Enchanting rural retreat that’s a foodie’s heaven

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Wild, hemlock-sprouting hedgerows line the winding country roads that lead to Cartmel, a breathtaking drive that gives you a good idea of what’s in store as you approach Cumbria’s most enchanting village.

Famed for its 12th century priory church, racecourse and sticky toffee pudding, it’s easy to see why it tempts so many visitors away from the bigger Lake District tourist spots.

The church alone attracts more than 60,000 visitors a year, and when there’s a steeplechase meet, its narrow streets can be teeming with up to 15,000 racegoers.

It’s blissfully quiet when we visit, though. The forecast thunderstorms have already been and gone and the babbling River Eea, which runs through the heart of the village, glitters in the residual sunshine.

There’s no better way to explore this picturesque spot than with a horse-drawn carriage tour, courtesy of Cartmel company Black Horses.

Listening to the soft clip-clop of our handsome Friesian’s hooves, the history this village is so steeped in seems to come alive while our expert guides Tracey and Rynardt Venter point out the sights.

In the village square, opposite its ancient market cross, water pump, and fish slabs, stands the medieval gatehouse - one of the few surviving parts of the original priory. It is thought to have been built around 1330 to 1340 - more than a century after Augustian canons founded the priory in 1189. Much of the original building was destroyed in 1536 when the monastaries were dissolved, but the parish church, which was part of it, was saved.

Its bells are chiming when we trot past and journey out on to the country lanes, before turning through bluebell-carpeted woods that lead us into Cartmel Racecourse and returning to the village.

Back in the square, we visit the village shop, where the famous Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding was born more than two decades ago.

It’s still sold there - though demand for the sweet treat means its now baked in a bigger kitchen a few miles away in Flookburgh. A sales assistant cheerily tells me they shift “about a million” every year, and having tasted the delicious treacly concoction, I’m inclined to believe that’s no exaggeration.

Cartmel Village Shop, where its famous sticky toffee pudding is sold

Cartmel Village Shop, where its famous sticky toffee pudding is sold

Food is something the village does very well - as well as artisan cheese and bread shops (which are sadly closed when we visit, on a Monday) it boasts its own Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Enclume, whose celebrated chef Simon Rogan also has his own brasserie near the river.

“We often spot him out foraging for his ingredients,” Rynardt told us earlier.

But if it’s good, honest pub grub you’re after look no further than The Cavendish Arms, where we bed down for the night after clearing a couple of hearty plates in its homely but elegant dining room.

A shared starter of sea bass fillet with lime and coriander was followed by a duck breast with kumquat relish for me and a rib-eye steak for the other half.

We washed it down with a crisp sauvignon and rounded it off with a steaming slab of sticky toffee pudding (what else?), plus a chocolate and Cointreau mousse, piped into a delicate brandy snap basket.

This charming 450-year-old coaching inn has ten comfy en-suite bedrooms that make it the perfect base from which to explore the the village and rest of the Lakes, Windermere and its surrounding attractions being just half an hour’s drive away.

But with a bar this cosy and a welcome this warm, you might ask yourself - do you really want to leave at all?

• The journey takes around two hours from Halifax. For the most scenic route, take the A629 to Skipton then join the A65 to Cow Brow and continue onto the A590. From there, follow signs for Cartmel Priory.

• Rooms at the Cavendish Arms start from £75. All rooms cost £110 on race days. Visit www.thecavendisharms.co.uk, call 01539 536240 or email info@thecavendisharms.co.uk

• Horse-drawn village tours are available from Sunday to Friday and cost from £50. Visit www.blackhorses.co.uk, call 01539 533781 or email tracey@blackhorses.co.uk