Sunday, 27 October 2013

More to Cumbria than the Lake District

I'm lucky to live within a half hour drive of the Lake District fells, a playground of mountains and crags for anyone keen on running, climbing, walking and even skiing.

As superb as these mountains are, they can be a little overcrowded at times; a classic 'honeypot' area that attracts over 14 million people a year to walk, bumble and eat ice cream in a National Park area of only 2,292 square kilometers. Busy.

But the Lake District National Park is just one part of Cumbria, as the maps below show
Cumbria outlined in pink, 'the north' surrounds the county...... Source: Google Maps
The Lake District National Park boundary. Source: Lake District National Park

Cumbria is also steeped in history from both a physical and human geography point of view. The 'Middleland' as Rory Stewart writes in his blog, was not England or Scotland but a separate land rich in culture and defined by its physical environment.

The Eden valley is one such example of tranquility away from the busy and popular National Park. Whilst the Lake District fells loom over the valley to the west, the more rounded, rolling mountains of the Pennines hem the valley in to the East. And they are mountains, not hills: Melmerby fell is 709 meters, whilst Cross Fell towers over the whole massif at 882 meters, its summit plateau looking like a nunatak rising above the surrounding moorland.

The geology of the Eden valley marks the area apart from the craggier Lakes crags to the west. No imposing Great End or Scafell mountains of the Borrowdale Volcanics Group with its Andesite and Rhyolite rock that is a climbers dream. Instead you have a rainbow of sedimentary rock with the occasional igneous intrusion.

The modern art look of the Eden valley and Peninne geology. Source: British Geological Society iGeology Ipad app.

Walking (or running) the Pennine massif.

We walked up from Melmerby, a small village built on the Triassic era sandstone which was put down around 242 million years ago. Most of the houses are built out of this distinctive red sandstone that defines the area. Within 2km of walking a change is noticeable in the rocks below your feet. You leave the pinky red sandstone behind and wonder across a grey gritstone that is blocky and difficult to walk through, such rock makes excellent climbing at crags such as Slipstones in north Yorkshire. Before long you find yourself rising up and across the limestone escarpment of Melmerby fell before once again stumbling over gritstone blocks in a bid to avoid the sink holes dotted across the landscape.

Sink hole below Melmerby fell.Photo: Alasdair Monteith

As the slope angle eases the Pennine plateau opens up to the east.  A rolling, endless landscape that is both enchanting and desolate, it is on the eastern side of this fell that you come across a solitary vein of igneous rock. The Great Whin Sill, an igneous intrusion of mainly dolerite rock  marks a noticeable change from the surrounding sedimentary rocks when it is exposed as a harder more resilient rock in places such as High Cup Nick and High Force waterfall. The heating from these igneous rocks 290 million years ago produced a rich variety of minerals such as lead and zinc, minerals which were mined throughout the 19th century as industrial and entrepreneurial minds recognised the wealth hidden within the hills.

Impressive crystals scattered amongst a slag heap on the eastern side of Melmerby fell. Photo: Alasdair Monteith

An adit used to access the minerals. Damp. Photo: David Monteith

So next time you travel north (or south, if you really have to ;-)) past Penrith and Tebay, look to the east at the valley and fells of Cumbria, not the Lake District.