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.

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