Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Some 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.
Confusingly, 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.
So, 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Another 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.
The 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.
It 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.