First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
If the River Gelt got its name from the old Irish geilt, meaning ‘madman’, that wouldn’t be surprising. When swollen with rain, the Gelt roars and dashes itself against the confining rocks of its sandstone gorge like a wild thing as it hurtles down to meet the River Irthing near Brampton. Today, in a spell of settled weather, it went bubbling and twisting under Low Gelt Bridge.
The path skirted the edge of an enormous quarry, screened away behind gorse and broom. The air was full of the rich scent of sun-warmed bracken and the snap of broom pods releasing their seeds. Suddenly the trees thinned and the view opened westward across the peachy-orange sand diggings to a line of far-off low hills along the Scottish border.
A lovely afternoon was unfolding as we climbed the flank of Watch Hill, with sunlight striking down through the beech leaves. More westward prospects shaped themselves in the distance – a gleaming finger of water that was the Solway Firth with the blue hump of Criffel mountain beyond, and then a crumple of high country, the north-easternmost fells of the Lake District.
Two labradoodles came bounding up, grimy and ecstatic after a plunge in the stickiest, blackest bog they could find. Beyond Tow Top we crossed a railway in a deep cutting; then, reaching Greenwell, we reunited with the Gelt and turned back to follow it home.
On the steep grassy river bank we paused to munch green apples and look for dippers on the stones that the Gelt had mounded up in vigorous floods. Alder, rowan with scarlet berries and huge old crack willows grew along the banks. Once more we crossed the river at Middle Gelt in the shadow of a tall railway viaduct, built as long ago as 1835, one of the first skew or slanted bridges ever constructed. The contractor, John McKay, assembled a model made out of pieces of turnip, which he whittled and reshaped until he was certain the design would actually stand up.
We walked homeward at the river’s brink under cliffs of sandstone where ancient quarry faces stood a hundred feet tall. Roman soldiers excavating stone in 207 AD for repairs to nearby Hadrian’s Wall had left graffiti in the rocks, we’d been told – cartoon faces, and the name of their overseers, Agricola and Mercatius. We failed to find these imprints from the past, but enjoyed marvelling at the patterned incisions made by the saws and chisels of two millennia of sandstone quarrying above the ‘mad river’.
How hard is it? 6 miles; moderate; riverside paths. NB some slippery steps and stumbly tree roots in Gelt Woods, muddy in parts.
Start: Low Gelt Bridge car park, near Brampton, Cumbria CA8 1SZ approx. (OS ref NY 520591)
Road: From A69/A689 roundabout just south of Brampton, head south on A69. In ½ mile cross River Gelt; in 100m sharp left to Low Gelt Bridge. Right across river; right into car park.
Walk (OS Explorer 315): Back across bridge; left; in 150m left (521589, fingerpost ‘Tow Top’). Follow path and ‘Tow Top’ signs for 1½ miles to road at Tow Top (528571). Left; in 100m, right (‘bridleway, Greenwell’) across railway (530570). At road junction, ahead (532569, ‘No Through Road’). In ½ mile at Greenwell, left (536565, step stile/gate) on riverside path. In ½ mile at road (533572), right; under viaduct. Right across river; left (533573) on path beside river (fingerpost ‘Gelt Woods’) for 1⅔ miles back to car park.
Accommodation: Howard Arms Hotel, Front Street, Brampton CA8 1NG (01697-742758, howardarms.co.uk)