A walk in Smardale Gill

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:21 am

Smardale Gill and ViaductSome years ago, we spent a happy couple of days with good friends in the Eden district of Cumbria.  For many, Cumbria means the Lake District – which is, of course, a wonderful place; but there is more to the county than that.  Eden, named for the river that flows north through it to the Solway Firth (rather than a mythical idyllic garden), is a predominantly rural part of northern England.  It allegedly has the lowest population density of any district in England and no large urban areas.  In places  it is relatively wild and remote.  If you think that makes it grim and desolate, think again.  Within Eden’s boundaries are parts of both the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, as well as the North Pennines – an officially designated area of outstanding natural beauty. With the Lake District in the west, Eden butts up against North Yorkshire and County Durham to its east and shares a northern border with Scotland and Northumberland.  In any event, getting back to the point, one of our friends (the organised one), had looked up some walks and suggested Smardale Gill.  I had never heard of it. After a few beers the previous night, I probably wasn’t paying attention anyway.

Smardale Gill ViaductSmardale Gill ViaductConfusingly, dale and gill mean similar things.  Both are Old Scandinavian, dalr meaning ‘valley’ and gil ‘a deep narrow valley or ravine’.  Smardale is actually a tiny village a couple of miles west of the bustling outpost of Kirkby Stephen.  The smar bit could be Old Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon for butter or grease: ‘butter valley’, concludes the trusty Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names.  Smardale Gill is a nearby deep valley cut by the Scandal Beck, beck being a common term for ‘stream’ in these parts.  With me? Good. No, I don’t know where ‘scandal’ comes from.  Well, I do, but not in this context.

Smardale Gill, CumbriaSo, our walk was a valley walk.  And a lovely combination of natural splendour overlaid with the impact of man it was, a meander through an old industrial landscape that nature is trying very hard to reclaim.  What I did not realise, until researching this article, was that we passed by the site of a medieval village on the hillside to the east of us – something to search for next time.  The map also shows ‘pillow mounds’ along the route, sometimes known as ‘giants’ graves’, which are actually artificial warrens for breeding and managing rabbits, or hares.  These often date from the 12th century, following the Norman enthusiasm for importing rabbits to Britain and breeding them for their fur and meat.  In addition, beyond the pillow mounds, is a feature called Gallows Hill.  I really should know, by now, the value of looking closely at the map before setting out.

Smardale lime kilnsRailway cottages, Smardale GillThe first part of our little stroll began in a southerly direction along the route of a disused railway line, constructed by the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway between 1857 and 1861.  The SD&LUR (as those in the know refer to it) provided a link across the austere Pennines to take coke from County Durham to the iron and steel furnaces of West Cumbria.  It was a formidable piece of engineering and, at its peak (pun intended), carried more than a million tons of coke each year.  The line finally closed in 1962 following the decline and subsequent closure of the Barrow steelworks.  Now, the abandoned line and its cuttings form a linear nature reserve where all manner of flora and fauna, some of it rare, can flourish.  The place is a lepidopterist’s dream; indeed, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust claims that the Smardale Nature Reserve is “one of only two sites in England where the Scotch Argus butterfly can be seen”.  If you’re lucky – and we weren’t – you may also spot a shy red squirrel.

Smardale BridgePackhorse bridge at Smardale GilThe old abandoned railway track, passing under the Carlisle-Settle Railway, wends its way through bosky woodland, emerging to present Smardale Gill in its full glory at the Smardale Gill Viaduct.  This fine Victorian structure carried the SD&LUR a distance of 553 feet (170 metres) across the gill floor 90 feet (27 metres) below.  It has 14 sandstone arches – and you can see where the sandstone was cut from nearby.  The viaduct was saved from demolition by Eden District Council and the Northern Viaduct Trust, who look after it.  At the time of writing, it is under threat again; take a look at their website to learn more.  You may argue, with some justification, that the viaduct is neither unique nor beautiful and that perhaps money could be better spent on the present rather than the past.  Then again, it would cost an enormous sum to demolish and it can hardly be left to decay.  My first impression was that was an ugly scar on the landscape, but then I was intrigued by the notion that it defined the path ahead, the road to somewhere, perfectly.  Viewed from across Smardale Gill, the viaduct actually seems to fit into its environment  rather well – as some man-made constructions do.

Smardale Gil and ViaductAnother part of our industrial past is visible at the southern end of the viaduct, in the shape of two large lime kilns.  Additional remains of a 19th century commercial lime production complex include an engine house and inclined plane, used to haul limestone up to the kilns.  The extracted lime was loaded directly onto trains standing in an adjacent siding for distribution along the railway.  Interestingly, the Historic England listing for this site additionally mentions two prehistoric round cairns, three Romano-British settlements, known as Severals, and old field systems on the hillside above.  As the listing points out, “evidence of settlement and exploitation covering a period of over 4000 years”. Yet another reason to check the map before you go.  Nearby are the derelict remains of what have been described as ‘railway cottages’.  You start to get a sense of how much has gone on here; and how much quieter it is now.

Smardale sandstoneSmardale ViaductThe views from the slopes above Scandal Beck were, of course, sublime.  It was one of those Indian Summer September days when the light was just perfect and the vegetation had a warm tint about it.  Bridging the beck is an old packhorse bridge, probably 18th century.  Yet another link with the past, from the time before goods were moved by canal or railway.  There’s a story that an inn once stood by the bridge, the Scotch Inn, named for the drovers who brought their herds south to sell in England.  And here, so another story goes, in the dead of night on 12 October 1663, the members of the Kaber Rigg Conspiracy (or Atkinson’s Rebellion), a plot to overthrow King Charles II, met.  The coup petered out and several of the rebels were executed at Appleby.

Smardale Hall, CumbriaIt was at the bridge that our own intrepid gang turned back, along the opposite side of the valley giving views of the viaduct, to our starting point.  Close to this lies Smardale Hall, an imposing building apparently dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.  The local austere Cumbrian style has been vaguely flavoured with Scottish baronial, perhaps with a dash of French chateau.  It is now a farm – but also partly a holiday cottage.

Serious walkers may like to know that the reasonably modest Smardale Gill Viaduct walk lies on the route of the 192 mile coast to coast walk between St Bees in Cumbria and Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, created by Alfred Wainwright.  More information about it can be found on the really excellent Coast to Coast website.

And the map you need to look at is shown below. Click or tap to buy. I have – ready for next time.

61 thoughts on “A walk in Smardale Gill”

  1. Wow, this was fascinating, thank you! Gorgeous photos, and perfect accompaniment; I felt like I was strolling (hiking?) merrily along, and with a tour guide.

  2. My guy and I walked in the Lake District about 25 years ago and were stunned by the beauty and the accessibility to walk across the fields/farms while greeting the cows and the sheep (and climbing over and pass stone walls). Hope to do it again sometime – this walk exactly. Beautiful.

  3. I do hope the viaduct can be saved. Admittedly, we do have a number of these around the country and this one might not be one of the best but the skill involved in the design and all the really hard physical work involved in the construction shouldn’t end in a heap of rubble and then be forgotten. I am also imagining the mess if they did demolish it! It might also encourage unscrupulous people to try to build something else there and they might get planning permission!
    Wonderful post, Mike and glorious photos!

  4. Gosh. I am stunned. Stumped for words. Struggling to think what I can say. What an awesome place. I’m sure that viaduct has appeared in so many movies etc. that is probably one of the reasons they keep it. Pity you missed the red squirrels. We actually have some black squirrels in our “hood” – I kid you not. They occasionally encounter the more populous grey ones and make a bit of a racket.

    1. I think the thing with viaducts that makes them unique is the framing. Moving on – it was only fairly recently that I realised there was such a thing as black squirrels. A quick question to Dr Google revealed that there are, allegedly , 289 species of squirrel. Crumbs!!

  5. The names all sounded familiar to me, then that picture of the bridge is identical to one I took years ago. So thanks for throwing a little light on my shadowy recollections by pointing out that it’s on the Coast to Coast Path, which I walked in the 1970s shortly after Wainwright’s book had been published.

  6. Hi Mike – this looks amazing … such interesting history you’ve given us too – reminding us of the lovely countryside and the fascinating tales it’ll tell. Cheers Hilary

  7. Looks a great walk – certainly there are many terrific looking (former) railway viaducts around the country which deserve to be preserved, many of course now holding walking or cycle routes. Monsal Dale in the Peak District wouldn’t be the same place without its viaduct.

  8. Looks like a beautiful hike, and that were able to work of the beers from the night before.

    That view with the stream and the mountains and the viaduct is wonderful.

    and I can’t imagine raising rabbits for their meat; I guess it was more popular back then than it is today 🙂

  9. Yet another inviting walk. Years ago I walked part of the Route of the Settle to Carlisle railway. Where one of the viaducts was built, the foundation of one arch was installed next to a beautiful little packhorse bridge, thus causing the track to be diverted, leaving the little bridge surviving in the shadow of the viaduct. It created a very photogenic vista and your walk Mike, reminds me there are so many wonderful places to explore in our Country. Thanks.

  10. That was a wonderful walk, by the looks of it and your description! Very much my kind of thing. I like the combination of nature and man-made structures, industrial heritage, abandoned railway lines and houses. It sets my mind’s wheels in motion and gives me plenty to thing about and imagine.

  11. artandarchitecturemainly

    Smardale Hall really IS a very imposing building from the late medieval era, especially the towers. If it was built in the Scottish baronial style back then, the family must have been both wealthy and ambitious. Aerial photos show just how much land there was.

  12. What extraordinary things have been built to allow us to travel — bridges, viaducts, roads, canals, tunnels… Thank you for a lovely visit to this part of Cumbria via your excellent. blog1

  13. Beautiful ! Old age, distance and lockdowns mean I’ll probably never get back to England so I do enjoy your outings here.Thank you. (Of course, if I DO get back we have a date at the Red Lion!)

  14. What a wonderful sounding walk and a great one for me to recommend to my mum and dad as well: my dad’s a railway buff and my mum prefers valley walks these days!

  15. such a lovely reminder of when my father and I and a couple of friends did the Coast to Coast back in the early 90s. when we came out of Kirby Stephen to the nine Standards I don’t think I have ever been so cold on a walk so reaching the shelter of the gill was a blessing.

  16. I’ve never been to that area of Cumbria you make it look very tempting. I love the photo looking along the valley to Smardale Gill viaduct, it looks like a postcard picture 🙂

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