Discover the lost Lake District

Roam the Lake District peninsulas, the prelude to Wordsworth's wonderland. Neil Coates is your guide to this little-known corner of Southern Cumbria

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I can just picture the scene. Your hand dragging lazily through the water beside the launch on a restful voyage to the more secluded coves of Windermere; an innocent pleasure on the Queen of Lakes. Or perhaps you sit on the terrace of The Sun Inn, appreciating the locally brewed ales as your gaze sweeps across Coniston. You’re not alone. This favourite corner of the realm has been beloved of poets and painters for years – Wordsworth in particular celebrated the peace and beauty hereabouts.

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But in your contemplations do you ever consider just where the waters from these deep, cobalt-blue, green-fringed lakes are destined? The glacially gouged depths debouch into a series of rivers that feed the swirling tides of Morecambe Bay (below). The Kent, Leven and Duddon spill from Lakeland’s southern uplands, their estuaries dividing promontories of limestone, sandstone and slate, which protrude into the bay like a gauntlet. These fingers of land hold some of Cumbria’s least-known countryside, a filigree of lanes linking ancient sites and sleepy towns, bounded by windswept islands, dappled with lofty commons, fringed by beaches with a horizon of looming fells.

Curiously, much of the area was, until 1974, part of Lancashire. Known as Lancashire-over-the-Sands, Coniston Old Man was the county’s highest point and Coniston the Red Rose’s largest lake. Welcome to Furness and the Lake District Peninsulas.

Sands of time

Cheating slightly, we can divert off the M6 to Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an outlying exposure of the limestones that characterises much of the peninsulas. There are stupendous views from the modest summit of Arnside Knott, but the other reason for including this bit of old Westmorland here is that it is the start of the original route to Furness. Prior to the coming of the railway in 1857, the only direct route across the Kent Estuary at the head of Morecambe Bay was a precarious passage across the sands. In the Middle Ages, the crossing was maintained by monks; then a ‘sand pilot’, appointed by the Crown, guided travellers across shifting sands.

Today, the good offices of Cedric Robinson, Queen’s Guide to the Sands, lead you on your first steps in peninsula Lakeland proper (by road it’s a short diversion off the A590 south of Kendal) and the miniature glory that is Cartmel (below). Rising like a stooping owl from a patchwork of haymeadows and pastures, the stunning priory church of St Mary and St Michael dominates this perfect village. Walkers can reward themselves with a generous helping of the famous sticky toffee pudding from the little shop in the quaint village square, close to one of England’s prettiest racecourses.

Lanes meander south to the dramatic headland of Humphrey Head (where England’s last wolf was, allegedly, killed) before curling back past Holker Hall, the magnificent country seat of the Cavendish family, nestled below the wooded escarpment of Ellerside; wonderful easy walking country overlooking Cartmel Sands and the Leven Estuary. The cross-sands route once continued over this meandering marvel; Wordsworth vividly describes his trip across in The Prelude (book 10):

“…with a variegated crowd
of vehicles and travellers, horse and foot,
wading beneath the conduct of their guide,
in loose procession through the shallow stream…”

We, however, continue around the head of the estuary, crossing the Leven near Haverthwaite. Upstream from here, the river cuts a foaming passage, following the channel created when glacial waters overflowed from Windermere 12,500 years ago. Steam trains ply the old railway to Lakeside, from where a grand panorama up England’s longest lake opens up. Above, the speckled Furness Fells ripple towards Grizedale Forest’s wooded heights.

As the trail again flies south, what looks curiously like an inland lighthouse may cause you some head-scratching. High on Hoad Hill, this is the Barrow Monument, completed in 1850 as a memorial to locally born oceanographer Sir John Barrow, Secretary to the Admiralty when Nelson fought at Trafalgar. Let that head-scratching continue, for that was a trademark of one Arthur Stanley Jefferson, son of Ulverston, who delighted millions as Stan Laurel; this lively market town has a great birthplace museum to the silver screen hero. It also delights in its annual Dickensian Festival and an unusual Lantern Procession in September. There are some great pubs here, too, fringing the cobbled lanes.

Bronze-Age cists and stones

The town is linked to the Leven Estuary by what was, briefly, the widest and deepest canal in the land; exports included gunpowder, iron ore and slate. A mile in length and long disused, the seaward end is crossed by the Cumbria Coastal Way, which passes close to the imposing Conishead Priory. A vast, Gothic-revival pile, its roots are 12th century; it saw service as a spa hotel and a miner’s convalescent home before rebirth as a Buddhist retreat, the Manjushri Institute, in 1976. It’s a fascinating place to visit and linger in its landscaped gardens.

Now well on to the main peninsula, allow the balmy onshore breezes to waft you inland near Bardsea, on lanes past ancient Sea Wood to Birkrigg Common, a furzey limestone plateau richly dappled with Bronze Age cists and stones, including the perfectly formed Druid’s Circle. Victorian and Edwardian tourists took steamers from Liverpool and Fleetwood to Bardsea Pier, disembarking in order to climb to Birkrigg to emulate Wordsworth, a great admirer of the views here.

This is a fine place for a picnic, prior to discovering one of Furness’s prettiest villages, Great Urswick. Huddled by its azure tarn, legend has it that the original village lies drowned in the lake, cursed by a parson shocked at the villagers’ “…slanderous speech, from tongues that spat out venom black as night, poisoned the days, tattler and gadabouts, casting an evil eye on all.” And that was just the women.

Into far Furness

Whichever way south you now roam, you’ll come across more pretty villages secluded amid the limestone commons and ridges tilted towards the ever-present necklace of beaches and strands. Particularly worth seeking out is tiny Gleaston, with its thriving watermill and, nearby, a marvellous survival of a castle ruin, bearded by ivy and crumbling just beyond the reach of visitors.

The engaging town of Dalton-in-Furness, medieval capital of the area, snuggles below its castle tower, but it’s a rake of buildings outside the town that constitute the area’s greatest treasure. Thin paths slink down the charmingly-named Vale of Nightshade to the ruddy-red ruins of Furness Abbey (below), an astonishing monastic complex built in a valley to make it invisible to seaborne Scots raiders. This was the second-wealthiest Cistercian monastery in England, made rich by its huge flocks of sheep – medieval white-gold – and properties stretching to the Isle of Man and Ireland. Wordsworth visited on horseback, riding through the ruins and recording his impressions in book two of The Prelude.

‘…a structure famed
Beyond its neighbourhood, the antique walls
Of that large abbey… with fractured arch
Belfry and images, and living trees,
A holy scene! Along the smooth green turf
Our horses grazed. To more than inland peace’

All roads now lead to Barrow-in-Furness. This much-maligned child of the Industrial Revolution oozes character, has an engaging Dock Museum at the still-busy docks (Britain’s nuclear subs are built and repaired here) and is gateway both to the strange tip of the peninsula and England’s eighth-largest island. Sandbanks and marshes, dunes and slacks focus to the tip of Furness at Rampside, beyond which are a series of off-islands such as Roa and Foulney, but in particular Piel Island.

Far bigger and more imposing is Walney Island (below), connected to Barrow and the mainland by a bridge. This great barrier of shingle, sand-dunes and low pastures long pre-dates Barrow as a settlement centre, recorded in Domesday and host to the villages of Biggar and North Scale. From its windswept 11 mile-length are magnificent views to the Lakeland Fells, and much of it is a string of nature reserves. It’s a beachcomber’s delight. There are lots of seals, too, while offshore hum the blades of the first stage of a huge windfarm being built to harvest the constant Irish Sea breezes.

These sou’westers now drift us north beside the Duddon Sands to a lane to the foreshore near Roanhead and Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve (NNR). This hotchpotch of dunes and saltmarsh has one of the most varied ranges of rare plants and animals in the country. Wordsworth waxed lyrical:

“Majestic Duddon, over smooth, flat sands
Gliding in silence with unfettered sweep”
Culminating in one of his most oft-quoted writings:

“For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide”

Magisterial views take the eye up the shimmering estuary to the looming mass of Black Combe, crinkly Caw in Wordsworth’s beloved Dunnerdale Fells and, far beyond, the lofty heights of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak. Sneaking towards the final peninsula, byroads snake to Broughton-in-Furness, a miniature marvel of a Georgian market town, set around a sublime square.

A mountain road from nearby Duddon Bridge threads around the flank of Swinside Fell, beneath a fold in which stands the Sunkenkirk (Swinside Stone Circle), 55 Bronze Age standing stones raised in celebration or memoriam. This last, great secret of Lakeland’s peninsulas, high above the old iron port of Millom, is a fitting climax to an exploration of this land of mystery and imagination, seclusion and seduction. It was Wordsworth’s favoured approach to the Lake District, the Duddon’s doorway, guarded by “…that mystic round of Druid fame”.

WHERE TO STAY

AYNSOME MANOR, Cartmel
Secluded amid pastures and byroads just a short way north of Cartmel, an elegant and comfy country house hotel with great walks from the door.
015395 36653

LONSDALE HOUSE, Ulverston
An imposing Georgian mansion with a peaceful secluded garden is the ideal place to chill out with a menu of locally-sourced goodies. Chic, individualistic rooms seal the deal.
01229 582598

THE DOWER HOUSE, Duddon Bridge
A Victorian country house with apartment-style accommodation in stunning countryside above the Duddon Estuary just a mile west of Broughton.
01229 716279

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 39 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

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