A mini travel guide to the Cumbrian coast

There’s more to Cumbria than the Lakes. Gareth Clark discovers newly opened trails, husky sledding and unusual history on the Copeland coast...

6 mins

“You don’t mind being licked, do you?” beamed Sonia. It’s not the oddest question I’ve been asked. But when you find yourself eye-level with a pair of excited sled dogs – Arctica and Bear – it’s rather a moot point. By then, it’s already happened.

The last thing I expected to find on Cumbria’s coast were huskies. Around us the fells tumbled to the shoreline and clear skies augured well for hiking a new slice of the England Coast Path, between Bootle Station and Silecroft. But first, I had a sled team to master.

Horse and Husky started ten years ago, when owner Sonia Gager Tomkinson began taking in unwanted dogs from shelters. Boisterous and energetic, huskies make for difficult pets. Now white-eyed Arctica and her buddy are part of a 21-strong pack of adoptees, sharing duties across sledding and dog-hiking sessions on the coast.

I opted for the former and soon found myself clinging to a tricycle hurtling country roads, my guide, Rob, pedalling alongside as I squeaked out my commands: ‘hike’ (go!), ‘steady’ (slow!) and ‘woooah’ (stop!)! It was thrilling and, like much of the Copeland area, an utter surprise.


Go husky sledding on the Cumbrian coast (Gareth Clark)

 I’d arrived the day before at the Georgian port of Whitehaven with the intention of exploring a Cumbria beyond the Lakes and strolling some newly minted trails on the Coast Path.

What I found were curious histories, steam-powered relics, haunted castles, and, yes, huskies.

Even Whitehaven held its secrets. In 1788, a rogue American naval officer enacted the only US invasion of Britain by capturing a fort here. His men mostly raided the taverns, however, and it all ended rather drunkenly. I left with a tad more dignity, fording the Coast Path around bird-filled headland and lonely coves to the sands of St Bees.

The following day I drove to Ravenglass, where the Lake District briefly spills to the coast. Aboard the steam train La’al Ratty, I chugged estuarine wetlands to the foothills of England’s highest mountain and back, then mushed huskies, hiked and stayed in Muncaster Castle’s stately grounds. I was as content as could be.


Piel Island from Roa Island (Alamy)

Day one 

The Georgian town of Whitehaven was once among the UK’s busiest ports. The 17th-century harbour’s ‘Sugar Tongue’ bulwark hints at what was unloaded here: rum, coffee and lots of sugar from the New World. For an uncensored insight into the town’s heyday, The Rum Story wanders the warehouses of the once-powerful Jefferson family, unpicking the dark truths of plantations, slavery and the history of rum. It’s a fascinating couple of hours.

Grab a Cumberland-sausage lunch at Zest then head to the Beacon Museum, which unravels tales of the town’s brief US invasion, Roman roots and maritime history. The top floor also has fine views over the harbour.

Just past the museum, pick up the England Coast Path to St Bees, a three-hour (10km) walk rounding the headland past old collieries, grey-pebble coves and seabird lookouts. Be sure to look for puffins in Fleswick Bay (from late spring).

Lastly, warm up with some old-school pub food at The Manor. Its slow-cooked beef chilli keeps out the cold.

Day two

South of Whitehaven, between Ravenglass and Silecroft, is where the Lake District’s fells slide to the coast. To see it up close, hop aboard La’al Ratty, the 19th-century Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, built to ship iron ore out of the hills. It now steams from Ravenglass to the Scafells and back, threading the estuarine wetlands of the River Esk.

Nearby Muncaster Castle is no less impressive. The Pennington family home dates to the 14th century, and its haunted bedrooms, ‘witch marks’ (to protects from spirits) and gossipy info plaques are a hoot. Wander the grounds, visit the Hawk and Owl Centre – bird of prey displays are at 2pm – and grab lunch in the cafe.

Next, head to Bootle Station where Horse and Husky run sledding sessions on the country lanes and beaches. You can also pick up the newly opened England Coast Path from there. It’s three hours’ walk to Silecroft, as the fells tumble to your east, then return via train to Ravenglass for a cosy dinner at The Pennington.

The La’al Ratty train turns around in preparation for another 40-minute journey on the Ravenglass & Eskdale Steam Railway – ‘La’al Ratty’ means “little railway“ in olde Cumbrian dialect (Gareth Clark)

4 top things to do on the Cumbrian coast

1. Explore Solway Firth

Cumbria’s Solway estuary splits the England-Scotland border. It’s a wild land of bird-filled salt marshes and Roman history, and in Bowness-on-Solway you’ll even find the first stone inklings of Hadrian’s Wall. 

2. Enjoy wild Cumbria

Walney Island’s nature reserves are prolific birding spots, with some 250 species spotted across the calendar. It’s also the only year-round haul-out locations for grey seals in Cumbria, and if you go at high tide you can see the sands quickly fill up.

3. Hike coast to coast

St Bees is the starting point for one of the UK’s most iconic walks: Wainwright’s Coast to Coast (293km). It links the Irish and North Seas, stumbling the Lake District and North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay. It’s English countryside at its most spectacular.

4. Go castle hopping

Guided tours to Piel Island (off Barrow-in-Furness) arrive at the ruins of its lonely castle. This is where 10-year-old Lambert Simnel first landed in 1487 from Ireland, trailing 8,000 mercenaries and shouting his claims to the throne, before Henry VII put paid to his ambitions.

The coastal path takes you past Silecroft, where the beach stretches for around five kilometres (Alamy)

Getting to the Cumbrian coast

This trip can easily be done without a car. The West Coast train line links London to the north-west. Change at Carlisle, then take the Northern service to Lancaster via Whitehaven, St Bees, Ravenglass, Bootle Station and Silecroft. If driving, look for the A595/6 roads, which link all four stops to the M6 via the A590 (before Kendal).

Where to stay on the Cumbrian cost

In St Bees, Stone House Farm is a Georgian farmhouse situated at the foot of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast trail – it’s popular with walkers (from £40pppn). Alternatively, Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass, has adapted the old Coachman’s Quarters in the stable yard into comfy apartments (from £67pn). Views of the castle and free rein of the grounds are a fine bonus.

Further info

Visit nationaltrail.co.uk for descriptions of routes along the England Coast Path.

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