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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 18

Kirkby Stephen is almost my ideal town. It’s a bold and sweeping statement and doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. I passed through it once as a travel sick seven year old on my way to visit my grandparents. We lived in Furness on the west coast, they lived in Stockton on the east; most east west travellers in the north pass through Kirkby Stephen at some point. I pass through it again 45 years later, stay for an hour and find it everything I want in a town.

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It’s small. You can see the fields from the centre and the hills beyond make a fabulous location. It’s miles from anywhere else. There are no eyesore buildings. Everything is in keeping. The clusters of modern houses don’t intrude upon the ancient. Everything feels like you’re in Westmoreland. Nothing shouts out “Look at me, look at me”. And yet there are gems here aplenty.

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The church is magnificent from the outside. It was locked when I was there otherwise I may have stayed for longer. The town stands where Cumbrian geology changes from grey limestone to red sandstone. The flavour of the Eden valley is changed by this. Even the squirrels change colour with the stone. Grey giving way to one of the few places in Britain where there is a better than hopeful chance of seeing red squirrels.

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The approach to the church is magnificent too. The design of the cloisters is unusual and not entirely what Christopher Wren would have designed, but they make a wonderful side to the square and a perfect approach to the church. They are also something of a natural hangout for local youth but here in Westmoreland they offer little threat and very low intimidation levels.

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I like towns that still make a proper feature of their markets and I like towns with livestock markets even better. I arrive on the wrong day for this, but when I come back; note when not if; I will make sure I arrive with the sheep the cows and the fast talking man with a gavel.

The shops are largely independent and looked to have adapted themselves well to the locality. Obviously no-one was going to miss out on being in Eden when it comes to shop names. The florist has nabbed the most obvious. I buy some good local strawberries and enjoy them with my afternoon ice cream. There’s a leisurely pace but this isn’t country bumpkin backwoods territory. Here they probably do more than in most cities; they just don’t make a fuss over it. They have no need to show each other just how busy they are.The newspaper hoardings give a glimpse. “Former Farmer dies at 105” and “Rock Stars Head to Cumbria”. In my mind I imagine The Tremeloes playing a farmer’s wake in Brough.

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If I’d known just how much I was going to like the town I would have stayed there. I had the opposite experience with Appleby. I expected to be won over by it but was left rather flat. It’s a pretty enough place; rather splendid in some ways. It’s got a first class name, is associated with gypsy horse fairs and has some impressive architecture.

I make the mistake of leaving Kirkby on the Appleby road. The county lanes are a delight but all of a sudden you find yourself deposited on the A66 with no alternative but to join the thundering cross-Pennine lorries. Well there is an alternative and that is to retrace a bag full of miles. I take my chances on the main route and hate every pedal turning second. It is beyond scary. You just pedal like fury and hope you don’t get clipped. The air turbulence is enough to knock you off. The nightmare at this point would be a puncture. The side of the road is scattered with sharp, flinty roadstone. I puncture.

Limping the last few hundred yards on the rims of my back wheel; it’s always the back wheel when most inconvenient; I get up the slip road and onto a bit of green on the outskirts of the town. The repair is one of those awkward ones where the first tyre levers snaps and the tyre becomes immovable. Then the wheel won’t slot back into place despite seven different sorts of encouragement. Finally with two inflated tyres and two wheels properly attached, and a map and a dirty t shirt joining the old tube into the nearby waste bin, I pedal into Appleby.

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Today it calls itself Appleby-in-Westmoreland and has done ever since Westmoreland ceased to exist. I don’t particularly respect the 1974 county boundaries so I’m more than happy to think of the town as still being the County town of Westmoreland. It was England’s forgotten county before reorganisation and would have disappeared altogether if the good folk hadn’t incorporated the name into the town. Westmoreland does have a sausage and a character in Shakespeare but not much else. It’s a very attractive name; I’m sure more can be done with it.

I don’t know if it were the puncture, high expectations or the downright rudeness of the man in the post office but I wasn’t enjoying my stay. The Eden has become a fully fledged river by now and features heavily in the events of the annual horse fair. There are cloisters like the ones in Kirkby Stephen but these are less inviting. I get a very strong feeling that I’ve come on the wrong day; wrong day for me, wrong day for the town.  I get a town that isn’t quite a town; poor shops, bored teenagers, bad mannered fat women in over-sized cars. I hope for a Booths and get a Spar and a poor one at that. I buy a pint of milk, spaghetti and a jar of pesto and get back into the countryside that is the thing this area does better than anywhere else.

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I know Dufton is nearby and my legs have packed it in for the day. It’s actually another five miles and I feel every pedal turn. I get to the youth hostel half an hour before it opens. Not a problem. The kitchen has been left open so I make I big mug of tea, lay down on the rather splendid village green and read a few chapters of The Old Wives’ Tale.