This Hidden South Lakeland walk from Beetham to Milnthorpe is a walk of glorious contrasts, taking in bucolic hills, dappled woods, farmland, saltmarsh and the sea. It’s a treat as much for the feet on the ground, with stretches of limestone pavement underfoot, as it is for the head in the clouds, with blue September skies offering fantastic views of the Lakeland fells to the north and coast of Cumbria to the west.
The walk started gloriously with a sit-down at the Old Beetham Post Office and Tearoom, a delightful family-run shop and café, just opposite lovely St Michael’s Church, dating back to Saxon and Norman times. The tearoom is family-run, with the son pitching in now in the café upstairs, while dad keeps shop downstairs. The opening hours are short – just 10 am to 2 pm at present – but it’s well-worth timing a day out to get you there while it’s open, to refuel on great home baking, light lunches and superb teas and coffees, beautifully presented quite literally with love and a heart-shaped biscuit.
Heading out from the village for Beetham’s celebrated Faery Steps, our path takes us towards Hale through fields and woods under the watchful eye of the ruined pele tower at Beetham Hall Farm – just one of the many remains of a magnificent medieval hall, with a tower, chapel, hall and out buildings surviving from the 13th century, mixed in with later buildings and barns. Lands here and indeed throughout what is now Cumbria were once hotly contested, and the grounds and buildings of the manor house on whose site the farm sits today combined dwelling and defence with a fortified pele tower to ward off Scottish raiders from the north. These days of course it is the cows that you need to look out for: they’re everywhere, and they’re watching you, watching them, as you loop through fields towards the village of Hale, and Hale Fell, beyond, where a magnificent limestone pavement awaits, criss-crossed by crevices and water-worn grooves, and affording views of Arnside Knott, peeping beyond the trees.
Onwards to Hazelslack, via Slack Head and a path through woods overlooking the meadows of Leighton Beck. At Hazelslack, a second ruined pele tower – probably late 14th century – stands guard with a more recent pig sentinel at the gate of the farm. With the Scots gone, the chances are it’s only the damsons they’re watching over. The conifer capped woods of the Faery Steps can be seen plainly from here, and it’s a short walk now towards them, through magical woods of limestone and moss.
The Faery Steps are actually the second of two natural flights of stone steps, squeezed between two sheer rock faces , where supposedly, if you climb or descend the steps without touching the limestone sides of the narrow gully, the fairies will grant your wish. On reaching them, you’ve got to hold your breath and keep looking forward if you are to reach the top without touching the sides to make your wish (I can’t do it, and I’m small). Perhaps this is why adults as well as children are bartering pine cones for wishes with the fairies at the top of the steps, where conditions are more comfortable. The limestone pavemented top is a favourite picnic spot, and affords great views of Arnside Knott and the Kent Estuary.
Beyond, more woods lead towards Haverbrack and a quieter picnic spot with breath-taking views north of the limestone hills of White Scar and Whitbarrow above the shimmering silver and weathered ochres of the Kent Estuary sands below. Behind, the Lakeland Fells begin where Black Combe dips down to the sea to the west, and scroll north through the Coniston Fells, the Langdales, Red Screes, and Kirkstone Pass, over to Ill Bell, High Street and Kentmere Pike in the north-east. From here, it’s a steep descent through fields alongside moss-topped drystone walls, propping up hedges full of autumnal berries, all the way down to the tidal Kent Estuary. The path follows an old railway track for a short time before dropping down to sands where birds congregate, especially in winter. It’s here too that you can find flocks of salt-marsh lamb, fattening on the rich sea-salt flavoured grasses of the estuary from April through October. Salt-marsh lamb is considered something of a local delicacy for visitors wanting a taste of Cumbria, along with the shrimp caught by local fishermen for hundreds of years in the Morecambe Bay area, renowned for their delicate taste and unique texture.
Onwards once more, following the river Bela into the 18th century deer-park at Dallam Tower, a stately home built on the site of an earlier dwelling with a 14th century pele tower, hence its name. The river loops lazily through the parkland bordering the present house, creating an aristocratically quintessential English landscape providing pasture for fallow deer. The right of way through the park leads up to and over a stone bridge into the quaint market town of Milnthorpe, with some time to watch the ducks and inevitably, more cows, before catching the Stagecoach Cumbria 555 bus back to Kendal.