In Cumbria, England, is Eden Valley, a quiet part of the UK with its traditional towns and pubs, beautiful hamlets and sandstone villages, some dating back to Viking times. A few miles north of the historic town of Penrith, is a small village called Little Salkeld. On the west side of the village is the Eden River. It was known to the Romans as the Itoun. This name derives from the Celtic word ituna, meaning water, or rushing. It winds its way north toward Carlisle.
The largest house in the village is the manor in Little Salkeld, confirmed by King Edward I. It is said to be the original home of the Salkeld family of landowners and Salkeld Hall built in the 16th century. The village has a vicarage with no church and Little Salkeld Watermill that was built in 1745 and is still operating. Little Salkeld is also known for Long Meg and Her Daughters, a Bronze Age stone circle consisting of 51 stones (of which 27 remain upright). The tallest stone is 3.7 meters high and stands outside the circle. It is made of local red sandstone, carved with a spiral, a cup and ring mark, and concentric circles. Poet William Wordsworth deemed them to be the country’s most notable relics after Stonehenge.
Hidden in the forest along the eastern edge of Eden River, just a few miles north of the village, you can find five curious chambers known as Lacy’s Caves. They are named after Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Lacy of Salkeld Hall, who commissioned their carving in the 18th century. Colonel Lacy is best known for the caves, and it is also said that he had ordered Long Meg and her Daughters to be blown up so the field could be ploughed, but a terrifying storm broke out as work started and the workmen fled.
Lacy’s Caves consists of five chambers carved out of the sandstone cliffs directly above the river Eden, when such romantic follies were popular on country estates. The area was originally planted with ornamental gardens, containing colorful rhododendrons and laburnums, some of which still survive. The chambers were used by Lacy for entertaining guests. No one is sure what inspired the caves, but some suspect Lacy was emulating the caves at Wetherall, further up the River Eden.
The hike to the caves begins at the village greens in Little Salkeld. Along the way you’ll find yourself passing by the old vicarage on your right, and not far ahead you turn onto a farm road that follows the Eden River north. After a mile you divert onto a trail into the forest. This trail will bring you much closer to the banks of the river. Soon you’ll notice a long since abandoned gypsum mine that operated between 1880 and 1976. If you look closely at the trail you’ve been following, you’ll realize it is the remains of the railroad beds that were used by the mine.
You’ll follow the trail in the forest for a little more than a half mile. Along the way you can enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river. When you come onto the caves, you’ll see the trail continues up over the red sandstone hill. To your left though, you’ll find a narrow path to the face of the cliff that sits over the river. Here you’ll find the entrance to the caves.
The outer chambers appear to have been greatly weathered by wind and rain. The exposure to the elements has reveals fins of a harder sandstone hidden within the bedrock. The largest of the five caves is approximately 12 feet long, ten feet wide and 12 feet high. The deepest cave is reached through an arched tunnel 18 feet, long 3 feet wide, and 7 feet high. In the largest of the outer chambers you can find many decades of graffiti covering the walls. As wind and sand smooths away the marks of a previous generation, the next generations chisel theirs over their faint remains.
The deeper chambers have been better protected from exposure. Here you can find the beautifully cut arches and alcoves as they might have appeared to Lacy and his friends. Walls and passages have been cut by hand with precision. If you look closely at the walls, you can still the marks of the chisels used to make this wonderful folly.
Lacy’s Caves are one of the many beautiful treasures we found hidden in Cumbria.
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