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Appleby Castle and the Eden Valley

Next time you are on your way up the M6 to enjoy another glorious few days in the Lake District, I would ask you to consider as you sail up there, not coming off at J36 as most do and turning left up the 590, but why not head on a little further and instead of looking west, look east and head for the Eden Valley – it is a gem, a little off the usual tourist trail and the honey pot areas around Windermere, Grassmere and Coniston (or Conister as my five year old niece calls it) but my friends, what a treat.

The position of the Eden Valley tucked in between the Lake District National Park on one side and the Yorkshire Dales on t’other, has meant this little slice of scrumptiousness, has often been overlooked, which is good for those of us who have always appreciated it and enjoyed spending time in this wonderful location. The bad news for those of us in on the secret, is that the word is spreading and the Eden Valley is fast becoming a first choice go to destination. It was inevitable really – there is just too much good stuff to see, do and savour to keep it under the radar any longer – I don’t want to share it, I’m genuinely gutted.

So for all the jonny-cum-latelys just one question? what took you so long?, have you been under a very heavy rock or something? Eden Valley is just beautiful, packed with treats and delights, great hotels, fab little villages, some top notch pubs and restaurants against a backdrop of some of the most stunning green landscapes and in my very humble opinion, unsurpassed in its sheer bloomin’ gorgeousness by anywhere in the Northwest.

Ok where to start? Well at the beginning and at the source I guess and that would be in the high limestone fells at Black Fell Moss, Mallerstang, near the North Yorkshire border. The steep-sided dale of Mallerstang later opens out to become the Vale of Eden. From there the river ebbs and flows north (yes north, unique in the UK for a great river to flow north but I promise you this one does) for some 6 miles or so before eventually slipping down the left edge of the first major conurbation, which is the charming little town of Kirkby Stephen.

Kirkby Stephen is everything you want a picture perfect Cumbria village to be – it’s got the shortbread tin looks, with lots of little interesting nooks, crannies and ginnels, cheeky little pubs and cafes, engaging shop-fronts and is mercifully free of swarms of pavement hogging tourists.

Granted a charter for a market back in 1352, this thriving little village which is way out on its own up in the hills and located on the A685, is an ideal stopping place for exploring the upper end of the valley. A seemingly perennial winner of Britain in Bloom or Cumbria in Bloom (you would think they might want to give someone else a chance occasionally), it has been awarded Village of the Year and was Cumbria’s first Walkers are Welcome accredited destination. It is something of a mecca for walkers and cyclists, with all the trails leading from the village criss-crossing the most spectacular countryside, but for those that prefer a less strenuous route through this rugged and wonderful slice of Westmoreland, then why not leave the car at the train station and hop on the world famous Settle to Carlisle line.

Consisting of 72 miles of track, with 21 viaducts, 14 tunnels and 11 stations it was a feat of Victorian ingenuity and engineering and was the last great mainline to be built in Britain, completed in 1876 and taking 6 years to be built in the most testing and wildest terrain and pushed the engineers and construction workers of the Midland Railway Company to their absolute limit. Their legacy however, is just the most splendid ride through a montage of simply stupendous views – A trip on the Settle to Carlisle Railway should be on every bucket list of things to do in the UK before you die.

Winding its way north, or more northwest really, the next destination is one of my favourite towns in Cumbria – Appleby or Appleby-in-Westmoreland to give it the deference it fully deserves. Clearly at this point we need to tip our hat to the Horse Fair in June which is over 300 years old and where the town plays host to the largest gathering of gypsies and travellers in the country who celebrate this spectacular and unique occasion on nearby Gallows Hill. You should take a short stroll down to the Sands, as this is the iconic and much photographed setting where the travellers take their horses into the river to wash them.

The town is overlooked by the ever impressive Appleby Castle which is owned and run by the irrepressible Sally Nightingale. The Castle had been closed for years to the public but is now being fully and lovingly restored by Sally and her team and tours of the castle are now available. The Castle features a Norman Keep in the inner Bailey which is over 900 years old and is one of the very few still fully intact. The Castle has been held by Kings of England and Scotland, but its most famous resident – apart from Sally of course – was the “redoubtable and determined”, Lady Anne Clifford who spent much of her life in a long and complex legal battle to reclaim her inheritance, set against a time when women’s rights were not exactly top of the agenda, yet remarkably and against all the odds – she won. By happy coincidence, Campbell & Rowley are the exclusive caterers at Appleby Castle and the Castle is now open for weddings and corporate bookings and all the bedrooms have been tastefully restored, with luxurious cottages in the bailey also being made available to rent t.01768353014.

Whilst you are in Appleby have a look out for the Primrose Stone down by the river, which is one of a set of sculptures (which doubles up as a very welcome seat) known as the Eden Benchmarks. Commissioned to commemorate the millennium and each by a different artist, they have been installed at various locations beside public paths along the entire length of the River Eden. There are ten stone carved seats in total and the one in Appleby was sculpted by Joss Smith. The town took a frightful battering due to flooding in November and December, but the good news is that Appleby is well and truly open for business and looking forward to a busy summer season and welcoming visitors, so please go and show them your support.

As you meander with the river downstream one of the features you cannot fail to notice is the unmistakeable red cliffs along the river formed from the red sandstone. Lots of the villages as well as churches, castles and outlying farmhouses have been built from this distinctive rock. As the sun sets at the end of a long summer evening, this exquisite rock takes on a warm, pink glow and it is real eye candy. Dufton three miles north of Appleby is a little stunner of a village and designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, with avenues of lime trees and a village green it is an absolute peach. Also try if you can, to get to see the man-made caves at Wetheral or Lacy’s caves carved out of the sandstone up past Penrith, which is by chance the next stop on our journey.
Before we rock up to Penrith though, hands up who loves a lost village story? Of course we all do and as luck would have it Eden Valley has one – the lost village of Addingham. The isolated, pretty little red sandstone church of St Michael and All Angels, was built on its present site in the 13th century, but where is the village? and the original church? – washed away friends by the river when it changed course sometime in the 12th Century. There is no sign of the lost village today and the only remains are a Norse tombstone and one or two other artefacts which are now kept in the church porch which were retrieved from the site of the first church during a drought in 1913 – The original site of the village is somewhere near Daleraven Bridge, that is all we know, the rest is a mystery.

Penrith was once the capital of Cumbria, albeit that was a thousand years ago, but Penrith is still an important and pivotal town in the county, formerly part of the Kingdom of Scotland and Strathclyde and is the hub of the Eden Valley.

Penrith Castle is unfortunately a ruin, but to be fair it never enjoyed rude health for very long – some 150 years in total. Built in the 14th Century, by 1572 a survey commissioned for Elizabeth I reported that the gatehouse, chapel, great chamber, great hall and kitchens were in ‘utter ruin’ and ‘not reparable’. The report added that “96 cartloads of stones had been removed by locals for various building works” – the cheeky monkeys.

Lowther Castle just north of the town is also a ruin, but a very different experience. Built in the early 19th century, Lowther was a magnificent house and estate and one of the largest in the country with 365 rooms – one for every day of the year. That was of course until the 5th earl of Lonsdale got his hands on it. After Hugh Lowther obtained his inheritance in 1882 at the age of 25 he indulged his many expensive passions with some vigour. He had a fleet of 10 yellow motor cars, (he loved cars and became the first president of the AA who adopted his livery) yellow dogs, yellow liveried carriages and a hot house to grow his beloved yellow gardenias for his buttonhole. He had yellow-liveried footmen, a groom of the bedchamber, a chamberlain and a master of music to supervise the 24 musicians who travelled from house to house. His whole household travelled in a special train. He invested in livestock in the US which failed badly, he had high profile affairs with actresses Lily Langtree and Violet Cameron and he had two fully crewed steam yachts anchored at Cowes. It was mad, bonkers and ultimately ended in catastrophe as the fortune waned and the Castle was given up due to the massive debts he had run up.

The Castle was stripped and the roof removed to avoid paying any more taxes and there it stayed until the turn of the century when a plan was hatched to try and bring the Castle back to some of its former glory – particularly the extensive gardens. Work started in earnest in 2005 and the Castle opened its doors to the public in 2011. The work is ongoing and the gardens are not expected to be completed for another 20 – 25 years, but do go and visit as it is still fascinating to see and hear about the history of the Castle and the family and is a thoroughly good day out. T.01931 712192

Just Northeast of Penrith is the stone circle of Long Meg and her daughters, dating back to about 1500BC it is one of the finest stone circles in the country. The circle has a diameter of about 350 feet, the second biggest in the country. Long Meg is the tallest of the 69 stones, about 12 feet high and stands some 60 feet outside the circle, it’s four corners facing to all four points of the compass. Wordsworth, who was never short of an observation or a quote round these parts said of the stone circle, “Next to Stonehenge it is beyond dispute the most notable relic that this or probably any other country contains”.

Finally the route of the river takes us through the sparsely populated beef and dairy farming regions of the Vale of Cumbria on the Solway Plain. After flowing through Wetheral where it flows under Corby Bridge, a Grade I listed railway viaduct and merges with the Irthing, Petteril and Caldew rivers as it winds through Carlisle and the journey finally ends as the river enters the Solway Firth.

It is a glorious journey however and the Eden Valley has rightly been described as ‘one of the major folk-routes of prehistory’ and for those familiar with the sheer delight of this glorious part of Cumbria, there are few who would argue with that.

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