Appleby-in-Westmorland to Brough Sowerby
Updated: Jan 20
Pennine Journey – Day 13 – 11.25 miles
I wake to clear skies again, dawn light creeping lazy over the slate rooftops of Appleby, coos of a wood pigeon at an early hour.
It has been cold and miserable for the best part of a fortnight. Now it looks like the sun will stay with me as I journey south. I’m blessed. But I’ve earned it too. County Durham and Northumbria were unkind – the miles of sodden tarmac, wind-blasted moors and drab, dripping villages a part of this same Journey.
AW had his own battle with the elements, in geographical contrast to mine. Where the rains came on my journey north he walked into the eye of the storm as he battled south along the Eden Valley.
So miserable was the weather for AW – exceptional rainfall, wind and flooding, reported in the national news under the headline 'GREAT GALE SWEEPS BRITAIN' – that not only did he have to amend his planned itinerary to avoid summitting Cross Fell, he also nearly gave up more than once, writing a postcard to his Blackburn colleagues that he had ‘ABANDONED' his campaign ’ONLY FORTY MILES FROM BASECAMP’.
And with good reason; AW was hardly averse to ill weather, but barely able to proceed against the winds, and having, two miles from Kirkby Stephen, to wade shin-deep through floodwaters (hob nails extruding into sodden feet), he was losing patience. Pity the forlorn young man sitting in the Black Bull, Soulby, where he spends the night bemoaning his misfortunes while listening to the twin labours of the storm outdoors and the drunken gloatings of farmer Rowley as the landlady sits and chuckles... AW is not a happy bunny....
No storm for me, though. Instead perfect blue as I spend a lazy morning exploring Appleby.
Appleby-in-Westmorland, and today’s leg of the Pennine Journey, belong to Lady Anne Clifford.
Lady Anne was born, 1590, into money and privilege as the sole heir of one of England’s great medieval dynasties.
It was after the death of her father, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in 1605 that Lady Anne's struggles started.
The only surviving heir of her father's fortune – Clifford lands took in swathes of northern England, including five great castles in the ancient counties of Westmorland and Yorkshire – Anne had expected to succeed the estates. But that was not to be. Instead dad them to his brother, Francis, and to Francis’ heirs.
So it was that Lady Anne's uncle, and later cousin Henry, inherited the Clifford family lands.
Denied her birthright, Lady Anne set about mounting a lengthy series of legal challenges to right the wrong.
The cases were to prove costly and complex. The best legal minds wrestled with succession law for months, then years, then decades, as Lady Anne married a first time (to philandering spendthrift Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset), then a second time (to Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, with whom she became estranged ). Of the five children she bore, three died before adulthood.
Even with her personal life in turmoil she fought – on and on and on – ignoring the advice of her second husband to just... as Frozen's Elsa might sing... Let It Go.
In the end it was time that solved the legal impasse.
Cousin Henry died without heir in 1643. Six years after that, aged nearly 60, Lady Anne was able to return north to the family lands that were finally hers. It had been three decades since she first started fighting for them.
For the remainder of her long life Anne travelled between castles in huge convoys of staff, servants and other hangers-on, who would take everything – including the kitchen sink – with them to furnish the drafty stone rooms ahead for their mistress.
Each castle she visited – Brough, Brougham, Appleby, Pendragon and Skipton Castle in Yorkshire – was found to be neglected. So vast sums were spent restoring and enlarging them. Two of them – Skipton and Appleby – remain virtually intact today. The others have reverted to ruin, though they’d be in a far worse state if not for the 14th Baroness de Clifford's 17th century interventions.
So it is that I wander the fine, wide boulevard of Boroughgate, peeking into the alms house cloisters of St Anne's Hospital – an immaculately maintained sandstone courtyard with flowing fountain set in a studded bouquet of floral colour – then visit the impressive hilltop keep of Appleby Castle, where a charming man at the entrance gate tells me it's £12 to enter, but that if I can't afford the fee he'll tell me anything I want to know about Lady Anne's legacy, then, finally, I pay my respects in St Lawrence's Church, where both Lady Anne and her much-loved mother lay side-by-side just metres from an etched beam that reads: ‘ANN CONNTESSE OF PEMBROKE IN ANO 1655 REPAIRED ALL THIS BUILDING’.
As I'm leaving the church there's a cry from down the aisle. It's a lady in a wheelchair. “Hi! Hi! Can you let me out?! I can’t reach the latch.” She has been waiting to leave the church for an hour, she tells me.
Not a bad place to be interred I suppose.
And then, midday sun now burning, I'm off, continuing up the Eden.
Today’s stretch of the Pennine Journey – an 11-and-a-bit mile wander from Appleby-in-Westmorland to just south of Brough – is a mixed bag.
It starts beautifully. An amiable stroll through watermeadows south of the town turns into a Journey-wide highlight as the path enters hanging woods thick with bluebells, wild garlic and ground elder. As the peat-gold waters swirl below the trail picks a twisting way among coppiced hazel and broad-trunked oak, beamed sunlight making silver shivers of insects and butterflies shifting listless in the heavy, fragrant air.
Just west of Clint Dub a once-worked quarry is now prehistory: lichens, mosses and ivy have taken root on an ancient hacked rock face that descends to a cavern the sun never sees; fallen trunks decaying in the cool, shadowed recess while in the sun-blasted canopy far above a buzzard wheels and cries.
Nature is everywhere, and everywhere flourishing.
Beyond Sandford, and the beautifully named Tricklebanks Wood, the Journey climbs onto Arnside, where views widen across open country, an endless spread of rich-green meadows divided by blossomed blackthorn and ash and cherry hedges.
Some fields are empty – meadow grass adding mass fast under the now-relentless sun – others hold sheep and dairy cows, all lining up beside field edges and under parkland trees that offer the respite of shade.
These Eden meadows are Cumbria’s agricultural jewels. We are far, here, from the marginal uplands of the Lakes where farmers work tirelessly to break even. These are the fertile plains, settled long ago by those who recognised the richness of the soils and the longer growing season. Its verdance has something of d'Urberville country about it; at a dipped ford it is not hard to imagine the dairymaids working on trestled stools as their men-folk gather in the sheep; nor of a young milkmaid dancing carefree around Milburn’s fine Maypole.
But farming country is rarely walking country, and as the temperature notches up as the miles pass, the monotony of meadows bites. Where the grass is long, the going is arduous, and while some paths are well-walked, plenty are not, requiring studious navigation and involving more than a few mis-steps. And I never like the gnawing anxiety of approaching an unknown farm, not quite knowing if the collection of farm dogs you can hear barking are running free. The final flood-plain-tramping mile into Brough, meanwhile, is plain dull.
Which is not to undermine the many highlights: oystercatchers in the Eden; the shy community church at Musgrave Bridge; buttercup meadows over which swifts dance; the skyline bastion of Brough Castle (another of Lady Anne's); the sheltered sunken lanes, hedges rising 20 foot each side; and, most of all, the distant mountainscapes – to the east the slowly shifting Pennine skyline defined today by Burton Fell and Warcop Fell; to the wast the still-distant Lakeland fells; and, most excitingly of all, directly south, Wild Boar Fell and the hanging crags of Mallerstang Edge, gateways to Mallerstang, the valley along which tomorow I will walk.
The problem I have with walking meadowlands and farmed countryside is the sense not just of neglect, but, worse, loss.
These are heritage cultural landscapes that were once loved.
Lands where grandfathers and great grandfathers once planted hedges, then immaculately layered them.
Where master craftsmen once stacked walls to endure.
But no one’s planting hedges any more. I see five saplings in ten miles of walking. The rotor-trimmer does what a crasftman and a bill hook once did. Stone walls tumble and are replaced with wired barbs as moss and mud reclaim fallen stones.
The meadows, too, have changed. Where swathes of colour once studded the green – Dog Violet, Knapweed, Yellow Rattle – now all is monoculture. Rye grass nourished with fertilisers that leach into rivers and lakes. At one point a pond is passed; not an oasis for dragonflies, lilies, toads and dipper, but a pool choked with nitrogenous weed, as good as dead.
As farming has mechanised and as yields have increased the farmers’ concern has been as much the income ledger as the land he nurtures; an accountant a more profitable landowner than any botanist. So we lose the flowers, and the walls, and the hedgerows – and all they support – for ever-cheaper food as a biodiversity apocalypse unfolds around us.
We have lost the appetite to rebuild, replant, restore and reinvest. All qualities from a gentler era that championed the values of a life lived in harmony with the landscapes and wildlife around us. Behind the tumbledown walls, the dying ashes, the colourless meadows is the pernicious hand of free marketeers: for the practical fact is that even with the best will in the world, the idea that it makes any financial sense for a farmer to rebuild a dry stone wall or re-sow a wildflower meadow in such straitened times is a nonsense.
These are the unlikely battle grounds for the future of our planet, and right now, all is not well in Eden.
Upper Teesdale shows what is possible. The meadows of Cumbria all too often show what is probable. Head down to the prosperous and functionally dead flatlands of Lincolsnhire to see what’s likely.
The contrast between the riverside bluebell woods of earlier – teeming with sound, movement, colour and life – and these monoculture meadows is too much to ignore.
Especially in the burning sun.
It is, in the end, a long 11 miles to Brough Sowerby.
Whether it’s the sun – making progress lower by the hour, a Fanta on a roadside bench in Brough only just taking the edge off my thirst – or the meadow-plodding, or the mood wrought by the sense of landscape loss, the distant gateway to Mallerstang nears but slowly on the southeastern horizon, promise of the high hills delayed.
But their time will come.
I’m done with the flatlands.