Cumbria

I doe more and more fall in Love with the contentments and innocent Pleasures of Countrey Life. – Lady Anne Clifford, Diary, 1652

We left the stunningly clean and well equipped Pennine View campsite in very good time this morning to dally in the little market town of Kirby Stephen, firstly to have breakfast, and secondly to browse in a brilliantly well-stocked outdoor equipment shop called Mad about Mountains, which we could not have chanced upon at a better time. Stephen bought a better pair of gloves to protect his damaged hand, and I replaced my beloved waterproof trousers which had started to delaminate and were letting in an awful lot of water, leaving me cold and soaking wet. I may share with you, confidentially, that my clothes size is rather smaller than it was before! Mad About Mountains manager Heidi suggested I consider donating the old pair to Mountain Rescue – and while I think this pair was a bit far gone for that, in general I think that’s a great idea and one which I hadn’t considered before.

Bolstered thus by coronation chicken baguette and the cathartic pleasure of spending money on high quality outdoor clothing, we started our walk proper down a quiet B-road with farmland spreading out on either side. The air was very still, warm and full of moisture, and although overcast was rather beautiful: everything was pale green and cream, from the frothy Queen Anne’s lace, fields full of dandelion clocks and daisies, to the puffy white clouds in various shades of pale grey. Perfect walking conditions.

The hedgerows were full of moisture, which might have explained why the small white butterfly in the header photo was still enough on the lady’s smock to let me get close enough to photograph it. Or it might have just emerged and was still hardening off its wings. Further down the lane a patch of horsetail was beaded with tiny droplets of last night’s rain, a miniature vision of a Paleozoic forest.

Hedgerows throughout the day were starting to change in composition (despite the fact that bluebells are still with us this far north, and freshly-flowering wild garlic. I even saw some flowering pheasant’s-eye daffodils, and violets are still a common sight). The verges now sport mixed patches of peach- and dark pink-coloured water avens, and the tiny yellow-flowered crosswort (which my friend Carrie tells me was an old remedy for dropsy). The meadowsweet is coming along fast.

From behind a hedge came a thundering noise of bullocks stampeding together down a field, shaking the soft ground. It’s an alarming sound that we were to fear hearing again later in the day when we had to walk through a mixed field of cows, calves, bullocks, and a bull so massive with muscle he could hardly move. The field was huge with the exit gate uncomfortably far away and up a long slope, and Stephen had quite a job to scare off the herd-leaders who were starting to show signs of wanting to rush at us. My hands were shaking by the time we reached the gate and a few minutes later my legs turned to jelly in a delayed adrenaline reaction. I’m so relieved we haven’t had more experiences like that on this long journey which has taken us across so much farmland.

This was one single incident in an otherwise joyous day’s countryside walking. Invigorating views of green valleys and hillsides, patches of blue sky setting off the hawthorns which when we passed them filled our lungs with heady gusts of perfume such that we looked round to locate the source.

Little villages which seemed forgotten by time were linked by green lanes bordered with wildflowers including the first cranesbills in full flower, and dry-stone walls.

Coming down into one particularly steep valley, we were accompanied by a sky full of fighter jets and helicopters. One jet turned lazy circles in the air; it seems that even the RAF was full of the joys of the late spring.

A farmer on the other side of the valley was herding sheep over the stream in the valley bottom and into a set of pens. The farmer working his dog with a complex communication of whistles, clicks and words was an utterly impressive professional partnership.

Stephen, though, made it across the stream without any collie nipping at his heels and showing him which way to go.

We arrived in the village of Great Asby for lunchtime, and repaired to The Three Greyhounds for a sandwich. Unfortunately the barmaid who was standing in for the owners on holiday was having a bad day: she had wrenched her knee falling down the stairs into the cellar, a punter had spilt a pint of beer into the computer system controlling the bank card payments, and the gas had gone on the soft drinks dispenser. But we had a lovely chat and it was a good pitstop. Walking out of the village bound for Appleby, we admired St Helen’s well too, believed to have healing properties. Perhaps immersing the soda machine, card reader and knee would work some miracle?

On the road out of Great Asby we encountered a traveller parked up on a verge with two horses, bound for the Horse Fair. One of the horses was quietly grazing and the other was finding it hard to cope with the passing cars. We didn’t want to spend a long time on the road either, and let the long woodland running from Great Ormside to Appleby along the River Eden swallow us up.

It was a bewitching place, quite unlike any of the other words we had been in. The silver birches gave it a noticeably different character; if I were in an animist, I would say that the trees in this wood had spirits.

We met a man on crutches walking his dog through the quietness and he said that the peace was one of the things he particularly loves about this woodland: its length means that much of it is unfrequented. He told us that you can see red deer and red squirrels here, and otters on the riverbank. Stephen out of the corner of his eye did see something large entering the water which scared the ducks into flight.

As we entered the wood, the underlying geology changed. From limestone which had formed the landscape we had travelled over the last few days, we had moved into sandstone bedrock. Appleby itself seemed entirely constructed from local sandstone. Almost the first result of it was a second sculpture in the Eden Benchmarks series: the Primrose Bench by the Roman weir on the River Eden. It was an OK sculpture. Not as much of a homage to the genius loci as Water Cut, and not as obviously relevant.

We hustled into Appleby town centre in search of coffee and cake. We found it in Dave’s Eden River Café: after a month on the paths we are expert cake assessors and this café served excellent cake. And it turns out Dave used to run The Three Greyhounds. And Erin who works for him also works in the pub in Dufton where we would be that evening.

Signs of preparations for the horse fair were everywhere, including temporary road signs on the bridge.

Below the bridge are the main shallows where the 10,000 travellers will wash their horses next week.

Erin assured us that the last time she walked to Dufton it had taken her about 40 minutes – one hour tops. That sounded promising. The last section started well: there was clear, the views were good, we didn’t have very long to go.

Then as so often happens at the end of a long day, it all started to go horribly wrong. It’s funny how the relationship between boots and feet changes slightly after you have been sitting down for a while, and so my feet were feeling a little uncomfortable. Then we unwisely took a very slight detour off the alternative Pennine Way for one or two field lengths, and the conditions underfoot deteriorated to the hideous uneven ground chewed up by cows’ hooves. Add this to the less-than-perfectly fitting boots, and it was a recipe for a blister, which made me quite cross at the end of what otherwise had been a super day (pace the frightening cows).

Nearing Dufton the path went through a stunning wood managed by the Woodland Trust (I think the second of the woods that we have walked through, the first being just after horrid Clovelly).

Except we realised, deep into the wood and lost in the lovely atmosphere, that the campsite must be somewhere above the ravine that we were walking into, and the bottom of the wood would take us out of our way. So we needed to retrace our steps. It was turning into a very long, 36.4km day.

Eventually we found our campsite, the pitching sward grazed to perfection by innumerable rabbits, and our bag waiting for us in an open wooden shelter which proved exceptionally useful for laying out all our stuff. A hot shower later and we were ready to go to The Stag Inn for stonkingly good Cumberland sausage with wild garlic, and fantastic fish and chips. We mentioned Erin from the Eden River Café. “Ah, Smithers!” cried Matt the manager fondly. A chain of connection linking our lunch, tea and supper spots.

Fly-through with photos and elevation

Kirby Stephen to Dufton

4 thoughts on “Cumbria”

    1. Hikers and ramblers sadly do get killed and injured sometimes. I think it’s a matter of assessing the mood of the herd. It’s definitely more risky when there are calves in the field but it’s usually the inexperienced young bullocks who try it on. Stephen worked on a dairy farm for many summers as a boy and is quite good both at judging the mood and at warning them off by waving his walking poles. There are a couple of fields we have decided not to walk through. Most are fine and one or two have been a bit nervy.

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