The unspoilt valley of Eskdale is one of the best-kept secrets in the Lake District. It lies on the far western edge of the National Park, a long way from anywhere. Many people are put off visiting by the time it takes to get here: if you don’t come by train, you either face a long drive around the coast or you have to negotiate the hair-raising bends of both the Wrynose and Hardknott pass, often impassable in winter. But those who make the effort are richly rewarded.
On its short, exciting journey from the highest of the Lakeland fells to the Irish Sea at Ravenglass, the River Esk has carved out a beautiful and eclectic dale. From the remote amphitheatre of Upper Eskdale, bound by fearsome walls of rock and scree, it plummets into the main part of the valley, where it gently meanders between meadows and patches of woodland. There’s a chance of catching a glimpse of the increasingly rare red squirrel in the woods. This small, bushy-tailed native has been pushed out of much of England by the North American grey squirrel, but it still clings on to its territory in parts of Cumbria.
This is a quiet valley, sparsely populated. The sheep grazing the valley bottom and the low, grassy fells probably outnumber the inhabitants of its two main settlements, Eskdale Green and Boot. These villages are where you’ll find the valley’s main facilities – campsites, a few B&Bs, a couple of tiny shops and several pubs, all of which serve food. Most of the valley’s main attractions are within easy walking distance, including Stanley Ghyll Force, one of the Lake District’s most spectacular waterfalls, the La’al Ratty narrow-gauge railway and the Japanese Garden in the Forestry Commission’s Giggle Alley, where you’ll find bamboo thickets and colourful maples.
Boot is home to Eskdale Mill, the last working water-powered corn mill in the Lake District. Visitors can learn about the history of the site and then tour the buildings to see how the nearby stream powered the traditional waterwheels to grind grain. The buildings that exist today date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although a mill has existed on the site since medieval times. Stepping even further back in time, visitors can make a trip further up the valley to where the spectacularly located remains of a Roman fort guard Hardknott Pass. Hardknott Fort, also known as Hardknott Castle, protected the road linking the Roman port at Ravenglass (Glannoventa) with a fort at Ambleside (Galava).
A good network of well-signposted paths makes easy work of exploring the valley bottom on foot, passing old packhorse bridges, the tiny St Catherine’s Church and lovely old farmhouses. There are stepping stones across the river for the nimble-footed, or bridges if you don’t trust your sense of balance. On either side of the dale, old peat roads – grassy, zig-zagging tracks once used to bring this important fuel down from the fells above – provide easy access to moody moorland and hidden bodies of water such as Blea Tarn and Burnmoor Tarn. Lakeland’s largest tarn, Devoke Water, sits in a lonely spot to the south-west of the main valley. Surrounded by mysterious Bronze Age remains, it makes for an atmospheric outing.