HIGH Street is a great mountain with a rubbish name. When someone asks where you’re going walking and you say High Street, they glance at your boots and backpack and wonder why you need all that stuff for a trip to Primark . . .
Mountains have names that originate deep in the muddied pools of time and High Street is no exception. The name is a reference to the Roman road that linked the forts of Brocavum, near Penrith, and Galava, at Ambleside. For most of its length the road clings to the highest ground – and that highest ground is the High Street ridge.
I prefer its older name – Brettestrete, which means Road of the Britons. This is of Anglian origin and probably dates to the post-Roman period when Angle and Saxon insurgents were flooding westwards from the coast and the indigenous Britons were still using the mountain range as a highway. The southern end of the road, which drops down into Troutbeck, was known in the 18th Century as the Scots’ Rake, suggesting other bands of raiders and looters used the route before being persuaded to embrace civilisation.
If nothing else, High Street has a colourful, multi-cultural history. I like to regard it as a beacon of ethnic and religious integration, and proof that if a disparate bunch of pagan Angles and Saxons, Scottish head-bangers and ungracious Britons can learn to live in peace then anyone can. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
You may have noticed from the photographs that I am taking a somewhat unconventional approach to my ascent of High Street. I didn’t want the Vikings to be left out of this venture into the sub-Roman period so I’ve caught the steamer along Ullswater from Pooley Bridge to Howtown, and I’m standing on the foredeck like Ernest Borgnine gazing into the drizzle of a rather damp though not untypical Lakeland morning.
Okay, so the Vikings didn’t use steamers. But Ullswater is a Viking name, and had the Danelaw endured and triumphed over Anglo-Saxon England then we would probably be calling it Ulfsvatn or something equally outlandish. It’s more evidence of racial integration. Which goes to prove that even the most reckless of ethnic minorities can be successfully subsumed into a homogeneous mass that does nothing more unpleasant than lob smart bombs onto foreigners from a height of 26,000ft.
I’m feeling a bit cranky this morning. I don’t know if it’s noticeable. The weather forecast promised a cloudless dawn and a perfect day for walking, but all I’ve got is wetness and limited visibility. I see why Kirk Douglas only needed one eye.
And another thing, the Ullswater steamers aren’t steamers. They run on fuel oil. I said I was feeling cranky. But it’s a pleasant trip and the friendly and helpful crew serve excellent coffee. The lake is calm, the wind fresh, and before the Lady Wakefield reaches Howtown the sun bursts through the clouds and everyone is happy.
Names are the dominant theme for this post. Howtown isn’t a town. It isn’t even a village. The name is a fusion of Norse and Old English and means “farmstead on the hill”. There’s a hotel, a couple of cottages, a couple of opulent houses built by very rich Victorians, and a jetty for the steamers. It’s the sort of place where Arthur Ransome or Hugh Walpole might recline in a hayfield and write stories before dinner.
Howtown sits snugly in the mouth of Fusedale, and it’s Fusedale I have come to visit, because I had no idea it existed before I walked through this area last year on a high-level trek from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge.
I disembark on the jetty along with two-dozen or so walkers. Everyone goes their separate ways and I find, to my great satisfaction, that I’m the only person heading into Fusedale.
And through Fusedale, with its delightful scenery, I progress. It is, as I had hoped, Lakeland at its best – peaceful, charming, and possessing that other-worldly air that still exists in the quieter valleys. It’s the Lakeland of old guidebooks – a place of bleating sheep, rippling streams, warm morning sunshine, and the scent of damp moss and bracken. If I had the time to spare I’d sit on a stone and watch the clouds sail by while the sun arced from one side of the valley to the other. That sounds like a lazy day, but it would be time well spent.
But Fusedale is also short and I am soon at the valley head and onto the shoulder of Gowk Hill (that’s Cuckoo Hill in plain English) and the upper slopes of Wether Hill (Castrated Ram Hill). This is where I join the Roman road. From here it’s a straight though undulating march to Red Crag, Raven Howe, High Raise and Rampsgill Head before the final pull to the summit of High Street at 2,716ft (828m).
There’s a cold wind blowing on the summit today. It feels like late autumn. Suddenly the summer has gone and colder months are approaching. What the hell. No point dwelling on that sort of stuff. It’s fine walking weather and that’s what matters.
I turn about and head back along the ridge, retracing my steps to Wether Hill, but instead of following the path down into Fusedale I continue along the high ground to Loadpot Hill – passing the ruins of Lowther House shooting lodge – and the final rocky summit, Arthur’s Pike.
By the time I reach my van at Roehead, where the Roman road passes close to Pooley Bridge (and its British fortress on Dunmallard Hill), I’ve marched more than 16 miles (26km) and my legs are beginning to hurt. It’s the longest walk I’ve undertaken for a while. Must be out of condition. But, as always on these quieter Lakeland walks, it was worth every step.
And now I’m sitting in the van supping tea and writing these words as sunbeams strike down through clouds onto the distant surface of Ullswater. It’s a picture of peace. Two-thousand years ago I would be sitting in a war zone – an indigenous Briton waiting for the shock and awe of imperial Rome to drop from the sky and crush me flat, for no other reason than it was in Rome’s “national interest” to do so.
So that’s High Street – a mountain with a past as long as a Roman mile. There are no imperial Romans in Britain these days because the insurgents – the Angles, Saxons, Picts and Scotii – put more boots on the ground and eventually drove them out. Which just goes to show that if you don’t want trouble, you shouldn’t go marching into someone else’s country in the first place with your superior weaponry and spurious ideals.