I set out before dawn on a very cold and frosty morning. The ground was rock hard, which was good because it hardened the mud. A perfect day for a winter walk.
From Colby Lane in Appleby three parallel paths run down to Bandley Bridge, that delightful crossing of the Hoff Beck. The northernmost path is a bridleway, beginning as a green lane before winding its way across fields. It’s many years since I used this nice old green track, and then only in the opposite direction. I remember the occasion well – it was a boiling hot day in July and I stopped to talk to the farmer and his wife, who were getting in an early harvest.
But on this frozen morning, with the first glimmer of light, there were long views across to the snowy Pennines and Shap Fells. The snow hadn’t yet touched the Eden valley where I was walking.
I wandered down through Rachel’s Wood, where frost and ice clung to each individual twig and every inch of the tree bark. The Hoff Beck had flooded recently at Bandley Bride, leaving pools with ice as hard as Plexiglass.
It was here that the dawn broke, a rich orange illuminating the trees on the neighbouring heights.
The Hoff Beck is more of a river than the name implies, a charming stretch of water in a landscape that can have changed very little since the Viking Halfdans settled in its valley. There was nobody about, just a solitary heron that kept changing its fishing pitches as I walked the banks of the beck, my boots crunching the hardened and frosty ground.
Apart from the barking of a dog, my presence through the hamlet of Hoff went unnoticed. Crossing the road, the beck was still my companion as I walked the long mile down to the waterfall of Rutter Force. I miss the tea-shop that used to be here, a place where I lingered on a very wet days walking many years ago – I put an account of that expedition in my walking memoir Wayfarer’s Dole.
Then up across the field to the isolated house marked on the map as Porch Cottage, but these days called Donkey’s Nest. A quiet lane runs from there into the village of Great Ormside, which has the good fortune to have one of the best churches in Cumbria.
A place full of history too. Orm, who gave the place its name, was one of the Halfdan Viking settlers who came to this place in around 915 AD. We say Vikings, but we should say Danes really, for Viking was a name to be used only when the Norsemen went a-raiding.
The church is set on a great mound, which was almost certainly a burial ground for these early settlers. The Ormside Bowl, (now in York Museum) and dating to the 7th/8th century, was discovered in the churchyard in 1823. In 1898, a Viking warrior was found buried in the mound, complete with his sword (now at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle). Nearby is Ormside Hall, with an altered defensive Peel Tower. This was a debateable land in the long conflict between the Scots and the English.
According to the map, a bridleway runs from the church across the fields to Appleby. I went to look and it’s certainly well signposted but – unless you are feeling bold – completely impassable. There is no bridge across the River Eden, and few signs that there ever was. No obvious ford either, though I suspect horse riders simply plunged into the waters of Eden whenever they felt like crossing.
I took the familiar path on the left bank of the Eden, which runs through woodland and climbs above and then falls back to the river. This is a real poacher’s path, with hidden places where someone not averse to raiding fishing rights might dip for a salmon or trout. A good place for herons and otters too – not so long ago we saw an otter just downstream of here.
The footpath reached Appleby in the shadow of its ancient castle. Once all of this land was part of Scotland – one reason why it doesn’t feature in the Domesday Book. It had a bloody history too, the Scottish king William the Lion besieged the place. Appleby, as the “by” at the end of its name implies was a Viking settlement. These invading Danes sought out the pastoral loop of its river in what are known to us as the Dark Ages. Earlier Romans bypassed the location by following the important Roman road to the north of the town as they marched to the Stainmore Gap.
A hard-frosted day of a kind that must have been familiar to these first settlers. The ground was just as unyielding as I finished my walk.
Probably my last walk of the year and a memorable day. Today the snow fell in the Eden Valley, h
About 8 miles