IN THE middle of August, despite rain being forecast, I made my way back up to Cumbria for the purpose of further perambulatory diversions.
Having left London at a time known only to insomniacs and chorusing birds, I alighted in Maryport sometime mid-morning to find the small town in bustling holiday mood. I immediately went looking for an ice cream; the sunshine was mocking the Met Office with a vengeance—it was more like Umbria than Cumbria.
Given that Maryport started out as the Roman port of Alauna, suggesting Italian provenance isn’t actually far-fetched. Its earliest documented resident was a Roman army officer by the name of Marcus Maenius Agrippa, who commanded the initial garrison. Agrippa, a personal friend of the Emperor Hadrian, was born in Camerinum (modern Camerino1) although his troops were a Spanish cavalry unit—the Cohors Hispanorum Equitata. I imagine they found Cumbria’s climate a shock.
An ice cream helped me deal with the equally shocking departure from Cumbria’s habitual rain and, after availing myself of various shops in Senhouse Street (shown above), I followed that road back down to the harbour area, from where I would resume my walk. Although it was sunny, there was sea haze and Scotland hid coyly from my gaze, the faintest of indistinct blurs across the Solway Firth.
I turned right to follow a short road along the harbour edge. This in turn led me to Maryport’s seaside promenade. Technically it’s the new promenade, the older one being inland atop a hill. I’m not sure when it was originally built but in its current form it’s a concrete product of the 1970s, flanked by rusted railings. That sounds awful, and it’s probably not a world of joy in a downpour, but baked by glorious sunshine it made a good start to my walk.
There was about a mile and a half of promenade and the number of other people using it dropped off sharply as the town centre got further away. By the time I reached its end, there was only me and a handful of cyclists. The presence of the latter was not inappropriate — a footpath along the coast was closed on account of erosion and the England Coast Path signs directed me to continue along National Cycle Network route 72.
According to my Ordnance Survey map this meant joining the B5300, a fairly busy road with no pedestrian footway. Fortunately, the map is a little out of date and the situation on the ground had something much better to offer:
The cycle path was much safer than the road, discounting the occasional family of cyclists with a small swarm of kamikaze kids. I followed it north for another mile or so, where it was crossed by a narrow lane heading inland to Crosscanonby. This is a tiny village whose twelfth century church occupies one of the earliest Christian sites in Cumbria.
The village lies about a mile inland and I felt no need to pay it a visit. I was, however, interested in something else nearby, awaiting me a little way up the road. A sign by the Crosscanonby turning even showed me a photograph:
Milefortlets were small fortifications (fortlets), built by the Romans at intervals of exactly one mile apart. They basically formed a dotted line extending the defences of Hadrian’s Wall along the Cumbrian coast.
Milefortlet 21 was rediscovered in 1968 — thanks to an aerial photograph — and fully excavated in the early 1990s. It sits on the lower southern, landward-facing slope of Swarthy Hill, which seems like a stupid place to build a fort guarding the coast. You’d think maybe the hill top would be more sensible but that would have meant that it wasn’t exactly one mile from the milefortlets either side of it. Regulations, eh?
The circular depression on the opposite side of the roadway is not at all connected to the milefortlet but very much associated with the beach it is next to. It is an old Elizabethan saltpan, used for the harvesting of salt from seawater. Built sometime around 1630, it remained in use for less than a century with salt production ceasing in the 1730s (a salt tax introduced in 1698 probably didn’t help). Until 1970, salters’ cottages stood beside it but erosion has long since claimed the neighbouring land.
Seeing Them for Real
I initially missed the access point to Milefortlet 21 on account of the ground layout having changed since the photo from the sign was taken. What appears to be a car park in the photo is long gone and the cycle path now runs through the middle of it. Fortunately I realised my mistake and backtracked, finding a path that runs up the brow of the hill. Soon enough, I found myself standing in the milefortlet’s field gazing where its ditches and ramparts were clearly visible…
Having not so much satisfied my curiosity about Milefortlet 21 as frustrated it, I retraced my steps to the cycle path and continued onwards to Allonby, a couple of miles down the road.
A Dreary Little Place
Originally a herring fishing village, Allonby reinvented itself as a resort in the nineteenth century. At first glance it appears that “resortification” didn’t really take — there’s really not a lot there. There is the Ship Hotel, an old seventeenth century coaching inn, in which Charles Dickens stayed overnight in 1857. His verdict on Allonby was damning: a ‘dreary little place’.
Allonby might not have lots of resort amenities but it certainly has something going for it because the village was packed. It looked as if everyone for miles around had flocked there to sit with an ice cream and gaze out over the waters of the Solway Firth. The queue for the shop selling ice creams was immense. I know; I queued in it. The ice cream was absolutely necessary.
I found a spot on a bench and enjoyed my second ice cream of the day. The other end of the bench was occupied by a young woman with a small boy who apparently had no fear of strangers. To his mother’s growing embarrassment, he bombarded me with questions of the affirmation-seeking kind.
‘Yes,’ I told him, ‘it is hot today. And yes, ice cream is delicious. Better than sausage rolls, even. Yes.’
The route out of Allonby was actually the road, the separate foot and cycle path having come to an end in the village. Initially, this was not a problem, as a pedestrian pavement was provided. I ambled along it at a none-too-urgent pace, taking in the hazy view of distant Scottish hills.
While much of Allonby’s architecture was unremarkable there were some notable exceptions. The grandest buildings were, amusingly enough, built by Quakers (who are typically models of non-ostentation).
One such building is North Lodge, built in the 1830s by banker Thomas Richardson to serve as a holiday home for him and his Allonby-born wife. Six cottages on either side were occupied rent-free by spinsters or widows, while behind it was a hexagonal outhouse, with individual earth closets for each cottage.
The site is still in use as low-cost housing, owned by the charity Allonby Almshouses (founded 1854), although presumably they now have proper plumbing.
At about this point, I ran out of pedestrian pavement and the official route of the England Coast Path dropped down onto the shore. Unfortunately, this was shingle, which is horrible to walk on. It was also tidal but that was hardly a problem.
Holme St Cuthbert
While it did avoid the somewhat dangerous road, the shore was hard going and it wasn’t long before I left it, rejoining the road near Oldkiln Farm. An old-fashioned fingerpost showed I’d only come a single mile since Allonby. Silloth was another six miles ahead.
Actually, what I did was notice that NCN 72 abandoned the B5300 and headed off on an inland diversion. Up until now, I had planned to just walk north along the B-road but the traffic was quite heavy and some of it rather large. I decided that maybe the NCN people knew something I didn’t. Or, at the least, that they probably knew what they were doing. Besides, I could easily do an extra three miles. And so, I turned right, heading down a narrow but lorry-free country lane.
What with the sunshine and the broad open vistas with fells in the distance, this section of road-walking was hardly onerous. The road headed northeast for about a mile and a half, conveying me into and through the hamlet of Edderside.
Edderside’s name is Old English (ædre + sīde ‘channel-side’) and it sits beside a narrow stream that feeds into another called Black Dub. Today, it comprises just three functioning farms, half the number that it had in the nineteenth century. Indeed. It took me longer to write that than to pass through the place.
The road beyond Edderside was initially more of the same but sank into a slight hollow a mile beyond the hamlet where, at a staggered crossroads, sat the even smaller settlement of Jericho. Unlike the Biblical city, this Jericho was lacking walls. It was also lacking in dwellings — at first I thought it was only two adjoining cottages but an elderly gent emerged from one and walked into the other, revealing it to be a single farmhouse.
I rested a moment beside the junction before climbing onwards out of Jericho and up the gentle slope of a low hill. The road was now flanked by trees and high hedgerows as it approached the hamlet of Tarns. This is another tiny settlement, named for the nearby tarn (a small lake) called Tarns Dub; it dates back to at least 1200.
Since 2004, one of its farms — Tarnside Farm — has hosted the music festival Solfest.
I turned off from the road before it reached Tarns proper, following NCN 72 past the gates of Tarnside Farm. The farm is situated, unsurprisingly given its name, right next to Tarns Dub.
One of the fields overlooking the farm turned out to be full of small goats who got quite excited as I passed. The tarn is also overlooked by a holiday park so I imagine they get quite a lot of fuss. Sadly for the goats, I had other plans, following yet more country lanes back towards the coast. The route I was on was essentially describing two sides of a triangle and would come within a stone’s throw of Beckfoot without actually passing through the hamlet.
Beckfoot, Mawbray & Newtown
Beckfoot is a linear settlement, strung out along the B5300. It faces directly onto the coast and in the sixteenth century a number of houses were swallowed by the sea. A new settlement, initially called New Mawbray — after Mawbray, a village to the south— but later Newtown, was built further inland in consequence. My route, following NCN 72, managed to miss all three settlements: Beckfoot, Mawbray and Newtown.
As mentioned above, the cycle route almost touched Beckfoot, coming just a short walk to its east before it changed direction and headed inland again. About a half mile onwards was the tiny hamlet of Wolsty (from OE wulf-stīg, “wolf- path”).
A castle was built near Wolsty in the early fourteenth century, with the purpose of defending Holme Cultrum Abbey, which lies four miles to the east. Intended to protect against Scottish raids, the castle had fallen into ruin by 1572. Repair work was carried out in the 1630s but the union of the crowns in 1603 reduced the risk of official raids — not only were England and Scotland now under one monarch but King James crushed the Border Reivers, bringing them to heel. The castle, no longer necessary, was demolished by 1700. Now, all that remains is its motte, standing proud in a field.
I passed fairly close by the castle but I did not see the mound on account of the trees and the hedgerows. The lanes I now walked were long and straight and hardly accustomed to traffic other than tractors.
The narrow lanes eventually connected to a wider road with centre lane markings. This was the B5301 and it led me to the hamlet of Blitterlees (from OE blaecþorn-læs, ‘blackthorn pasture’). This was technically a separate settlement but essentially formed the southern end of Silloth, onto the streets of which I next passed.
Silloth developed with the coming of the railway in the 1860s, turning from a tiny hamlet into an industrial port and Victorian seaside resort. In its heyday it thrived on holidaymakers and Carlisle day trippers and, though it lost the railway to Beeching in 1964, it continues to rely on tourism today.
Many modern tourists stay in the many caravan parks that are near to the town but Silloth also retains some actual hotels. It was in one such hotel that I had a room booked and, though my walk had not been all that far, it was with a great sense of relief that I entered that room and sat down. The day had been hot and therefore tiring and I was looking forward to a bath, food and bed. And maybe also a gin and tonic.
The skies were greying over as the day came to an end; it looked like the next one would bring rain after all…
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,191½ miles
1 Which is in Marche not Umbria, damn it