From husky racing and hawk displays to a haunted castle and the steam railway, there’s plenty to do for all the family in this charming seaside village on the edge of the Lake District. Words: Anne-Claire Heels
So large do ‘the Lakes’ loom, when you mention Cumbria, many people seem to forget it’s a county with a coastline too. The small village of Ravenglass is where the Western Lake District meets the Irish Sea and it is the only coastal village within the Lake District National Park. It lies at the mouth of three rivers and the nearby Drigg Dunes are an important nature reserve, home to a wide variety of rare insects, wildflowers and natterjack toads. The scenery on the drive to Ravenglass from any direction is spectacular, with Muncaster Castle towering above as you come down into the village itself.
Ravenglass is an ideal base for exploring this relatively quiet, overlooked part of the coast. It has a 19th-century steam railway running from the village up to Eskdale, at the foot of the Scafell range, England’s highest mountains. The sand-and-shingle beaches of St Bees, Silecroft and Haverigg are close by and if you’re interested in wildlife, you’ll find seabirds, birds of prey, butterflies, squirrels and deer here. And of course, the Lakes themselves are only a short drive away.
10AM HUSKY FUN
The sky is a soft pearly grey and the water still as I greet Sonia, founder of Horse & Husky on the beach at Ravenglass. ‘Can you ride a bike?’ she asks. I sheepishly admit I haven’t ridden since the 1990s. Here’s hoping there’s some truth in that saying about never forgetting…
A tricycle-like contraption is pulled by two Siberian huskies, the female Luna leading. ‘No alpha male in this pack!’ jokes Sonia. Both are friendly but mostly just straining to get going. Sonia advises to keep my hands over the brakes at all times. To command these high-energy dogs, tone of voice matters – higher to move forward, lower to keep pace. I practise starting, stopping and turning on the beach until the tide comes in and we move to the Eskdale Trail. The countryside passes in a green blur and we’re mud-spattered but elated as we eventually arrive back at Sonia’s van. Luna and Ice have well-earned treats, while I proudly receive my musher’s certificate.
Sessions from £70 for two hours – one or two people can participate (01229 718488, horseandhusky.com).
2PM TO THE CASTLE
After a hasty shower and snack at our accommodation, the Inn at Ravenglass, we head to Muncaster Castle, a mile above the village. At the onsite Hawk & Owl Centre two knowledgeable guides introduce kestrels, kites, a falcon named Asbo, and the very cute Linford and Christie, a tiny pair of burrowing owls strutting about in cartoon-like fashion. Vultures swoop above our heads to a soundtrack of classical music – ‘I hope everyone knows how to duck!’ says our guide, cheerfully.
Muncaster Castle. Photo: Muncaster Castle
The display over, we tour the castle, said to be one of Britain’s most haunted. One room is lined with ancestral portraits of the Penningtons, who have owned the estate since 1208. The castle certainly has a colourful history. Henry VI sheltered here during the Wars of the Roses, while Muncaster’s 16th-century jester, Tom Fool, gave us the word tomfoolery. Events are held throughout the year and you can book overnight ghost stays too. But we’re content to simply drink in all the history and beauty, exploring the great hall, the library and the Terrace Walk, with its panoramic fell views. The Castle may be closed on Saturdays to host weddings (01229 717614, muncaster.co.uk).
7PM TODAY’S CATCH
The Inn at Ravenglass prides itself on locally landed, sustainably sourced fish and seafood. The menu has tasting notes on each fish and messages from the fishermen who supply them. My mouth waters as I read the specials. The crab cake starter with sweet chilli sauce is so artistic I almost feel guilty tucking in. Almost… My main course of sea bream on chorizo and mussel risotto, with samphire and scallops, is delicious (01229 717230, theinnatravenglass.co.uk).
10AM ART AND ROMAN RUINS
Breakfast is served at the Inn’s bigger sister hotel The Pennington, a couple of doors down. Before leaving, I stop to examine the eye-catching art adorning the walls leading to the reception and the bar. The linocut prints are by a Ravenglass-based artist and feature local seascapes with depictions of light dancing on water, seabirds silhouetted against the sunset and changing skies above the estuary.
Ruins of Ravenglass Roman bathhouse. Photo: Cumbria Tourism
Next on our itinerary are the remains of the Ravenglass’s Roman bathhouse. The Romans arrived here around AD120, drawn to the area because of its natural harbour. When we stop by what’s left of the bathhouse, it’s surreal to think of Roman soldiers here all those years ago, in one of the most far-flung parts of their mighty empire. We figure they’d be as impressed as we are that some of their walls still stand.
11AM FULL STEAM AHEAD
The Ravenglass & Eskdale Steam Railway is one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways in the world, running from the coast up to Eskdale. We sit in an open carriage and let the locomotive pull us seven miles inland. There’s something magical about steaming through hidden valleys on this little train, with the smell of coal, billowing clouds of steam and the peal of the whistle transporting us to a bygone era. A childlike joy spreads among the chatting passengers as we head along the estuary, where you can see oystercatchers and curlews, then up into green gorges and past fields of Herdwick sheep hemmed in by dry stone walls (01229 717171, ravenglass-railway.co.uk).
12PM A GLORIOUS STROLL
We arrive at the end of the line in Dalegarth, the station that serves a small village called Boot. Passing a 12th-century church, we meander along one of the many streams and head into the trees following our map and the way markers. The scenery is glorious and we keep our eyes peeled for red squirrels. Everywhere is an earthy smell; the rocks and fallen trees are covered with green moss like velvet, giving the landscape an ancient, Lord of the Rings feel. We keep climbing, then round a corner and suddenly before us is the mighty Stanley Ghyll waterfall, dropping into a dark pool 60ft below. The train having been packed with walkers, we are thrilled to have this view to ourselves, before walking back down the ravine to the station.
2PM TRAIN FARE
Back at Dalegarth we drop into Fellbites café to have lunch before our return journey. I tuck into freshly made sandwiches and a lemon crumble slice. Browsing the station gift shop afterwards, I settle on a vintage-style poster as my souvenir. Then it’s time to board the train, this time pulled by an engine called Northern Rock. Back in Ravenglass we change out of muddy boots and head for the car, but not before taking one last look at the view from the hotel. The tide has drawn out, leaving fishing boats to float on sand and the birds to busy themselves in the mud. It’s a beautiful conclusion to our weekend.
NEED TO KNOW
THE PENNINGTON HOTELS & INNS group offers a variety of accommodation in the Ravenglass area, from hotels to self-catering cottages. coast stayed at the Inn at Ravenglass, which is right in the village and offers two luxurious suites looking out on the estuary of the rivers Esk, Mite and Irt. It’s all in the detail here, from the jar of cookies to the Thierry Mugler toiletries. The inn serves local produce such as Cumberland sausages and Manx kippers, as well as CAMRA award-winning real ales. From £100 per night (01229 717230, theinnatravenglass.co.uk, penningtonhotels.co.uk).
HOW TO GET THERE
From the M6, various A-roads lead through the Lake District National Park to the A595 to Ravenglass. It takes 2hrs by car to Ravenglass from Manchester, and 3hrs from Liverpool, Leeds or Newcastle upon Tyne. Ravenglass is on the rail line from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness. For trains, see northernrail.org.