Monday, July 18, 2011
Last week I wrote about a hidden gem in London. But London isn’t the only place in Britain with great new places to discover. On Wednesday I traveled by train up to northern England to a place called the Eden Valley in Cumbria.
Situated in a narrow stretch of land that runs between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, the area is just as beautiful as its famous, on-the-beaten-path neighbors, but seemingly nobody knows about it. As its name suggests, the Eden Valley is light on people and heavy on nature.
I got my first glimpse of the area’s natural beauty while still on the way there. I traveled on the Settle-Carlisle Railway, one of the most beautiful rail journeys I have ever been on. The whole way from Leeds up to Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria was rich with green hills and valleys, crumbling stone barns, and lots of sheep. Everywhere there were sheep. Did I mention sheep?
When I arrived in Kirkby Stephen, I was met by Debbie, my host for three days in the Eden Valley. She and her other half, Richard, ran A Corner of Eden, a luxury B&B in Cumbria that I was reviewing. She drove me to the accommodation, which was located 10 minutes’ drive from the station.
On the way, Debbie told me about her two pet sheep, Lulu and Matilda. As she did so, I tried to contain my excitement lest she peg me for the sheep fanatic that I am.
When we arrived, I was shown to my accommodation for the first night, the Angel Barn. It had just opened in April after being converted from a home for animals into a home for guests. The two-storey building could sleep up to six, but I had the whole place to myself.
Out of every window was a view of a green grass sky dotted with wooly white clouds. I opened one to take a photo of my cuddly companions, and the only sound for miles was the ‘baaaa’ of so many sheep. It loved it.
I enjoyed some tea and a couple of Debbie’s award-winning homemade scones before she and I took her two border terriers, Cassie and Max, for a walk. The goal of the stroll was to feed Lulu and Matilda, who were grazing in a nearby pasture.
I was excited to see the sheep up close. Apparently Lulu was excited to see us, too. As we approached, she ran up to Debbie, expecting a treat.
After we fed the sheep, I set off to explore the Eden Valley. The weather was beautiful, so I walked through several pastures and up onto a high hill that had views across the whole area. It was hard to believe how quiet it was, and how few people there were. And how many sheep.
That evening I walked across three fields to the local pub, The Fat Lamb. The place reminded me of my local in Hampstead, the Duke of Hamilton, with its traditional feel. I ordered a mince and potato pie, which came with an enormous basket of fries and a huge salad. I felt like a glutton with so much food all for myself, but I did my best to finish it.
That evening I spent some time relaxing in the living room of the Angel Barn and reading a coffee table book about sheep (surprise!). The next morning I was in the kitchen to cook breakfast for myself. Debbie had left me a fresh loaf of her award-winning bread, four eggs from her chickens, a cold pitcher of milk, and some bacon from a local butcher.
As I prepared breakfast, I realized that I had never actually cooked bacon before. I stumbled through it as best I could, my crippling fear of trichinosis causing me no small fear as I overcooked it until it was brown. Still, it tasted great. As did everything else on the plate. Even a bad chef can’t ruin amazingly fresh food.
After breakfast I moved to my accommodation for the second night: the B&B. Located just a few steps away from the barn, it was housed in a 17th century Georgian building that was attached to a 15th century home. My inner Californian was awed by how much history there was.
After checking in, I set off to explore more of the Eden Valley. And see more sheep. To that end, I took a two-and-half mile walk to the nearest town, Ravenstonedale. The narrow lane passed through sheep-filled farms, cow pastures, tiny streams, wildflowers, and stone barns. It was impossibly bucolic; I didn’t see a single person along the way.
When I reached the town I stopped to watch a tiny pony grazing in a field, then saw my very first red squirrel in England. As it ran past, I stood in awe of it leaping along the road.
After it disappeared, I made my way to a new pub that had opened a few days earlier. The King’s Head in Ravenstonedale had a long, spacious dining room buzzing with locals. I had pea soup for lunch, then walked over to the other pub in town, the Black Swan, to have a drink in their riverside beer garden. It was the perfect way to spend a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the Eden Valley in Cumbria.
Back at my accommodation, I spent the afternoon reading and relaxing by the fire in the living room before heading back to The Fat Lamb for a quick dinner.
The next day I walked back into Ravenstonedale in hopes of having lunch at the Black Swan. Unfortunately, it was closed due to a power outage, as was pretty much everything else in town.
I didn’t mind though, given how beautiful the weather was. I walked back to the B&B, taking the long way along a lane so narrow that I couldn’t believe a car would fit down it.
When I arrived at the farmhouse, Richard gave me a ride to the town of Kirkby Stephen. We dropped my bag off at the train station, where the proprietress of the cafe was kind enough to hold it for me until my train departed.
Then we drove to the town, where I had a quick lunch at a tea room before setting off on the Kirkby Stephen Poetry Path. The route was a small trail through knee-deep wildflowers, across narrow bridges over stony streams, and along an old railroad track that lay under a leafy canopy. It was gorgeous. There were sheep, too.
Along the way were 12 stones with poems carved in them. Each one was for a month of the year. Some were easier to find and read than others, but overall I liked the concept.
At the end of the Kirkby Stephen Poetry Path I came to a bridge over a stunning stretch of stream where the water had carved curving lines into the rocks. It was something totally unexpected, and I felt like I had discovered another hidden gem in England.
I walked along the stream for awhile, then cut through some pastures to get to a trail leading up to the train station. Along the way I passed by little lambs and running rabbits until I reached the pretty platform with its red-and-white wrought iron footbridge.
After a quick tea at the cafe, I hopped on the train and traveled south on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. As the train made its way past rolling hills and valleys, I was sad to say good-bye to the Eden Valley, to the sheep, and to the gorgeous weather I had been lucky enough to have.
Before long I started scheming about when to come back to the area. Lambing season starts in early spring, so I just might have to return to get my fix of cute cuddly critters and spend another few days traveling and walking in the Eden Valley in Cumbria.