Postcard from Smardale Gill

The Start of the Walk

Retirement, as I’ve mentioned previously, takes some getting used to, especially when you’ve become accustomed to a kind of semi-formalised regimen that has developed over the best part of 50 years. Although not without things to occupy myself I took Mrs. C’s advice late last year and went to an open day of the Penrith and North Lakes branch of U3A, a worldwide organisation for retired people which is more formally known as The University of the Third Age. The aim of the organisation is to bring like minded people together to take part in a wide range of  activities. I was a little bit sceptical, outside of my working life I’d never really been one for organised activity, but I was pleasantly surprised at the range on offer, several of which appealed to me, so much so that I paid my membership fee and signed up to attend three regular groups. I play Scrabble on the first Tuesday of every month, I go to a writing for pleasure group on the last Wednesday of every month and every other Friday I meet up with a group of enthusiastic amateur photographers for a walk and an opportunity to take some pictures. Between four and nine people generally turn up with camera equipment that ranges from the fairly basic digital up to some very high end pieces of kit. I’m probably somewhere in the middle in terms of equipment, I have a Canon 1200D SLR with 3 interchangeable lenses and a decent tripod. My favourite piece of equipment is a bean bag that screws into where the tripod normally goes. It enables me to use just about any surface to get a stable photograph.

No Idea What This Is

On Friday 26th July we took a trip to Smardale Gill Nature Reserve, I’d never heard of it but it turned out to be a real hidden gem. The whole trail, which runs from Newbiggin-On-Lune to the outskirts of Kirby Stephen is around 3.5 miles long and provides easy walking and cycling with many photo opportunities on the way. It is a natural haven for many birds, is home to red squirrels and, on the day we visited there were lots of butterflies. I didn’t get a decent picture of one, but many of my companions, with better lenses, did. The main track runs above the valley and is flanked on both sides by both mature and recently planted woodland, including a great number of hazel trees. September should be a good time for harvesting said nuts, if the squirrels don’t get there first. As you enter the walk proper to your left you will see the turreted 14th century Smardale Hall, which is now partly a letting cottage, a fine looking building with a no doubt long and rich history.

An Interesting Fungi

Smardale Gill Nature Reserve could well be listed in the “hidden gems” category, it’s only about 10 miles from the M6 but it is quiet and peaceful and, certainly on the day we were there, seems to be not on the radar of a lot of people. It may be that we visited on a particularly quiet day though. Postaliers with big posh cars should note that all access roads, at least for the last couple of miles, are single track with few passing places. Always remember that tractors, quad bikes and especially sheep have permanent right of way. One of the really great things they’ve done with the reserve is provide a decent wide hard track, making it accessible for almost everyone that wants to take advantage. The Cumbria Wildlife Trust, which is responsible for the upkeep have done (and continue to do) a great job here, long may it continue. Parking is free, you can leave a donation if you choose to and, in the car park, there is plenty of information about both the general area and the reserve itself. At intervals along the path you come across piles of logs which are there to provide habitat for insects and small mammals to shelter in and for mosses and fungi to grow.  The fungus above was growing on one such pile.

A Fragrant Wild Orchid

Its an old saying that you learn something new everyday, in my experience its often a truism. We bumped into a chap who turned out to be a bit of an amateur botanist. He was searching for a particular plant, Hemlock I think, but he pointed out the abundance of wild orchids to us, including the one above, which he said was the only fragrant orchid growing wild in Britain. We’d noticed them but hadn’t really grasped what they were until this point. I haven’t checked but I have no reason to dispute his claim. He also told us that he’d shared a bench, further along the track, with a large lizard that was basking in the sunlight. Unfortunately for us it wasn’t there when we arrived, but it’s another example of the abundance of wildlife along this trail, a lizard, especially in Britain, is a rare and fine thing to observe, in my opinion.

Angelica with Friends

Another plant that grows in abundance along the side of the track is Angelica. I’d always assumed that it was green but there are two colours, green and red. The green can be easily confused with cow parsley at first glance but a close inspection reveals numerous tiny blooms, almost perfectly and uniformly white on the green plant, turning to a light pink on the red. Several butterflies, including the elusive Scotch Argus, were busy flitting from stem to stem, but the profusion of other insects feeding busily on these plants was a sight to see. Walking, learning and taking photographs on a balmy summers day, what a way to pass the time.

Smardale Gill Viaduct

If, like me, you’re a fan of Victorian civil engineering you’ll be very pleased to arrive at the 90ft high fourteen stone arched viaduct which once carried a railway track over Scandal Beck. This sandstone wonder was built in 1861 by the Cumbrian engineer Sir Thomas Bouch as part of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway, which crossed the Pennines to carry coke from the North East of England to the iron and steel furnaces in the Barrow area and West Cumberland. The line was closed in 1962 after steelmaking finished. The Northern Viaduct Trust was responsible for the restoration and the footpath continues over the viaduct although at the time of writing this article it was closed for essential works to be carried out to the railings along the top. This picture is taken from the permissible path which descends into the valley to the left of the viaduct, offering great opportunities for taking further pictures. All in all a great place to spend a couple of hours, or even longer. I sometimes think we forget the brilliant work that both Wildlife Trusts and organisations like The Northern Viaduct Trust carry out for the benefit of all of us, we shouldn’t, our heritage and the beauty of our country are both precious things.

There is a longer, circular walk which takes in the Smardale viaduct as well, this carries the Leeds to Carlisle railway line and is still in use, also worth a visit. All the information can be found here;

Smardale Gill & Moors


© Colin Cross 2019

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