How to spend a weekend on the Cumbrian coast

Resist the lure of the Lake District and instead trace England’s northwest coastline by road or rail, savouring epicurean discoveries and sandy hikes along the way.

By Mark Rowe
Published 12 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Ulverston, with the Hoad Monument at the top of Hoad Hill
Ulverston, with the Hoad Monument at the top of Hoad Hill
Photograph by Getty Images

Don’t turn left. As you travel from north to south along Cumbria’s magnificent forgotten coast, resist the siren-like call of the honeypots of the Lake District. Forget chocolate-box views of neatly tended valleys and villages and instead expect big skies and dreamy seascapes. This is where Cumbria juts its chin out into the Irish Sea, where the outliers of Lakeland fells meet the water and turn to sand.

A wonderfully lonely coastal route, tracked by both road and train, links the small former Roman town of Maryport on the northwest coast to Grange-over-Sands in the southeast. The journey flicks this way and that, often threatening to tilt you into the Irish Sea, then lurches into the shadows of craggy headlands before breaking cover once more alongside the endless sands and mudflats of the remote Furness Peninsula.

For much of this winding journey you’ll enjoy the slightly disorientating yet uplifting sensation of looking back on somewhere recently visited; on a previous day, or even just a previous hour. Your days will be diverse: an exhilarating tramp along an empty beach may be followed by a visit to a Buddhist temple. Leave the Kendal Mint Cake behind — good food and drink, from local seafood to vintage ice cream, awaits.

Day one: Maryport to Ravenglass

What did the Romans ever do for Cumbria? A good way to find out is to drop into the excellent Senhouse Roman Museum in Maryport with its carvings of Hercules, Mars and armed Celtic warrior gods. Heading south, both road and rail line contour along the shore, ducking behind the headland of St Bees, sidling past the eerie structures of Sellafield nuclear power plant, before reaching the tiny village of Ravenglass. Hop on the La’al Ratty, a steam train that puffs its way seven miles inland to the foot of the Hardknott Pass, a formidable barrier that marks the westernmost limits of the Lakeland fells. Conveniently, the train stops near the Woolpack Inn where you can refuel before returning to Ravenglass. 

A mile inland — and reached via a signposted 1.5-mile walk through woodland — from Ravenglass, Muncaster Castle glowers over the watery plains of Eskdale. This castle dates to the early 13th century and its octagonal library, secret doors, ghost stories and battlements shouldn’t be missed. The lush grounds are scented with Himalayan flowers and host a falconry display against the backdrop of the Crinkle Crags high in the fells. Returning to the coast you’ll find that Ravenglass is a thoroughly medieval village, with a single cobbled street that tapers at either end to deter both unwelcome visitors and the storm tides. Visit the Pennington Hotel to see local artist Mark A Pearce’s linocuts of the local landscape.

In an ideal world, the tide will be low and the skies clear as dusk approaches, enabling you to wander above the sands around the village, where three rivers converge. If not, button up your wet weather gear and embrace the winds that blow in from the Irish Sea. A viaduct crosses the River Mite and enables you to amble further along the shore. At the Pennington Hotel in Ravenglass, friendly staff and smart decor make it burst at the seams of its three-star rating. Food is good here (try the Lakeland lamb stew) but consider walking around the corner to dine at the Ratty Arms, housed in the former railway station. Good quality pub fare is the order of the day but be warned, portions are huge.

Day two: Furness Peninsula to Ulverston

South of Ravenglass, the Furness Peninsula opens up. This is a lonely part of the country, sometimes called the longest cul-de-sac in England. However, you have this remoteness to thank for the fact that the astonishing Furness Abbey isn’t overrun with visitors. Located in the moodily named Vale of Nightshade, this Cistercian abbey was once the second-most powerful and richest in England. For a surreal contrast, head two miles south into Barrow, an intensely industrial town forged on iron and ship building. The excellent Dock Museum is small, but tells the moving stories of those who migrated to Barrow, which was once known as the Chicago of the North, in the hope of escaping grinding poverty.

Want to meet a real-life king? Take the short ferry ride from Roa Island (linked by a causeway to Barrow) to Piel Island — humorously an island off an island off another island. Call into the Ship Inn for the chance for a refreshing pint and a chat with landlord Steve Chattaway, ‘the King of Piel’. The title is a mocking reference to the bizarre invasion of Piel Island in 1487 by 10-year-old Lambert Simnel, said to be a dead ringer for Edward IV, one of the infamous vanished princes in the Tower of London. There have been 23 ‘kings’, each crowned in an age-old wooden chair. Afterwards, spend some time exploring the island’s extremely modest dimensions, including the 14th-century ruined castle.

Take the old coast road (A5087) east to the small town of Ulverston. Exploration can wait until the morning, so head to the town’s Bay Horse Hotel, a 17th-century coaching inn perched above Morecambe Bay. It was here that intrepid travellers would take a drink to steel themselves before embarking on the perilous horseback journey across the sands to Lancaster, 18 miles away. From the verandahs of the brightly decorated rooms you can almost lean out of the window and run your fingers in the water at high tide. Before dinner, stroll along the adjacent canal, which is used as a runway by mute swans. Owners Lesley Wheeler and Bobby Lyons are welcoming hosts and Bobby is an outstanding chef. 

Setting sun on the coast at Maryport
Photograph by Getty Images

Day three: Ulverston to Grange-over-Sands

Ulverston is famously the birthplace of Stan Laurel and you’ll find a rather moving homage to his early life in Cumbria at the Laurel & Hardy Museum housed in the town’s vintage cinema. It would be remiss to visit Cumbria without tackling a fell, so take the mile walk from the town centre up Hoad Hill. The summit is capped with the lighthouse-shaped Sir John Barrow Monument. From the top of the tower’s 112 steps you can pick out Blackpool Tower, 28 miles south as the oystercatcher flies. You may encounter Les Tallon, senior lighthouse keeper. “The tower is just iconic,” he says. Pointing to the outline of the high fells of the Lakes to the north, he adds: “You’re only 10 minutes’ drive from the Lakes and all their hustle and bustle. Ulverston is just very different.”

Did you come to Cumbria to visit a Buddhist temple? Probably not but even if you aren’t in search of meditation, consider a visit to the magnificent Kadampa Temple located in the same grounds as Conishead Priory, a former stately home three miles south of Ulverston. The temple is exquisite and inside it’s stocked with images of the Buddha and his disciples. The attractive grounds are equally calming, featuring neatly tended gardens and woodlands. An old Roman road serves as a sylvan footpath to the shoreline; other paths in the woods here are almost subterranean, sunken deliberately and dating to the days when you needed cover to slip past highwaymen. The shingle beach here has views over to the Lake District and across a succession of watery headlands.

Grange-over-Sands lies just 15 miles east of Ulverston. Once upon a time, optimistic travel agents described this nook of Cumbria as ‘the Northern Riviera’, but there’s no need to jazz things up for this is the perfect town for a pit stop. The mile-long promenade is separated from the main part of town by the railway and an evening stroll here, accompanied by the call of a curlew, is a bewitching experience. For a taste of yore, stay at Grange Hotel, which has high ceilings, tasteful coving and heavy curtains. For dinner stroll past the town’s ornamental gardens to The Estuary. The menu here is impressive, ranging from traditional fish and chips to Bury black pudding and langoustines, along with potato and chorizo soup.   

The five best places to eat in Cumbria

1. The Stan Laurel Inn, Ulverston
Inspired by local lad Stan Laurel, the facade conceals an excellent eatery. Try the Moroccan stir-fry with quinoa and orzo pasta or a sharing platter of bhajis and samosas. Several real ales on tap.

2. Choco-Lori, Grange-over-Sands
For a tasty and tasteful souvenir, visit this shop run by mother-and-daughter team Anne and Louise Rigby. All chocolates are handmade and range from solid slabs of dark Belgian chocolate to novelty shapes and delicate pralines.

3. The Hazelmere Bakery, Grange-over-Sands
Make up a packed lunch up based on the bakery’s beetroot-and-apple bread or have a toasted sandwich with creamy Kendal cheese in the adjacent cafe. The afternoon tea of scones and jam is legendary — a single serving could feed a family of five.

4. Higginsons butchers, Grange-over-Sands
This award-winning butchers offers food to eat on the go or take home. Grab a sausage roll for your walks and for a foodie souvenir pick up some lamb reared on the adjacent salt marshes or grab a huntsman pie, filled with pork, chicken and stuffing.

5. Roy’s Ices, Bardsea
Something of an institution in Cumbria, you’ll find this unassuming ice cream van on a bend of the old coast road (A5087) just south of Conishead Priory. A new generation of Cumbrians is being reared on the 22 flavours on offer — and most of them are homemade.

How to do it

Hire a car with Co-wheels at Carlisle, Windermere or Oxenholme. Alternatively, take a mainline train to either Carlisle or Lancaster to connect with the coastal railway.
More info:

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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