Cumbria is where rural England unexpectedly takes a walk on the wild side. Crammed into the northwest corner of the country, hard against the border with Scotland, the region’s restless landscape was sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age, and weathered into its present form by several millennia of Atlantic winds, Arctic ice and British rain. Riven by sweeping valleys, pockmarked by slate-capped fells and crisscrossed by drystone walls, it’s a place that’s packed with more natural drama and rich history than almost anywhere else in England.
Though modern Cumbria is a relatively young county, formed in 1974 from the old districts of Cumberland and Westmorland, its history stretches back much further. Stone Age tribes, pagan druids, Viking settlers and Roman legionaries have all left their own mark on the landscape, and for much of the Middle Ages this was a region characterised by conflict, ominously dubbed ‘the Debatable Lands’ and regularly plundered by Scottish raiders known as Border Reivers. Evidence of its martial past is clear to see in the many fortresses dotted around the region, from the tumbledown keeps of Penrith and Kendal to the massive castle at Carlisle.
But these days Cumbria is better known for its natural charms than its warlike ways. Ever since the arrival of the railway at Windermere in the mid-19th century, people have been flocking here to explore the region’s breathtaking mountain walks, glittering lakes and hilltop trails for themselves. The region continues to attract some 14 million visitors every year, most of whom head straight for the Central Lakes; but it’s worth taking the time to explore the lesser-known areas of Cumbria too, from the rolling fields and quiet farms of the Eden valley to the sparkling sands and historic ports around the county’s coastline.