Imagine a river that comes tumbling down from the moors, winds its way through ancient market towns built from beautiful red sandstone and then rages through steep-sided gorges teeming with wildlife. On one side, woods and rolling farmland climb towards the lonely North Pennines; on the other are the magnificent Lake District fells. With the landscape changing on its every twist and turn, the river heads north, towards the Scottish border, charting a course through turbulent history.
If you’re thinking this sounds like paradise, a perfect destination for walkers, wildlife-watchers and history enthusiasts, you’d be right – for this is Cumbria’s very own Eden. But if you think this place is packed with tourists, you’d be wrong. The chances are that if the Eden Valley were anywhere but next to the Lake District, it would draw tourists like bees to honey, but few visitors stray beyond the National Park’s boundaries.
I nearly missed the Eden Valley on my first journey through it. I was heading north on the Settle to Carlisle Railway during a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. The scene outside my window as we’d crossed the Ribblehead Viaduct and passed England’s highest mainline stations at Dent and Garsdale had engrossed me. But as we entered Mallerstang, the wild upper reaches of the River Eden, my attention had started to wander. Luckily though, something of its untamed nature crept into my awareness and kept me transfixed all the way to the border terminus where the line ends. That was over 20 years ago. Now, I live less than a mile from the banks of the River Eden.
Ancient Ruins and Stone Men
Riding the Settle to Carlisle Railway, with its lovingly tended stations reminiscent of the steam age, is an excellent way to get to know the Eden Valley although, unlike me on that first trip, I’d advise disembarking from the train from time to time. Beyond the wildflower-filled meadows of Mallerstang and the atmospheric ruins of Pendragon Castle, the first place to catch my attention on that journey was Kirkby Stephen.
Walkers, in particular, will love this atmospheric old market town. It was a stopping point on the coast-to-coast route devised by Alfred Wainwright and sits almost 600 feet (180 metres) above sea level. The North Pennines provides
Kirkby Stephen with a dramatic setting and the River Eden churns through an extraordinary chasm on the edge of town. The most popular walk is the hike up to Nine Standards Rigg, the site of a group of prominent cairns that stand guard high above the town. The origin of these nine ‘stone men’ is a mystery. Some say they were meant to look like troops from a distance, repelling potential attackers.
Easier strolls can be enjoyed along the disused Stainmore Railway and its restored viaducts (originally built to carry coke from County Durham to Cumberland’s blast furnaces) and the River Eden’s Poetry Path, which features 12 short poems by the local writer Meg Peacocke, elegantly carved into a series of stones.
An Inheritance Reclaimed
Further downstream, the Eden passes through Appleby, an ancient market town with a fine pedigree. The Romans built a weir here, while the Norman castle was the 17th-century home of Lady Anne Clifford. The sole heir of the third Earl of Cumberland, she failed to inherit her father’s Westmorland estates on his death and fought long and hard to regain them. A resolute woman, she eventually won them back and set about restoring them. For the first time in years, the public have access to her Appleby home, Appleby Castle (open by appointment). The substantial ruins of her imposing castles at nearby Brough and Brougham are maintained by English Heritage.
Lady Anne also built Appleby’s St Anne’s Hospital – for local women who had fallen on hard times. The almshouses, a rose-hued building around a serene courtyard, are on Boroughgate. This broad thoroughfare, flanked by lime trees and lined by Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian buildings, runs all the way from the castle to the Gothic cloistered arcade of the 12th-century church at the bottom of the hill. The faint hint of the past pervades everything in Appleby: even the Tourist Information Centre is housed in a building dating back to 1596.
Electric bikes can be hired to explore the countryside around the town. The impressive waterfall of Rutter Force is a short ride away and you’ll be glad of that battery assistance if you take the uphill journey to the pretty fellside village of Dufton. From here, a walk along the Pennine Way brings you to one of the most amazing geological formations in the Pennines: High Cup, a line of exposed volcanic rock that forms a spectacular rim around the steep-sided valley below.
Like Appleby and Dufton, many of the Eden Valley’s towns and villages are built from red sandstone – as are its remote farmhouses, castles and isolated churches. This rock, created about 260 million years ago, gives the middle reaches of the river, in particular, their distinctive dark pink hue. The National Trust-owned Acorn Bank, near Temple Sowerby, is built from this exceptional stone. Here, serene walled gardens, surrounded by ancient oaks, are home to 250 types of medicinal and culinary herbs. The orchards are famous for their traditional varieties and there’s an apple day held at harvest time in October to celebrate them.
Wilder and Deeper
Having been joined by the becks crashing down from Helvellyn, England’s third biggest mountain, the River Eden passes directly beneath the imposing bulk of Cross Fell, the highest point on the Pennines. Villagers in fellside settlements such as Blencarn, Melmerby and, lower down, Langwathby and Kirkoswald try to get on with their lives when Britain’s only named wind, the disruptively fierce Helm, comes roaring loudly down its western slopes.
In Little Salkeld, a working water mill still uses traditional techniques to produce stoneground organic flours. Originally built in 1745, but restored in 1975, this idyllic site is open to visitors all year round. Guided tours can be followed by lunch in its tearoom.
While anglers stand waist deep in the river nearby, hoping for salmon and trout, the banks and fields are home to hares, foxes, badgers, stoats and roe deer. Endangered red squirrels, extinct in most of England, can still be found in the wooded gorges. The otter has also made a dramatic comeback on the River Eden in recent years and can now be spotted throughout the catchment – although you’ll need a lot of patience and a bit of luck to see one. My own sighting of one a few years ago was based solely on the latter. During an early morning walk, I’d nearly rejected the splashing I’d been hearing in the water as fish leaping, but closer inspection revealed an otter swimming near the path. On that stroll I also saw herons, a stoat and two kingfishers – not unusual individually, but a high wildlife tally for one short walk.
Wider and deeper now, the River Eden passes through the border city of Carlisle, once the most northwesterly outpost of the Roman Empire. It has had a bloody history, changing from English to Scottish rule and back again on countless occasions. The river skirts the red walls of Carlisle’s 12th-century castle, held by the Scots as recently as 1745.
Beyond are the saltmarshes. Out there in this vast, flat landscape, the Eden’s now brackish waters are inching their way closer to their rendezvous with Scotland’s River Esk to become the Solway Firth. This is the end of their journey, but 75 miles upstream, water is seeping from the peaty moors and the whole process is about to begin again.
Freelance journalist Vivienne Crow has written several guidebooks, including Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley (Cicerone, 2011). She is currently working on two new Lake District titles.