We were peering through the glass-panelled front door of Whitbysteads farmhouse in the village of Askham, wondering if anyone was home, when Victoria Lowther appeared from a barn in the yard, with her daughter, two horses, two lurchers almost as big as the horses and a pug called George. Tall and elegant (the Lowthers, not the horses, which are sturdy cobs) they looked for a moment like a modern-day version of the sort of classic English painting you might see in the National Gallery: landed gentry surrounded by their faithful animals.
But then everything in this corner of northern England looks like a painting: the view from the front yard of Whitbysteads of Lowther Castle and the Eden Valley with the Pennines in the distance; the epic panorama of Ullswater from the top of the hill behind the farmhouse. Even the fields that surround it were, at the time of our visit, brilliant green and full of newborn lambs bouncing about like battery-operated cuddly toys. This part of the world is so picturesque it’s a wonder it’s not rammed with coach-loads of tourists. And yet Askham, like the rest of the Eden Valley, is a rarity in Britain: an easily accessible but crowd-free stretch of rural gorgeousness.
This is partly due to geography. With the Lake District national park to the west and Yorkshire Dales to the east, the Eden Valley’s pretty villages, fells and wild heathland tend to get overlooked as visitors make a beeline for the honeypot destinations of Grasmere, Windermere and Coniston.
It’s also in part because Eden has been slow to shout about its charms. But that is about to change. A major initiative – Green Eden (nurturelakeland.org/a-green-eden) – is aiming to position the area as a sustainable tourism destination. It is still in its infancy but promises a range of low-impact holidays and new cycling and walking itineraries. This summer the area’s first food festival – Foodival (26 August,edenfoodival.co.uk) will showcase local produce with a farmers’ market and pop-up versions of local restaurants.
At the farm the horses were soon tethered and Victoria gave us a quick tour. Whitbysteads is an early 1700s longhouse on a 200-acre working hill farm. A new wing was added in the 1970s, creating a 15m living room whose walls and every possible surface are adorned with paintings, portraits and family photos.
“Please call me Totty,” said Victoria as she placed a tray of tea and biscuits on a table that seats 10. It was an apt introduction to our stay. Totty and her husband Tom are one branch of the Lowther family, whose roots can be traced back to the 12th century and who at one point owned most of Cumbria. They are still the owners of 75,000 acres of fells and farmland.
Askham Hall, soon to be a boutique hotel
In other words, they are super posh, but down to earth, too. When I met Tom he was knee-deep in straw, bottle-feeding a newborn lamb. And their family home is not a rarefied stately pile but this farmhouse-cum-B&B, where the three guest rooms are homely with just a dash of eccentricity. The en suite bathroom has fabulously over-the-top wallpaper depicting rural scenes of old (think shepherds with crooks); a free standing bath in the middle of the room means you can soak while looking out across real-life rural scenes.
Tempting though it was to sink into the giant squishy sofas by the fire we decided to go out and explore. A short walk through the farmyard past yellow gorse bushes took us straight into a classic English idyll of ice-cream-coloured cottages sandwiched between two pubs. Apart from a local ceramicist selling pottery from his front garden, there was no one about. But sleepy Askham is about to get its moment in the limelight, playing its part in raising the Eden Valley’s profile.
Just outside Askham, the gardens and courtyard of Lowther Castle, built in 1811, have just reopened after an £11m, three-year restoration project. There’s already a cafe, and later this year an art gallery and the ruins themselves will also open. Less than a mile away another Lowther, Tom’s 34-year-old cousin Charles, is transforming the family seat, Askham Hall, into the Eden Valley’s first boutique hotel. The garden and a cafe with outdoor wood-fired pizza oven are already open. The next phase will include 13 guest rooms (of a planned total of 26), a spa and a restaurant, all opening next spring. Charles has form here: he also owns the much-lauded George and Dragon pub-with-rooms a couple of miles away in Clifton ( 01768 865381 , georgeanddragonclifton.co.uk).
The Lake District already has several grand country house hotels with innovative restaurants, but when it comes to décor they tend towards four-posters, heavy florals and reams of velvet. Askham Hall hopes its “unpretentious style with a contemporary twist” will set it apart. It has been dubbed the Babington House of the north, and if the George and Dragon is anything to go by, the hotel will be well-received. This time next year, the Eden Valley will be hot.
At Easter this year the valley was decidedly cool, weatherwise. We spent most of our week hopping from B&B to posh pub, but started off camping– OK, glamping. Scales Plantation is a small family farm near Berrier, north-west of Penrith, which last summer created a “glampsite” of shepherd’s huts and safari tents in 13 acres of woodland. Our encampment, Herdwick, comprised not one but three bell tents: a main bedroom with proper bed and woodburner; a kitchen with wooden table, sink and hob; and a spare room with a futon. There was also a separate shower and compost loo. We were hardly roughing it, but the chilly weather made us feel intrepid. We went to bed wearing jumpers and hats, and rolled out into the cold misty morning to cook sausages and bacon on the outdoor fire, the woodsmoke infusing our clothes and hair.
We were enjoying our first outdoor breakfast when Tabatha Wilson, who runs the farm with her husband Rob, turned up on a quad bike, a day-old orphaned lamb tucked into her jacket. Set down on the ground it followed us around like a puppy, nuzzling at our legs, until our cooking-obsessed two-year-old started chasing it with a giant saucepan.
It was too cold to potter about the camp so we headed over to Keswick and boarded a wooden launch for a cruise around Derwentwater. Grey skies and rain cannot detract from the beauty of the Lakes. The colours were muted but still striking, a patchwork of purple, yellow, grey and rust.
That evening we wimped out of cooking on the fire in the rain and plumped for dinner at the Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket, a brilliant inn decorated with tankards and climbing paraphernalia. Said to be Britain’s first cooperative pub, it is co-owned by over 100 local people. An onsite brewery supplies beers including Great Cockup Porter, Skiddaw Special Bitter and, my favourite, Doris’ 90th Birthday Ale, named for the founder’s mother-in-law.
To soak up pints of Doris, we tucked into giant helpings of braised lamb shank and sticky toffee pudding, and sat back to enjoy the 2012 Egg Dumping Championship, an annual event that sees competitors knock hard-boiled eggs together until one cracks. The tension rose as someone’s grandma was knocked out by a young lad, but it was all good-natured fun and made for an entertaining night out.
If I’m starting to sound like a wimp – glamping not camping, escaping to a pub on our first night – my next admission will have proper walkers rolling their eyes in despair. Our longest walk was six miles. We took a steamer from Pooley Bridge, at the northern tip of Ullswater, to Howtown and walked back to Pooley, looking out across the steel-grey lake to russet-coloured snow-dusted mountains. I know having a two-year-old is not a valid excuse. Hardier parents tramp for miles with their child in a backpack, but our son rarely lasted 30 minutes before shouting “Get out! Get out!”, after which the walk became a marathon of coaxing and shoulder rides and stops to splash in puddles.
For some, time not spent tramping up fell and down valley is time wasted, but seeing a more edited version of the landscape rarely felt like a sacrifice. Even a quick scramble up a hillside from the road rewarded us with stupendous views.
And anyhow spending less time hiking meant more time for that other great attraction of the Lakes: the tearoom. My favourite was in the old medieval hall at Dalemain (dalemain.com), a historic house and gardens near Ullswater that s also runs the World’s Original Marmalade Awards (marmaladeawards.com). Far from being a quaint local festival, this competition attracts entries from 1,700 marmalade makers around the world. Perhaps founder Jane Hasell-McCosh is on to something: in this age of austerity, homemade marmalade is having a moment.
From Ullswater, we drove to Kelleth, a hamlet of about 13 houses, including Kelleth Old Hall, a creaking, wonky-floored 300-year-old manor house overlooking the wild and empty Howgill Fells and stuffed with owner Charlotte Fairbairn’s family heirlooms.
Charlotte offers one B&B room, more often used by walkers and cyclists than families, but if she was worried about our son knocking things over or falling into the giant fireplace, she didn’t show it; on the contrary she welcomed him with open arms – literally – lifting him into the kitchen to point out a hare in her garden.
In the morning, after a full English breakfast of Cumberland sausage, bacon, eggs and black pudding, I lay in the claw-footed bath, looking out across the Howgills, or “Cumbria’s secret open space” as they are often called, thinking that the secret might not be kept for much longer.