Article first published in The Financial Times on 13 November 2010.
Sir John Mandeville, the great medieval traveller, claimed to have visited almost every place in the world except the Garden of Eden: he describes China; he describes a country of “eternal darkness” which appears to be Afghanistan. “But of Paradise,” he writes, “I cannot speak, for I was not there … which I much regret.” He was looking in the Middle East, but Eden is in Cumbria. And I walked this autumn through it from the source of the Eden river to the sea.
I last walked along a river when I walked the Hari Rud in Afghanistan in January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban. I am not good at explaining why I chose to walk, but I have never found a better way of learning to love a place. The short distances allow me to stop in villages I would never otherwise have visited. (I stayed in 500 different family houses on the walk). I remember the Hari Rud as a slit in a stony desert, with faint traces of mud settlements and castles. It took me seven days upstream to reach the narrow deserted gorges, which concealed the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain, destroyed by the armies of Genghis Khan. In the mountains around, the ethnic groups and dialects and religions changed every few miles.
Now I was walking downstream in Cumbria. It was a holiday: I hoped to let my thoughts settle, but I also hoped to learn more by walking the ground because the Eden is the vital artery of the constituency of which I am MP. Eden, too, was once a place of conflict. For 400 years it was a north-west frontier province of proxy wars against Scotland. And these were not the first fights. Beginning at the source, among the dark rivulets of the Mallerstang Valley, I soon passed the castle of the slayer of Thomas Becket. Ten miles later, I passed Crosby Garret, where a Roman frontier cavalryman had discarded a glittering mask and helmet. (It was dug up in May this year). By the time I reached the narrow deserted gorges at the very centre of the river, I was in green, fertile land. But the valley was always shadowed by the limestone hills and their histories.
Eden attracts far fewer visitors than its beauty deserves, perhaps because it is not what a visitor to Cumbria expects. When a tourist climbs Wild Boar Fell from Garsdale in Yorkshire, or walks from Martindale in the Lakes or Alston, in the Pennines, they cross moss and becks, beneath mists and eagles. And if they glimpse, 1,500ft below, a great, cultivated river basin, stretching towards a fertile plain and the sea, they must be tempted to ignore it. After all, it doesn’t make sense. How could it be there – this great flat slab of sandstone, 90 miles long and 20 miles wide? How could it wedge itself between the limestone mountains of the dales, the fells and the borders?
The bare line of the Pennines which runs north from the castle at Brough to Hadrian’s Wall is formed from sea shells 300m years old. But the Eden Valley is the remains of a dark red desert. It is 70m years younger, and it does not seem to know its place. The desert has become an oasis. Its rich grass can feed dairy cows, not simply sheep. Its trees are not the stunted hawthorns and mountain ash of the high hills, but broad sessile oaks and chestnuts. There are fat salmon in the river. If Wordsworth, who lived most of his life in Cumbria, rarely acknowledged Eden, it is perhaps because it did not fit the melodrama of his Lakes. Only WH Auden has found poetry in such impertinent geology. During the second world war, he wrote, in “New Year Letter”:
Whenever I begin to think, an English area comes to mind.
I see the nature of my kind as a locality I love.
Those limestone moors that stretch from Brough
To Hexham and the Roman Wall
These are the symbols of us all.
There where the Eden leisures through its sandstone valley
Is my view of a green and civil life that dwells
Below a cliff of savage fells
From which original address
Man faulted into consciousness
I stayed my first night in the Tufton Arms in the county capital of Appleby. The hotel is at the base of the great avenue of sandstone buildings – lavender and russet and scarlet – that runs from the moot hall up the hill to the castle. This urban civilisation was laid out in the 17th century by Ann Clifford, one of the first female magnates of England. But its civil life persisted in the shadow of other ways of life. For hundreds of years, clans of gypsies and travellers have come from the south and across the sea from the west, pitching their caravans and carts on the foothills above the town for the horse fair. I watched hundreds of girls in sequins and bare-chested boys, under the eyes of a hundred police, ride their horses into the Eden river and emerge soaked, to canter bareback through the streets. Billy Welch, the gypsy leader, had camped with his people in a circle of caravans above the town. He gestured to the volcanic cone of Dufton pike and said to me: “This earth is sacred to us – this is our Mecca – in this I recognise no policeman: none can take this from us.”
On the second day’s walk I drew parallel with the first signs of human consciousness – the standing stones. In each, it seems, the neolithic builders responded to the fells above. Long Meg and her daughters, a circle of 69 standing stones, echoes the saddleback ridge of Blencathra 20 miles west; Mayburgh Henge at Eamont Bridge echoes the line of the Pennine moors.
But Eden is also very much part of modern England. In Afghanistan, deep paths lead from each village to the river, where water is collected. In the open country, the Eden runs deep and free but at some villages it can feel abandoned, hidden behind cottages like a disused canal. The ethnic and linguistic and religious differences have faded. The old dialects once heard around the Methodist communities of the East Fellside and in the churches of the Lakes are heard no more. Only the place-names show there was once ethnic variety: Saxon (like Dufton, meaning the place of the doves), Celtic (like Penrith, meaning the red hill) or Norwegian (like Crosby Ravensworth, named after Odin’s symbol).
In Afghanistan, I would not have been able to have the deep warm bath at the Tufton Arms; nor enjoy the roast pork at the Duke’s Head in Armathwaite; nor find a companion quite like Robert Warburton, a dairy farmer. His and his wife’s family – the Addisons – have farmed beside the river for centuries. But his understanding of the river was scientific, not traditional. He taught me how the river can change completely every hundred yards with a new riverbed or a bridge. He pointed out the rare white-clawed crayfish that can only live over limestone because they need calcium for their shells. I learnt how phosphate-fed algae choked the crayfish and suffocated the lamprey. He showed the riffles, which suit the new-hatched fry, the pools for the parr and the runs for the adult salmon. He made the river seem more alive and changeable than it had ever seemed in Afghanistan.
But this science of the Eden was always shadowed by myth and geology. It is a place of Arthurian legend. Cumbria was one of the last Celtic kingdoms, on the old Roman frontier. After the Romans withdrew, it was defended by its warlords against Anglo-Saxon attacks. Pendragon castle near the river’s source is named for Arthur’s father. The henge by Eamont bridge is called Arthur’s Round Table. But if there is a Camelot here, it is not a monument but the volcanic cones of Knock and Dufton (whose name suggests a royal residence), on the joint between Eden and the Pennines. It is a symbol of creative energy at the geographical centre of Britain. As Auden continues:
Along the line of lapse, the fire of life’s impersonal desire
Burst through the sedentary rock
And as at Dufton and at Knock
Thrust up between the mind and heart
Enormous cones of myth and art
But it was not that distant history, nor the poetic myths, nor even Auden’s geological states and strata, which made this journey for me. It was the living English context. Robert was only one of 30 people who joined me for sections of the walk. John could differentiate a sessile oak at 50 yards. Simon walked 70 miles with me and taught me river management. A doctor opposite Great Corby showed me the meditation caves, which early Christian monks had carved like the Buddhists of Bamiyan into the cliff. And they were not simply studying the landscape but preserving it. I saw volunteers from the Eden Rivers Trust counting trout and crayfish, and weeding Himalayan balsam from the banks.
The last day took me through the ever richer land of the plain, past Hadrian’s Wall and through Carlisle, once capital of Scotland. I approached the great mouth of the Solway Firth and the west coast from which the Vikings came, and where fishermen still use Viking nets. The landscape by then had widened. I stumbled among mud flats, working my way back over hidden channels. The dark red of the Penrith sandstone and the narrow rapids of Lazonby were far behind. I was wandering, slowly, towards a flat horizon over smoke-smudged sands. And finally I realised that I was out of Eden. This great broad tidal channel, stretching languorously along the coast was no longer a river but the sea.