Winter is a time when you want to wrap up warm, hunker down and enjoy a cosy weekend break close to home.
The village of Cartmel in the Southern Lakes is ideal for anyone looking for a day out in a picture perfect English village untouched by the ravages of modern life.
Winter brings peace, quiet and a more relaxing ambience than the summer season when the village fills up with crowds of tourists and day trippers.
It’s one of those sleepy towns where you can chill out with a coffee and cake or a pint of beer in the local pub whilst watching the world go by.
Open all hours?
Our weekend trip to the Southern Lakes had started with disappointment when we realised that many of the area’s tourist attractions were shut for the winter.
I guess that we should have checked before we set off but we were in a rush to escape to the country after a hectic few months of work.
The list of closed attractions was endless – Holker Hall, Levens Hall, Sizergh Castle, Piel Island, Muncaster Castle and Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top.
Even Furness Abbey was closed during weekdays and, despite our attempts to peer over the wall, the ruined abbey was looking like a building site due to restoration work.
With a look of bewilderment we cast around for somewhere, anywhere, that was actually open – and Cartmel fitted the bill.
So off we headed to this small Cumbrian village renowned for its priory, puddings and posh eateries – and we weren’t disappointed.
Sticky toffee pudding and posh nosh
Cartmel is the home of the sticky toffee pudding (or STP), that delightful dessert that makes the taste buds salivate like they’ve been awoken from a long trip in the culinary wilderness.
It’s the combination of rich toffee sauce and light, slightly figgy pudding that makes this the perfect pudding in my eyes.
Don’t miss trying this local delicacy, whose fame has spread worldwide, with a trip to the village cafe and shop.
The Cartmel Village Shop has different variations on the classic STP from the Sticky Banana Pudding to the Sticky Ginger and Sticky Chocolate – a treat for any lover of puddings.
The Village Shop also has a great selection of home made cakes – the lemon drizzle cake is particularly yummy… and they’ll make up a hamper for a picnic if you’re looking to head for the hills.
Head upstairs and grab the window seat for a great view over the village’s main street and the medieval Gatehouse which was built in 1330 when the village was a trading centre.
Watch village life trundle along in the Market Square whilst enjoying your large mug of coffee and slice of cake.
We bought giant-sized portions for some unknown reason, but I’m sure this is what kept me going all day long. I didn’t even bother with lunch!
If you’re planning to stay overnight, food lovers with a large wallet can enjoy a trip to L’Enclume (The Anvil), which is run by Simon Rogan, a renowned chef.
This posh eaterie recently won Best Restaurant in the UK, beating Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray.
The two Michelin-starred restaurant also featured in The Trip, the BBC comedy starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as cynical food critics.
I’ve eaten in some expensive restaurants when my Dad worked in advertising but L’Enclume takes the biscuit.
We peered into the restaurant lobby, more in hope than anything else, but were frightened off by the sky-high prices. This exclusive restaurant will set you back in the region of £45 for lunch and over £120 for dinner. Wine and drinks are extra.
It’s definitely on my list of places to eat out when I win several million pounds on the National Lottery.
The restaurant no longer has a fixed menu – the culinary fare depends on which food is recommended on any particular day.
I was intrigued by the menu’s statement that, “The violent frequency of raw materials that are available to us dictates our offerings”.
I wasn’t sure what that meant but reading on I figured that it’s all about a very personalised experience. Non violent, hopefully!
L’Enclume promises to create “a series of dishes for each individual table that will not necessarily be the same but will share the same ethos”.
The concept is ‘customised food’, which is probably why L’Enclume has jettisoned its menu completely. But personally, I do like to have some idea of what the sample menu might be at £120 per person!
I’ve read that signature dishes include Shellfish Tortellini with Parsnip and Hazenut Foam, Smoked Eel with Ham Fat, Cod ‘Yolk’ Oyster Pebbles and Crispy Lichen with Frozen Ox and Sour Cream. Intriguing!
The Guinea Hen with Scurvy Grass, Turnip Shoots and Offal also comes recommended by those who have made the pilgrimage and have very deep pockets.
If you can’t afford the high end restaurants, Cartmel has a rich history to satisfy visitors looking for a cultural experience.
Cartmel dates back to Anglo-Saxon times – in 677 AD King Egfrith of Northumbria gave the village to St Cuthbert which may have led to the development of the village as a religious centre.
The Priory was founded in 1190 and this amazing building is well worth a trip with its beautiful interior and unique double bell tower.
The Priory is a ‘must see’ attraction, even if you’re not the biggest fan of churches – it is really something special.
It’s remarkable that the church survived at all – when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, its fate looked grim.
Like many other priories it was due to be destroyed, pillaged and closed.
But at the last minute, it was given a reprieve by the king’s men when they arrived to shut it down.
They realised that the Priory Church was an important meeting place for local people, fishermen and travellers waiting to go across the nearby estuary sands.
Take a look inside and you’ll see what many English priories would have looked like if they hadn’t been destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries.
The entrance porch is worth a detailed look as you enter the Priory with its beautifully carved Norman arch and decorations.
Once inside, there’s the imposing Nave, the spectacular Te Deum and Magnificat stained glass windows, and the towering Perpendicular East Window dating from the 1400s.
The vaulted ceilings are particularly impressive too as is the South Transept with its blocked-up night staircase where monks once descended from their dormitories into the chapel at night.
In the Town Choir there’s a little chapel with another 14th Century window and the intriguing stone-carved Harrington Tomb with its three monks reading from a book.
It’s another charming detail that really takes you back to the days when monks worshipped in the Priory.
When we visited the Priory there was restoration work underway but it doesn’t interfere too much with your tour although there is quite a bit of scaffolding inside and outside.
Leaving Cartmel Priory I felt that I’d discovered a real gem which deserves to be seen by more people, a bit like Cartmel village itself.
Cartmel isn’t a big place – it’s small and perfectly formed like many Lakeland traditional villages. But it does have a lot going for it – it’s a brilliant place to relax and put your feet up.
Best of all, I felt strangely comforted by its delicious cakes and hearty food on a cold winter’s day.
As we headed back to the car, I felt a tinge of regret that we couldn’t stay longer – and enjoy that £125 dinner at L’Enclume followed by a walk down by the river the morning after.
Maybe next time, I’ll come back and dine in style and forget about the household budget! As a winter day out, Cartmel is a treat, whatever the size of your wallet.
Tammy’s travellers’ tips
Cartmel is a delightful village but it also provides an ideal base for exploring the Southern Lakes, sandwiched between Morecambe Bay, the Lake District National Park and Grange over Sands.
This area of the Lake District gets less congested than well-known honeypots like Windermere, Keswick and Grasmere further north, another bonus, whatever the season.
Cartmel Priory is open daily from 9:00-15:30 (and till 17:00 in the summer). Admission is free – but donations are welcome.
Parking is limited in the village centre so park around the corner at Carmel Racecourse which is a short walk from the Market Square.
The village’s horse racing history dates back to 1856 but there is evidence that the monks of Cartmel Priory may have entertained themselves by organising mule races back in the 15th Century.
Today’s races take place during Spring and Summer Bank Holiday weekends but there are equestrian events and dog shows throughout the year.
The nearest railway station is Cark & Cartmel with services also running to Grange over Sands and Lancaster or Oxenholme on the west coast mainline.
Look out for specialist shops in the village at Unsworth’s Yard near the Priory including Cartmel Cheeses and Bakehouse plus Cartmel’s new-fangled microbrewery.
There are four public houses and a number of quaint cafes if you’re in need of liquid refreshment.
The Pig and Whistle is a bistro style pub run by Simon Rogan from L’Enclume so I guess this is a cheaper way of enjoying great food rather than going to his main restaurant. Rogan describes it as “a fine little boozer”.
As an alternative, the Cavendish Arms is an old coaching house that offers traditioanl pub grub.
There are plenty of places to stay from the upmarket L’Enclume (which also runs a hotel) to B &Bs and self catering accommodation.
We missed out on Cartmel’s famous Black Horses (due to the wintery day) but in summer they will take you on a gentle carriage ride round the country lanes and surrounding woodlands, with Friesian horses leading the way.
Other places worth visiting nearby include the Victorian spa town of Grange-over-Sands, Arnside, Walney Island, Furness Abbey and the Laurel & Hardy Museum at Ulverston. Holker Hall makes for a great day out in the summer and spring.