A Bridge built by the Devil, a cheese shop called Churchmouse and the Valley where the Damson is King... there’s more to Cumbria than tailbacks into the Lakes tourist honeypots, says travel editor Neil Sowerby
WHEN Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon used six of the north’s finest dining spots as the backdrop for their wryly comic The Trip, it miffed the Observer newspaper’s Rachel Cooke. She complained they had spotlighted several of her favourite retreats she’d prefer kept under wraps.
The thought of it. All those Tristrams and Jocastas deserting the Chipping Norton Triangle to colonise Holbeck Ghyll and L’Enclume (though both are hardly hiding their Michelin-starred light under a bushel). I do know what Ms Cooke means, though, about closet faves.
I feel much the same about Kirkby Lonsdale, that quietly perfect little town east of the M6 where Cumbria meets the Dales. So much pleasanter than many in the Lakes proper. The last time I’d had the excuse to visit was when reviewing the food at nearby Hipping Hall. Coincidentally, the two Trippers also made it to that top joint. Small gastro world, eh?
My last Kirkby trip was a good while ago and you do wonder if such a picturesque but sturdy place might have tipped over the edge into Edinburgh Woolen Mill and “Olde Apothecary” twee. No chance. A brief early evening interval of sunshine after a dreadful day of rain showed it in an even lovelier light than memory allowed.
The rainstorm that buffeted us all the way up the motorway couldn’t make up its mind whether it was Apocalypse or Armageddon. Overnight, it would combine the two. But by that time we were tucked up in the poshest of five posh rooms at the Plough at Lupton after a fine dinner and a surfeit of Kiwi pinot noir.
We had whetted our appetite with that unexpected restorative stroll around Kirkby, which is four miles east along the A65 from the Plough.
We parked at Devil’s Bridge. At weekends this swarms with bikers and folk queuing for ice creams. Friday evening, we had it to ourselves. The river was roaring, the path along it too slippery for us to walk along into town that way.
There’s a tale behind the three-arched stone bridge’s name, one quite common in folklore. A woman who was separated from her straying cow by the river made a pact with the Devil. He would build a bridge across, in return for the soul of the first living thing to cross it. The woman threw a bun to trick her dog into running across and the angry Devil had to be satisfied with an animal soul. He vanished leaving behind a smell of burning brimstone.
Satanic intervention or not, this was a busy packhorse crossing of the River Lune from medieval times, when Kirkby was important as market town and mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Evidence of it past is evident in street names. Swinemarket and Horsemarket are open spaces today, separated by ginnels with quaint titles such as Salt Pie Lane, named after an enterprising provider of mutton in pastry.
The most impressive buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They are home to a range of independent eating places and shops. No chains. The magnet for me – handily placed next to impressive gastropub The Sun – is always Churchmouse Cheeses in Market Street. Owners John and Jules stock a canny range of artisan cheeses and deli items, from the UK and beyond. We settled for their own ‘house cheese”, Bright Blessed Crest, a ewe’s milk brie made for them by Appleby Creamery.
Cheese sampling is thirsty work. Thankfully around the corner on Fairbank, you’ll find the Orange Tree, the Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery tap. It’s a buzzing place and it seemed appropriate to drink a pin of Ruskin’s Red, in honour of the great Victorian who bestowed upon the town a reason for tourists to visit.
We ambled through the graveyard of St Mary The Virgin (this Norman church has a lovely interior) to reach Ruskin’s View in time for sunset. Dinner at the Plough was also looming. It’s easy to lose track of time with so many hidden nooks to explore.
Art critic Ruskin, whose house Brantwood (www.brantwood.org.uk) overlooks Coniston, was a great fan of the Lune Valley, too. After his friend JMW Turner painted a watercolour river view from the churchyard in 1818 he enthused: “I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.” It’s still pretty impressive today.
Impressive, too, is the renovation of the Plough at Lupton (or more rustically, Cow Brow). The folk who run the Punch Bowl at Crosthwaite took on the run-down old roadside inn, spent big licks and the result is spectacular. The bar and dining areas are spacious and airy – Farrow and Ball, slate and light wood – but nothing prepared us for our room, the Torsin.
Five luxury bedrooms, name after former lords of the manor, have been created out of 11 previously there and the ambition shows. The mirror alone in our bathroom wouldn’t have been out of palace in a Medici palace; the standalone bath like the rest of the fittings was state-of-the-art, the bed supremely comfortable.
On the downside, the room is on the road side and the A65 is busy and noisy. Yet we slept like the proverbial logs until a huge whooshing noise in the middle of the night. There is a resident hotel ghost, naturally, but it wasn’t her.That rain of biblical proportions had returned and was plummeting along a roof sluice outside our sitting room window!
Earlier in the week the weather had been gorgeous. Always the way in these parts. Next day, the croissants didn’t make it in time for breakfast. The main road had been flooded in both directions! It was clear later in the morning, if handled with care, as we made our way over to sister hotel the Punch Bowl, across the M6 in the Lyth Valley.
Ever since former Roux brothers chef Steven Doherty had it, this has been one of the Lake District’s best dining spots. The current owners have spruced it up considerably, especially the accommodation, while maintaining kitchen standards. It is generally a notch up on the Plough in that regard, which concentrates on pubbier grub. Still the best course of our stay was the Plough’s fabulous guinea fowl special.
Damson crumbleNestling is an over-used word in travel pieces but it really does apply to the Punch Bowl in its cleft by the village church (the pub doubles up as a post office in this working community), overlooking rolling hills. This is the Lyth Valley, speciality damsons.With plenty of opportunities to buy the tart fruit itself, the chutneys, the beer, all along the road north to Windermere. In homage, my lunch pud was a plum and damson crumble. Delicious as the place itself.
Plough, Cow Brow, Lupton, nr Kirkby Lonsdale, LA6 1PJ
Rooms from £95 per night with continental breakfast.
Visit www.theploughatlupton.co.uk or call 015395 67700.
Punch Bowl at Crosthwaite, Lyth Valley, Nr Windermere, LA8 8HR
Rooms from £95 per night including full breakfast.
Visit www.the-punchbowl.co.uk or call 015395 68237.
Kirkby Lonsdale is just south of Junction 36 on the M6. It lies on the A65 between Settle and Kendal (there is a bus service between the two) and at the junction with the A683, which runs north to Sedbergh. There is free parking on the old road, both north and south of the Devil's Bridge near this junction.
Take junction 36 off the M6, head towards Kendal on the A591. Take the first exit off the A591 towards Barrow. At the roundabout take the first exit towards Barrow on the A590, after approx 1 mile turn right towards Bowness and Windermere onto the A5074. After approx 3 miles, take the first right after the Lyth Valley Hotel. At the top of the lane turn left and you will find the pub on the left next to the church.
Other Kirkby Lonsdale attractions:
The Enchanted Chocolate Mine at Chocolat, the chocolate shop on New Road is one for chocoholics and kids. “Not a lot of people know that there is a source of naturally occurring chocolate beneath Kirkby Lonsdale and a team of faeries, with specialist mining skills are employed to extract it!” reads the blurb for “this secret underground world”.Visit www.chocolatemine.co.uk.
Sheepfolds is a sculpture project created by Andy Goldsworthy from an initiative by Cumbria County Council which began as part of the UK Year of Visual Arts in 1996. There are five Sheepfolds around Kirkby Lonsdale which the public are able to visit. For more information, directions and accessibility information for visiting the sites please visit http://www.sheepfoldscumbria.co.uk/
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