Circles in stone part 1. The Cumbrian Sculpture Valley at High Head

High Head Sculpture Valley

High Head Sculpture Valley, much to discover

We have recently learned that though the Stone Circle will still be accessible after December 21st, you should endeavour to make your visit before December 21st because the visitors’ centre and cafe will be closed after that. Call 016974 73552 to place your reservations for Christmas dinner.

High Head Sundial by Brian Cowper

The Sculptor’s Hands, High Head Sundial by Brian Cowper

sundialWe found High Head Sculpture Valley to be a delightful sun trap with a distinctly wild feel to it. Ive beck runs through it, feeding the wetland section and providing home to Otters, Water rats, Kingfishers and other wildlife, the sculptures are situated amongst the abundant foliage, and open spaces linked by paths, bull-rushes, willows and other trees in a pleasant naturalistic integration.  If you came upon the haunting vision of a faun with Pan-pipes beside the island stilt-house, it wouldn’t seem entirely out of place. Sculptural works by Jonathan Stamper abound, be sure to bring your camera, denizens of this Eden include a glass snake and brilliant giant butterfly.

Certainly, if you enjoy sculpture, particularly of the outdoor variety, then consider making a visit to High Head, for there is much to see here for visitors of all ages, there’s a children’s narrative in sculpture and good play area for children with a charming hollow tree and swing set, so it is family friendly. It is worth taking time over the exploration. After exploring the sculptures you can then refresh yourselves with good farmhouse cooking and browse the artwork within. That is what we did.

The first sculpture greets you at the entrance and just beside the parking lot there are more, they feed down past the visitor centre with its gallery,  cafe and Spa and into the wooded valley and beyond, after a short walk through pasture to the crest of a hill a handsome stone circle emerges within a grove of native deciduous trees. There is a sense of surprise and discovery about your encounters with these artworks, one moment you aren’t aware of them, the next, they are in your world and you in theirs.

Stunning iron butterfly sculpture at High Head Sculpture Valley

Here’s a glorious iron butterfly. In the garden of Eden, baby …

I came to hear of High Head while researching prehistoric sites in Cumbria for an ANA Wingspan in-flight magazine article. In the course of visiting some of Cumbria’s amazingly rich prehistoric heritage it struck me as clearly impossible to ask the Neolithic and Bronze Age sculptors why they were erecting stone circles where they did and what moved them to do it, so I was very keen to talk with the contemporary  Prehistoric Artist, Brian Cowper about Cumbria’s Stone Circles. He is in a better position than most to help us understand stone circle constructions because he has made a thorough study of them both here and abroad, and has been commissioned to design and build circles for both the public and private sectors.

Brian loves neolithic sites and they inspire much of his work, which is very good. Formerly a lecturer in sculpture at University College Of  St Martin, Lancaster, Brian has a thorough grounding in shaping his medium, stone.

Axe sculpture by Brian Cowper

Axe sculpture by Brian Cowper

His Sun dial for High Head is sculpted of polished limestone and is the result of meticulous calculations and set up with strict observance to ensure that the sun shines through in just the right place at one specific time of two days, noon on the equinoxes.  But don’t wait until then to visit, because the interaction of these sculptures with their seasonal surroundings is worth seeing.

Brian has  designed and erected a stone circle for the owners at High Head and was kind enough to show us this work and to lend us some good reading material to help my wife and I better understand Cumbria’s prehistoric art and architecture.

The High Head Circle like many Cumbrian Stone Circles: Long Meg and her daughters, Knipe Scar, Iron Hill and Castlerigg    are aligned to the mighty saddlebacked fell, Blencathra.

The High Head Circle like many Cumbrian Stone Circles: Long Meg and her daughters, Knipe Scar, Iron Hill and Castlerigg are aligned to the mighty saddlebacked fell, Blencathra.

The High Head Circle is of red sandstone and has cardinal and astronomical alignment.

The High Head Circle is of red sandstone and has landscape and astronomical alignment. Like the Gamelands circle, near Orton, it is aligned  to the rising of the Moon, but some stones have other, private, significance in their own right.

Brian was kind enough to discuss issues that had been puzzling us and clarify some common confusions. He says that one commonly held misconception is that they needed vast numbers of people to move and erect the stones. Yes, they were determined and their action was coordinated, but stone was their medium too.

We asked him why, in his opinion, early Britons had built these structures where they did and what they might have been for. Brian clarified from the outset that though Birkrigg,  Castlerigg and other circles have been attributed to Druids, these structures have nothing whatsoever to do with them. These sites pre-date the Druidicism vilified by the Romans  by thousands of years. He thinks that the structures and their sites are intimately linked with the surrounding landscape and cosmos, and that the  sites are usually within view of significant landscape features and/or other sites.  He drew our attention to the sense of surprise, discovery and succession that is characteristic of coming upon them and stressed that this was an intentional factor both in their siting and creation. Even when you are looking for them and have the best guidebook (Robert W.E. Farrah’s A Guide To The Stone Circles Of Cumbria ), your realisation of their presence tends to be surprising. It’s a true, deep seated, visceral reaction to them that William Wordsworth captured in his poem when Long Meg and her Daughters took him by surprise.

“A weight of awe not easy to be borne  

Fell suddenly upon my spirit – cast,”

These ancient architects were concious of cardinal points and astronomical cycles and factored these orientations into their site construction in many cases. Not just within the construction of each site, one stone in relation to another, but also the site as a whole in relation to other sites and to key landscape features. The alignments of sites with each other have been well documented. Ley lines, such as the Belinus line have been plotted on maps, they don’t just follow obvious transit routes such as the Lune and Lowther valley, but also traverse steep rises, fells and dales. Gamelands and Gaythorne monuments seem aligned with Appleby.

These days we have come to associate straight roads with the discipline of the Romans, but straight routes would have been very important to pedestrian hunter gatherers who would be very fit and would prefer to climb a steep slope directly, on all fours for stretches if need be, rather than zigzag to reduce the angle of ascent.

Brian feels certain that stone circles were civilization centres, important focal points around which all kinds of activities would take place including but not limited to barter trade in polished stone axes and other items, there would also likely have been social and religious rites, actions of law and of celebration,  education and information exchange and magic, these sites would likely have been important for respite and healing, the scientific centres too. They were usually sited near water that would have enabled protracted stays. They were made to powerfully assist their hardy makers survive and prosper in their tough world.

This conforms to information we gleaned from a lecture by Archaeologist Tom Clare and his excellent book ( Prehistoric Monuments of The Lake District ) that the earliest circles don’t seem to have been used for burials originally, that seems to have been a later bronze age introduction. Professor Clare stressed how little material has been found in excavations  within stone circles. It seems that people didn’t originally discard items and bodies within these sacred spaces.

Brian Cowper's stone circle at High Head.

Brian Cowper’s stone circle at High Head  seen here under feather cloud, represents a continuance of a Cumbrian tradition that spans 6 milennia and despite considerable archaeological study retains most of its mystery.

We returned to the visitors’ centre for a pleasant lunch in their cafe. High Head’ s Cafe serves a variety of freshly prepared light lunches and delicious home made cakes (ingredients locally sourced when possible). The staff are very amiable and there’s a shop with a good range of art work,  Made In Cumbria products and nice children’s clothes. High Head also has two holiday cottages available for rent and a health spa. It’s a fine example of farm diversification.

Friendly service and good food at High Head's cafe

Friendly service and good food at High Head’s tearoom

The cafe at High Head Sculpture Valley

High Head Sculpture Valley has indoor and al fresco dining.

More stone circles to come in my next article.

High Head is open everyday except Wednesdays from November to December 21st 10.30 to 16.00

Call 016974 73552 for further information and see

Roadside dining reaches new heights at The Bridge Bistro, Kirkby Thore

Light trails from trucks and cars blaze past  The Bridge Bistro, one of Cumbria's most elegant dining and drinking venues.

Light trails from trucks and cars blaze past The Bridge Bistro, one of Cumbria’s most elegant dining and drinking venues.

Located on the A66 gateway to the Lake District near Penrith, stylish bistro café The Bridge sets a new benchmark in roadside cuisine by serving affordable foodie fare.

How many times have you passed through Kirkby Thore on Cumbria’s A66 and have hardly been aware of the fact?  We always knew Kirkby Thore was there of course, most of us have driven through it numerous times on the way to somewhere else. The road bends, signs are there and we slowed down for the place and passed on through rejoicing. It was that sort of place, but …. it is no longer unremarkable, far otherwise.

elegant interior design at The Bridge Bistro

Elegant interior design. Calming, suave, warm and bright, our visit to The Bridge Bistro was uplifting.

Now a very elegant Bistro has put Kirkby Thore squarely on the map of really nice places to eat! It’s called The Bridge Bistro, and not only is it beside the bridge, on the Penrith side, but it bridges worlds by elevating roadside dining to new heights.

Yes, after today’s experience I’d even say that I think its worth detouring large distances for Kirkby Thore now, certainly planning an eating stop there for A66 travellers and here’s why, first in a nutshell for those  who are busy, but do read on for the full account if you can.

The nutshell version

  • A nice range of meals and drinks variously priced for different pockets
  • Great quality food
  • Substantial portions
  • Stylish and comfortable
  • Warm, friendly staff
  • Clean as a whistle
  • Long opening hours, at time of writing Mon – Thurs from 9 am to 10 pm, Fri – Sat 9 am to 11 pm, Sun 12pm – 6 pm.

More detail

Imagine that a husband and wife team decided to do a very good job of designing a stylish cafe cum bar cum restaurant (Bistro), using the best materials, with tasteful consideration of your comfort and aesthetic satisfaction in mind at every stage of the process, no expense spared by the looks of things and then went ahead and realised the dream. They then staffed it with nice people who want you to enjoy fresh food cooked well, and then they resisted the temptation to charge you the moon to eat there.  That’s exactly what happened. Matthew and Louise Reay have produced a really good restaurant. Matthew grew up  in nearby Culgaith, worked in London for a number of years where he met Louise and the couple moved north in 2006 to start their family. As keen travellers, they felt there was a gap in the market for good quality, reasonably priced food available on the road. They have now filled that niche, and how!

Friendly staff behind the bar at The Bridge Bistro, Kirkby Thore

Shapely bar  and  a warm welcome and fine eating await travellers on the A66 at The Bridge.

Louise Reay beside the hand painted silk wallpaper.

Louise Reay beside the hand painted silk wallpaper.

Hand-painted silk wallpapers, wood-panelling, bespoke lighting and a handmade bar shape the venue’s contemporary, elegant setting, with a glazed, gable end lending a bright, welcoming feel.

The Bridge is owned by husband-and-wife team Matthew and Louise Reay.

Matt says “Eating out in Cumbria is fairly limited – there is either fine dining or the local pub. The Bridge offers an outstanding mid-range alternative in a unique dining environment and as our Trip Advisor reviews show, we’re proving popular with locals and tourists alike. Having just been open for six months, we’re honoured to be included in next year’s Michelin guide.”

When we eat out we want it to be worthwhile. Today’s lunch was a fine experience from start to finish.

Pretty lady enjoying fine filter coffee at The Bridge Bistro in Kirkby Thore

Great uplift! Freshly brewed coffee in refreshingly elegant surroundings at The Bridge Bistro

Gujons of Plaice in light. crispy tenpura beer batter on a bed of french beans, peas and rocket, with chips, Tartar sauce and the best mushy peas that I've ever tasted!

Goujons of Plaice in light. crispy tempura beer batter on a bed of French beans, peas and rocket, with chips, Tartar sauce and the best mushy peas that I’ve ever tasted!

Here’s that dish viewed again from the side, because I want to share the visual appeal and I’m showing off my new camera. Today’s special at The Bridge Bistro.

Today's special at The Bridge Bistro.

Yes, it was as good as it looks.  My wife enjoyed the Mushroom Risotto very much.

The Bridge Bistro serve a rich Mushroom Risotto with light, crispy battered cauliflower florets for texture. Locally harvested forest mushrooms impart deep, complex flavour. Delicious!

The Bridge Bistro serve a rich Mushroom Risotto with light, crispy battered cauliflower florets for texture. Locally harvested forest mushrooms impart deep, complex flavour. Delicious!

The Bridge Bistro is full of light and beside the expansive front window I encountered the French Electronica band Kwoon, pausing en route to Glasgow as part of their European tour having played in London and Hull. Parisians know Bistro dining, it’s in their blood  and these guys declared their meal to be very good. Sandy Lavallart, the composer, pictured in striped top, declared that it exceeded his expectations of English food, especially from a roadside restaurant. Spot on! I must say the same.  I wish them best of luck with their tour.

Parisian Electronica band Kwoon taking time out on their European tour.

Parisian Electronica band Kwoon taking time out on their European tour.

During a quiet spell, we chatted with the Chef, Paul Mckinnon who uses local, fresh produce to create a varied menu, ranging from simple sandwiches in artisan bread to classic French and Italian dishes. Originally from Gateshead, Paul spent eight years working under Tyneside’s Michelin-starred chef Terry Laybourne at his ’21 Queen Street’ restaurant in Newcastle and at Newcastle United FC.

There is a map theme running through the menus and decor that befits the roadside Bistro

There is a map theme running through the menus and decor that befits the roadside Bistro

Paul says “Freshness of the ingredients is really important in our menu. You’re not eating things from plastic bags here. Take your Plaice for example, it came in on the boat last night, early this morning, and is cooked today. We’ll be offering game soon, pigeon, widgeon, pheasants and grouse.”  Son of a gamekeeper, Paul is skilled in venery, knowing the proper preparation and cuts of game. He is training up local lads in the culinary arts and is pleased with their development so far. The A66 is a major, arterial thoroughfare, with motorists, bikers and truck drivers travelling to and from Scotland, Yorkshire and the northeast.

He says at The Bridge there’s a fine balance in providing a variety of good quality food to suit people who need to eat quickly and be on with their journey and also in serving those who wish to linger and relish a protracted dining experience. He’s passionate about his art and I feel sure that The Bridge will continue to successfully achieve that balance.

Chef, Paul McKinnon explaining how fresh, often locally, sourced ingredients are brought together for outstanding dishes.

Chef, Paul McKinnon explaining how fresh, often locally, sourced ingredients are brought together for nourishing and tasty dishes. Apples and plums, forest mushrooms and fine meat as examples.

East Cumbria’s Eden Valley offers a great deal for visitors including  lovely landscapes, traditional towns, pretty villages, castles, stately homes, prehistoric heritage sites and nature reserves  including Lowther Castle, Acorn Bank, Lakeland Bird of Prey Centre , Lacy’s Caves and Appleby Golf Club.  Now there is fine roadside dining on the A66!

Appleby Golf Club - impressive views  £25 Green Fee

Appleby Golf Club – impressive views of  Pennine Fells and  Eden Valley

The Bridge serves breakfast/brunch, lunch and dinner with a sizable kids’ menu, pricing from £5-20 per person.

Check out the menus, correct at time of writing:

BFast & Kids sample Evening Sample Menu The Bridge Christmas 2013 Weekday Sample Menu

Opening times: Mon thru Thurs 10am–9pm; Fri – Sat 10am–11pm; Sun midday–6pm.

The Bridge, Kirkby Thore Bridge, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 1UZ

Tel: 01768 362766 /

Text and photos Charles Paxton of

The opinions expressed here are genuine and the author received no financial inducement to write this review.

Steak’s Great At The New Inn, Hoff

Cheery, friendly welcome at The New Inn, Hoff

There’s a cheery, friendly welcome at The New Inn, Hoff. Good pub food and Real ales served by good folk.

the new inn at night

Welcoming lights of the New Inn, Hoff

This year’s wedding anniversary saw us treating ourselves to a nice feed at The New Inn, Hoff on yesterday’s rainy night.

Sandra serving my sirloin

Sandra serving my sirloin

This delightful old Inn has lots of character, comfy seating, great food and drink, cosy fire, lovely timber frame interior, jolly banter and no pretensions.

Sandra Colbear and Daniel Graham reopened the pub in September last year. Built on the old drovers’ route to Appleby-in-Westmorland, now the B6260 on the popular Coast to coast route , the New Inn is a traditional Westmorland country pub of  considerable character. In times past, The New Inn was a blessing to the drovers and horse drawn traffic, there is still a high service window at the back of the pub where horsemen could take receipt of a jack of ale from the saddle!  Nowadays the pub still serves farmers and local people, but in addition they sustain holiday makers staying at local caravan sites, walkers, cyclists and touring drivers.

Their Easter Hog roast went very well and Daniel says they’ll be repeating the event.

There’s great service at The New Inn, Hoff
Lovely pub grub at The New Inn! Sirloin steak, onion rings, flat cap mushrooms, tomatoes,new potatoes and vegetables

Lovely pub grub at The New Inn, in Hoff. Sirloin steak, onion rings, flat cap mushrooms, tomatoes, new potatoes and vegetables.

Daniel and Sandra served us very nice meals. Mine, a sirloin steak platter, succulent, generously proportioned  and well accompanied. My wife thought her Cream of mushroom soup a cut above the norm,  creamy and flavoursome with lots of finely chopped fungi, all she hoped for.

I had resolved to celebrate our anniversary here, because the proprietors had rescued me the previous week when my scooter had given out due to damp electrics and left me about half way from, and half an hour late for, a business meeting at Logic plumbing and heating firm’s head quarters on Appleby’s Cross Croft Industrial Estate. My mobile was at home on my charger, my bike’s electrics didn’t want to play their part and I was sodden and feeling dispirited .

These good folk helped me out without blinking and whilst doing so, I saw the New Inn’s charming tap room. Good reasons to return.

In conversation with Sandra and Daniel it emerged that their first year at The New Inn has been quite a memorable one, but the recession and rainy summer has not made it particularly easy.

The New Inn's cream of mushroom soup

The New Inn’s fine cream of mushroom soup

Helping others has been a recurrent theme apparently. In addition to assisting me, Daniel has helped people in a car accident, saved a donkey, lots of sheep and even helped an exhausted cow from the river.

He’s a good Samaritan as well as a good chef! This is a hostelry in the traditional sense and well worthy of patronage, especially midweek at this time of year, when things are a bit on the quiet side.

Call 017683 51740 for more information, and do plan a drop in at Hoff’s New Inn. I think you’ll find it a cheerful and nourishing experience.