks into Bleawater Crag and down upon

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Bleawater tarn, with the lesser tarn of Small Water beyond it.

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Here, the ridge narrows into the steep and rocky staircase called Long Stile.

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That brings me to a small cairn

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where the ridge is met by the plateau.

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A grassy path leads across the vast plateau that gives High Street its name,

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heading towards an old triangulation column

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and a huge open vista that is the summit's true top.

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The indistinct route of the Roman road

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lies here, between the two visible paths.

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I'm meeting Jamie Lund at the summit. He's an archaeologist for the National Trust.

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He's going to explain more about the Roman road

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and the history of High Street that so enraptured Wainwright.

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Thing is, I'm meeting him there in two hours, so I'd better get a move on.

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'Most of the high places in Lakeland have no mention in history books,

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'and until comparatively recent times,

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'when enlightened men were inspired to climb upon them for pleasure and exercise,

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'it was fashionable to regard them as objects of awe and terror,

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'and their summits were rarely visited.

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'Not so High Street, which has been known and trodden

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'down through the ages by a miscellany of travellers

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'on an odd variety of missions.'

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This promontory at the edge of Haweswater is the ridge that Karen mentioned.

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It is hard to believe that not so long ago, this looked out onto fields and cottages.

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Wainwright always liked to give the reader a choice of different ways to make the ascent.

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But in this case, he was particularly clear

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about his preferred route from Mardale,

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describing it is as the "the connoisseur's route up High Street".

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'The ascent is a classic, leading directly along

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'the crest of a long, straight ridge

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'that permits no variation from the valley to the summit.

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'The views are excellent throughout.'

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It doesn't look man-made.

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Whilst Wainwright was no supporter of the Manchester dam,

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he acknowledged the efforts to integrate it into the landscape.

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'It must be conceded that Manchester has done the job as unobtrusively as possible.'

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Now, if you take a peek at the guide,

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it looks like a pretty straightforward walk -

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just all along the ridge right to the summit.

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But you also know that the summit is just shy of 3,000ft.

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So it's not going to be as easy as it appears on the page.

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'Mountain climbing is an epitome of life.

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'You start at the bottom.

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'The weaklings and irresolute drop out on the way up.

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'The determined reach the top.

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'Life is like that.'

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The route may be straight,

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but the path is not.

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It's all twists and turns and there's loads of rocks,

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which make it really hard going

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and slow you down quite a lot.

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We're at about 1,600ft here and the view has really opened out on both sides.

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The dam is that way and if you look down there,

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you can just see Tower Pier.

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Just along from the pier is the small man-made islet of Wood Howe.

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It was built to mimic similar scenery at the natural lakes of Windermere and Derwentwater

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to ensure that this reservoir blended with the overall Lakeland landscape.

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So far, the weather is holding, but there is an ominous amount

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of cloud over the next valley heading towards the summit.

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Something that will come as no surprise to those familiar

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with the ever-changing weather conditions on the Lakeland mountains.

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My path is steeper as I reach the top of the crag,

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giving me clear views into the valleys on both sides of the ridge.

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And there is my first view of the summit.

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It still looks tiny, still a long way to go.

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And also from this ridge...

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..I can see the other valley, Riggindale, down there.

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Along the ridge, each high point has its own name.

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There's Swine, Heron and Eagle Crag.

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'I was standing here a few years ago, looking down into Riggindale,

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'when a huge bird took off from the crags below

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'and with two lazy flaps of its wings

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'soared effortlessly across the valley

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'and alighted on the topmost rocks of Kidsty Pike opposite.

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'There was no doubting its identity.

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'It was a golden eagle.'

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The sight of eagles was once commonplace across Lakeland.

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Today, Haweswater is the last place in England where the golden eagle nests.

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And sadly, the valley's ageing solo male has been without a mate since 2004.

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Karen told me to watch out for the male eagle.

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This is Eagle Crag. No sign.

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Must be camera shy today.

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Although I haven't been lucky with the eagle,

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there's one unusual Lakeland view here that I'm guaranteed.

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Here from the ridge, there are two tarns in one view.

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Small Water, nestled below Harter Fell, and the larger Bleawater.

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Not only is this one of the most impressive tarns

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in the Lake District, it is also the deepest, plunging to 207 feet.

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You always expect rain in the Lakes,

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but it's always so beautiful when the sun shines.

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The top of High Street is in sight,

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but my path is still interrupted by the seemingly endless rocky spine of Rough Crag.

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Every time you get over one of these mini summits, there's another one!

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This is the summit of Rough Crag,

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which is really just a knobble on this huge undulating ridge

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and this pitiful pile of rocks is the cairn.

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As I pass over each of the crags, there's a brief moment of descent,

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providing a little respite.

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But I can see the summit of High Street looming ominously over me.

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That last climb is so cruel cos you think you're nearly there and then,

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there's one more shift upwards.

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This is Long Stile, which means the next spot

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is definitely, definitely the summit.

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Long Stile buttresses the enormous grassy plateau of High Street

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and forms the final chapter of my walk up the ridge.

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The long flat top of the fell is where the Roman road reaches

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its highest point as it passes from north to south.

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On a clear day, the edge of the summit plateau gives amazing views

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back along the ridge to Haweswater.

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But unfortunately today,

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it looks like my luck with the weather is running out.

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I've made it to the top of the ridge and on to the plateau,

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but I've been swamped by cloud, which has blanked out my view.

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Well, I've made it to the top of the ridge.

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The weather has just closed in,

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but I'm on time to meet Jamie.

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So, Jamie, where have you brought me and why is the mountain covered in cloud on this side?

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Quite typically, we've got all four seasons in one day today.

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We have come into the clag now we're up high.

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I brought you here,

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just a short distance to the north of the summit cairn,

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to show you the best evidence

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of the Roman road along the top of High Street.

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We're actually just parallel to the path we've just walked down, the path that people use today.

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It appears that at some point in the path, there's been a landslip

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along the Roman road, which has meant that its use has been discontinued.

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Now, what has happened is that a new path has developed alongside,

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leaving this one in pristine condition.

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So, this is it. It's certainly not immediately obvious to the untrained eye.

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-Talk me through it.

-Well, it's quite subtle as much archaeology is,

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but I think the evidence here can really be seen. There's this bank that we just walked down.

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Now, this tells us that the Romans appear to have excavated material from this side of the road

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and then brought it about four metres to the opposite side and dumped it to actually build it up...

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Those two ridges are the evidence?

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Those are the edges of the Roman road, that's right.

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Why here for a high street?

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Well, it is a tremendous operation, a tremendous achievement by the Romans.

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We're actually about 750 metres above sea level now,

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which means this is the highest piece of Roman road in Britain.

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Now, the reason why it's here is because it was constructed to link

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the Roman fort at Brougham in the north near Penrith

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with the Roman forts of Ambleside and Keswick in the south.

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We believe that it was built

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probably around the end of the first century AD,

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at the start of the second century AD, which is the date for those two latter forts.

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The Romans were incredibly efficient, then, with their positioning of this road.

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They were. They were a model of economy, really.

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Now, what they have appeared to have done is use the materials that are local,

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that are easily at hand, which makes sense when you are working at this height.

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We're used to seeing Roman roads, the old cobbled roads.

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That is what most people have in their minds.

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That's what it would have been like in the towns and cities, but here, it's a bit different.

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What they appear to have done is actually taken the peat,

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the surface layer, and made this level platform.

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They then dumped on individual layers of gravel, peat, brushwood in places

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where it's wet, and then an overall covering of larger stones.

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Even though it's not particularly compact,

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it doesn't sound like it's particularly hard-wearing, it is

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and it's very similar to the technique of pitching

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that the National Park and the National Trust use today when they are repairing upland footpaths.

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It's so evocative when you are up here on the summit of High Street.

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Talk us through some of the scenes that would have existed over the years.

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Again, that's something else that Wainwright picks up on -

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the use of High Street for occasional fairs,

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annual fairs and shepherds' meets.

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There appears to have been two dimensions.

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Firstly, there's a very functional dimension,

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in that shepherds need to get together at certain times of the year,

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largely to return sheep that have strayed over from one valley to the next.

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So they all got together on the same day and returned stock that had strayed.

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But, of course, the most important aspect of this is the social dimension.

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It appears there was a great deal of merriment, lots of eating, lots of drinking and feasting,

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but the most memorable aspect of this was the athletics and the games.

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The thing that made the games on High Street quite unique is that it featured a horse race.

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Yes, this amazing image!

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It's amazing, people galloping down the strait between High Street

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and Riggindale, which is quite a steep slope, so it would have been a real test of nerve.

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The name Racecourse Hill is preserved today.

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Jamie, thank you so much.

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I'm heading back to the summit. Now I know I'm walking on THE Roman road,

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I'm feeling quite chuffed!

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-Try and enjoy the rest of the day.

-I will. Bye-bye.

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As I cross back to reach the trig point at the summit,

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the solitude of my surroundings

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gives me the chance to truly appreciate the rich history of this fell.

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'Any person so favoured may recline on the turf

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'and witness in their mind's eye a varied pageant of history.

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'For he has been preceded here by ancient Britons, the Roman cohorts,

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'by the Scots invaders, by the shepherds, dalesmen and farmers,

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'who, centuries ago, made the summit their playground and feasting place.'

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Being right on the eastern edge of the Lakes,

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this is a fantastic place to see all the giants of Lakeland

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along the horizon in a long, ordered line.

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That's Skiddaw.

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Then Helvellyn.

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The upside down basin - that's Great Gable.

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And then, under cloud, that's Scafell Pike.

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As Wainwright frequently remarks, there's something unspoilt

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and special about this now remote frontier area of the National Park.

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Despite its long and crowded history, the High Street range

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can still be walked from dawn to dusk without meeting another soul.

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Of all the large plateau summits I've visited,

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High Street is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable.

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Not only is it simply enormous -

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a whaleback as Wainwright described it -

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but it's also a place of a thousand stories,

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lost secrets, history.

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No wonder when Wainwright first visited here 77 years ago,

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he became so fired up by it.

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It really is an evocative fell.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Email [email protected]

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Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the Lake District landscape that inspired the great British fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright to produce his beautifully crafted guide books.

Julia starts her walk in the quiet, mysterious valley of Mardale, where the local village was lost forever when the valley was flooded to create the Haweswater reservoir. The history continues as she climbs 2,500ft to the summit of High Street, the most well-trodden high ground in the Lakes. This was where Roman legions crossed the fells 2,000 years ago, making, quite literally, a high street.