Cumbria: Savour ancient feuds, feast on fresh salmon

North Cumbria is one of Britain's best-kept secrets. Ian Herbert wandered empty roads and rolling hills

It says something for northern Cumbria's ability to make the best out of social and economic mayhem that the Border Reivers have become a star turn. The more faint-hearted might consider the ancient Reiver clans best forgotten, considering the havoc they wreaked while waging bloody warfare to protect their lands and families in the 16th century. But nearly 500 years on, the splendid, sonorous words of a curse pronounced on them by the Archbishop of Glasgow in the 1520s, when their feuding and murdering were particularly intense, have been carved on a granite boulder in Carlisle's millennial pedestrian underpass by local artist Gordon Young.

It says something for northern Cumbria's ability to make the best out of social and economic mayhem that the Border Reivers have become a star turn. The more faint-hearted might consider the ancient Reiver clans best forgotten, considering the havoc they wreaked while waging bloody warfare to protect their lands and families in the 16th century. But nearly 500 years on, the splendid, sonorous words of a curse pronounced on them by the Archbishop of Glasgow in the 1520s, when their feuding and murdering were particularly intense, have been carved on a granite boulder in Carlisle's millennial pedestrian underpass by local artist Gordon Young.

The 1,500-word curse calls down God's wrath on Reivers "frae the top of theair heid to the soill of theair feit". It curses their geese, their hens, and their cabbage patches. A rattling local debate with today's less robust Christians, who protest that the stone is divisive and incites hatred, has helped visitor numbers no end.

This neglected corner of England, rich in architecture, history, wildlife and sheer space, is often overwhelmed by the celebrity of the Lake District and Hadrian's Wall. It is currently the subject of a renewed tourism effort, the impetus for which is another source of north Cumbrian economic mayhem: foot-and-mouth disease.

The epidemic took an estimated £230m out of the local farming economy. Now it is the turn of the farmers' wives to try to recoup lost revenues, by trying to demonstrate that the area's appeal justifies a longer stay than the traditional overnight stop-off for southerners en route to the Scottish islands.

The effort is being led by Margaret Sissons from Longtown, seven miles east of Carlisle, which was largely unheard of before its sheep market, Europe's largest, unwittingly started spreading the virus 12 months ago. Swathes of local farms were culled out, and Mrs Sissons, whose 140-acre Bessiestown Farm has been operating as both farm and b&b for 30 years, was as hard hit as any.

When she and her husband were awarded the Booker Prize for Best Guest House last year they were stranded on the farm in the middle of a foot-and-mouth exclusion zone and had to collect their prize months later (adding it to a five-diamond silver rating from the English Tourist Board for its b&b and self-catering cottages.) By then, their 260 sheep and 100 lambs had all gone, slaughtered after foot and mouth hit an adjoining flock, and five months' income was lost.

Aided by rural revival grants, Mrs Sissons has joined forces with two similar establishments, New Pallyards outside Carlisle, and Bailey Mill, over the border in Roxburghshire, to create Border Reiver Activities, a collection of holidays which combines activities such as guided wildflower walks, lambing demonstrations, photography lessons and the chance to learn traditional skills like spinning and dry-stone walling, with a weekend walking the rugged landscape with views across to the Solway Firth. There is also excellent fishing: Longtown boasts two of the best rivers in the UK, the salmon, sea trout and brown trout waters of the Esk and Liddel, catches from which regularly fetch up on the Bessiestown supper table.

Another of the defining characteristics of the countryside around Longtown is its Roman roads. They are some of the longest, most empty roads in England which are a motorcyclist's paradise. Expect to sweep past the new, makeshift signs which gleefully advertise: "Animals on the road ... again".

But the centrepiece for visitors to this forgotten place is a new heritage trail full of delights, best meandered in an anticlockwise circuit starting in Longtown.

The route winds east to the famous Roman fort of Birdoswald, but it first takes in Brampton and its church of St Martin – the only one by Philip Webb, a founder member of William Morris's firm. If you have to suffer a long sermon, this is the church in which to do it, since the stained-glass windows alone – designed by Burne-Jones and made by him, with Morris – are reverie-inducing.

Just two miles north is 12th-century Lanercost Priory – part ruin, part parish church and about as romantic as old buildings can get. The chancel is open to the sky, the three layers of arches supported on huge elegant pillars.

But the finest relic is at Bewcastle, an ornate, runic inscription on a seventh-century Celtic cross which stands in front of the tiny church of St Cuthbert. It is more than 14ft tall and hewn from one piece of stone (apart from its crosspiece, which is now missing). Nobody knows why it was erected in Bewcastle. All that can be deduced from the runic inscription on its west face is the fact that it was put here by three people, probably from Northumbria, in memory of a fourth.

By contrast, Birdoswald fort, standing high on a cliff overhanging the river Irthing, is finally yielding up its secrets. Recent excavations have uncovered a unique basilica or drill hall, granary buildings and a west gateway, adding to the exhaustive array of components of the Roman wall system

The borderland experience is incomplete without a visit to the old, redbrick city of Carlisle, seven miles the other side of Longtown. Its new underground Millennium Galleryis separated from an underpass by a wall of glass blocks, through which can be seen the hazy outlines of visitors inside. Some seem locked in strange positions, heads pressed against earpieces on the glass wall as they listen to recordings made by local people.

The gallery, which opened recently as part of Tullie House Museum, has proved a great success. Exciting new Roman finds during excavations for the gallery included a breastplate that could prove to be Britain's best piece of Roman armour. It is an appropriate metaphor for a county still defending itself stoutly against the worst that can be thrown its way.

Bessiestown Farm, Longtown (01228 577219; www.bessiestown.co.uk). For farm holidays, go to www.farmholidays.co.uk or www.activitybreaks.net. For tourist information go to www.golakes.co.uk.

Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Arts and Entertainment
film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style