Cumbria’s Eden Valley offers walkers a huge variety of experiences: from the hills and limestone pavement of the Yorkshire Dales to the salt marshes of the Solway Firth… and everything in between. Vivienne Crow, author of the Cicerone guidebook to the area, picks five of her favourites.
As soon as I decided to pick my five favourite walks in the Eden Valley, I realised I’d made a big mistake. There was no way I could whittle it down to just five; it’d been hard enough paring it down to only 30 for Cicerone’s Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley guidebook.
I’ve been exploring the area, probably one of England’s best-kept secrets, since moving to Cumbria in the mid-1990s and, with very few exceptions, each walk has been memorable. Sometimes it’s been the views that have stopped me in my tracks; on other occasions, I’ve been overwhelmed by the wealth of wildlife, or the sense of history, or the amazing geological features. Sometimes the weather and the atmospheric conditions combine to throw a new light on an otherwise familiar place; occasionally, I stumble across somewhere I’ve never visited before and marvel at the fact that, even after all these years, the Eden Valley still holds surprises.
So, should I pick my favourites based on the views? The sense of solitude, perhaps? The spring wildflowers? The way a particular place lights up with a special beauty in the winter sun? I’ve come up with five that I’ve found myself returning to time and time again, but ask me next week and I might come up with another five…
Wild Boar Fell
Mallerstang is a remote valley that became part of the Yorkshire Dales when the national park boundaries were extended in 2016.
It’s the point at which the River Eden emerges from its peaty source on Black Fell Moss, plummets down through Hell Gill and begins its long journey north to the Solway Firth.
On the western side of the dale are the lonely heights of Swarth Fell (681m/2234ft) and Wild Boar Fell (708m/2322ft), promising walkers a wonderfully wild day on the hills. By starting the 12¼ mile walk at Garsdale station and finishing at Kirkby Stephen, both of which are on the Settle-to-Carlisle Railway, walkers can stride out along a ridge of high ground – sometimes along the very edge of the wind-swept escarpment with huge slabs of rock lying in piles at the foot of the crags far below. Although Ordnance Survey maps suggest there are no paths on these hills, in reality there are routes on the ground, and the walls and fences also aid navigation. Nonetheless, this walk is best saved for a clear day, if only to appreciate the magnificent views of the Howgills, the North Pennines and even the Lake District.
And once you’ve explored the western side of Mallerstang, there’s another superb route waiting for you on the other side of the dale, taking in the fractured cliffs of Mallerstang Edge and reaching a high point of 709m (2325ft) on High Seat.
Great Asby Scar
Limestone is an important feature of the Upper Eden Valley, with many tributaries starting life on the wildlife-rich grasslands that are characteristic of this rock type. About 350 million years ago this area would’ve been covered by a tropical sea that was teeming with life. As generation after generation of these ocean creatures died, their shells formed a thick layer of sediment on the sea bed. This became the pale grey limestone that can be seen just breaking the surface along Lady Anne's Way in Mallerstang or, more obviously, forming limestone pavement in the Westmorland Dales.
Although it falls just within the neighbouring catchment of the River Lune, the National Nature Reserve of Great Asby Scar is home to one of the most extensive and pristine areas of limestone pavement in Britain. Its clints and grikes, as well as the surrounding grasslands, are home to a diverse range of birds and often rare plants such as bloody crane’s bill, Solomon's seal and rigid buckler fern. An 8¾ mile walk starting from the attractive village of Orton uses the route of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast long-distance path to access these fascinating limestone uplands.
If you find the scar gives you a taste for limestone country, walks in and around Smardale, through the hidden Potts Valley and on Knipescar Common, will help to feed the addiction.
Long Meg and Her Daughters
It may be only 4¾ miles long, but you need to allow plenty of time for sightseeing and general dawdling on this sublime walk through some of the Eden Valley's prettiest and gentlest countryside.
The easy-going route visits a water-powered corn mill that is also home to a great little café, a lonely church that has lost its village and one of the most impressive and most enigmatic stone circles in Britain.
Long Meg and Her Daughters consists of 59 stones, the largest of which is Long Meg herself. This tall standing stone bears faint traces of mysterious cup and ring markings thought to be 4500 years old. Constructed of red sandstone quarried from the banks of the River Eden, she is positioned just outside the circle and, seen from the centre, is aligned with the midwinter sunset.
Needless to say, there are lots of spooky legends associated with this atmospheric site. The stones are said to be the petrified remains of a coven of witches who were turned to stone by Scottish wizard Michael Scot for profanities on the Sabbath. The site is also supposedly endowed with magic. Another story says that when local squire Colonel Lacy attempted to destroy it in the 18th century, a terrifying storm broke out and the labourers fled in fear of Black Magic, refusing to return.
Much of the high ground to the east of the River Eden falls within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), a place afforded special protection because of its exceptional landscape. It’s here that you’ll find the highest ground in England outside the Lake District and the highest point on the long Pennine chain – Cross Fell (2929ft/893m).
Cross Fell’s nearest neighbour to the north is Melmerby Fell (2325ft/709m). Starting from the red sandstone village of Melmerby, an 11-mile walk onto this uninhabited expanse of moorland starts with an easy stroll along quiet lanes and a steadily rising grass track. You’ll probably not see any other walkers as you wander the wide, open spaces above the Eden Valley. Apart from the sheep, the only company you’re likely to have are the curlews, the skylarks and the occasional golden plover.
The return route follows in the footsteps of Roman soldiers along the Maiden Way, one of the highest Roman roads in the country.
As well as the hike on to Cross Fell from Blencarn, other highlights of this part of the Eden Valley include Dufton Pike, Scordale, Murton Pike and the geological marvel that is High Cup.
The salt marshes of the Solway Firth are another exceptional Eden locale. Like the North Pennines, they fall within an AONB, given special protection largely because of the habitats that are home to some fascinating wildlife. Every winter the entire population of barnacle geese from the Arctic Svalbard archipelago descends on the marshes of the Solway Firth: tens of thousands of birds, impressive both to see and hear. The area is also home to natterjack toads, one of the UK’s rarest amphibians.
A 7-mile walk on Burgh Marsh provides a taste of the estuary. Steeped in the dark, often bloody, tales associated with border history, it stretches for several miles to the west of Carlisle. Stand at the spot where King Edward I died while waiting to take his army across the ford into Scotland, and the grassy flatlands seem to go on forever. Somewhere out there is the channel of the River Eden, inching its way ever closer to its rendezvous with Scotland’s River Esk to flow into the Irish Sea. Having followed the Eden upstream for a few miles, the route joins the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail to return to the village of Burgh by Sands.
Further downstream, the RSPB reserve at Campfield Marsh is also well worth a visit. It includes part of the South Solway Mosses National Nature Reserve, one of England’s most important areas of lowland raised peat bog.