THERE are certain destinations in this world where just the sound of their name seems to draw you in. You know the sorts of places – Casablanca, Florence, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul... there’s a certain poetry there which pulls at your heart and adds something indefinable to their special allure.
By the same token, my guess is that Grimsby – for all its unique charm – will always face a struggle to attract droves of impulsive travellers, thanks at least in part to the weighty moniker it has worn around its neck since Viking times. Dulwich may be a pleasantly leafy part of south London, but who on earth wants to visit somewhere that sounds so savagely... dull?
No such image issues trouble the Vale of Eden. This glorious river valley which scythes through the peaks of Cumbria between the northern Pennines and Carlisle truly lives up to its name, a rugged version of paradise where every open landscape is framed by rolling hills, and every winding lane leads to another delightfully untouched village.
As was the case for arrivals to the original Eden, my companion and I find to our delight that there is simply no-one else around as we drive from pristine beauty spot to forgotten hamlet.
It is still off-season of course, but none of the tell-tale signs of gratuitous tourism are here. No shops piled high with chintzy tat, no obtrusive information centres, no suspiciously-pristine public toilets. These villages are actually lived-in, and all the better for it.
Presumably part of the reason the Eden Valley seems to slip under the radar is its close proximity to so many other famous destinations; the sorts of stellar attractions where tourists tend to base themselves for the duration of any trip to this part of the world.
This means that from our base in the pretty little hamlet of Temple Sowerby, seven miles east of Penrith along the winding A66, we are both gloriously secluded and yet within a half-hour drive of something wonderful in every direction.
Head north along the A1 towards Brampton and in no time you’re up at Hadrian’s Wall, all rambling heathland and ancient history. Travel east and you’re quickly into the North Yorkshire Dales, with their rolling vistas and picture box dry-stone walls.
And to the west, just a few miles past Penrith, lies magnificent Ullswater and the northern Lakes. Here, of course, the tourist opportunities are plentiful, and we take a cruise across the lake on a “steamer” with the water glistening in the morning sun, a trace of late winter snowfall still topping every hill and giving the Lakes an uncannily Alpine feel. It’s the first time either of us have been up here outside of the summer months – clearly this kind of ancient beauty is stirring at any time of year.
After a gentle stroll back around the lake, we retreat back to the valley to warm ourselves beside the roaring fire at Temple Sowerby House, a small but grand 18th-century hotel with an incredibly homely feel. It quickly becomes clear we’ve hit the jackpot here – barely have we put down our bags before we’re being handed glasses of Champagne by our hosts and shown through to the drawing room, already bustling with the great and the good from around the neighbouring villages.
The restaurant here is something of a food mecca and it transpires we have arrived on one of its themed menu nights, when chef Ashley Whittaker is given carte blanche to let his imagination run wild before a captive audience.
We’re brought endless courses based around a “traditional England” theme, taking in such delights as an all-day breakfast course – complete with toasted brioche and quail’s egg – and a woodland ensemble of pigeon, wild mushrooms and butternut squash ice cream.
Once word gets round that there’s a journalist here, locals are falling over themselves to give the low-down on where we should go – and, just as importantly, where we shouldn’t.
For starters, Penrith is right out. We are warned of fearful parking charges and Gestapo-like traffic wardens.
The thing to do, it seems, is take a walk up to High Cup Nick, a famously spectacular U-shaped valley just a few miles down the A66.
Who are we to argue? After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast – porridge with Cointreau; then poached eggs and farmhouse sausage – we set off and do just that, revelling in the drama of the gorge as it slices through the high-sided hills. The Pennine Way is one of several major footpaths to cross through here.
Further down the same road, we find Appleby-in-Westmoreland, a charming old-world market town with a fine medieval high street, which for several hundred years has hosted the famous Appleby Horse Fair each June.
Heading south-west to the pleasant stone village of Orton, we call in at the wonderful Kennedy’s chocolate factory. The hot chocolate and the homemade ice cream are worth the trip alone.
Finally, we even brave Penrith, in fact a pleasant enough little town, as regular visitors to the Lakes will know.
We have lunch in a slightly shabby hotel, pausing to chat to an elderly Scottish lady who tells us that she visits here every single weekend, rain or shine.
We return to our car with some trepidation, but find no parking ticket and no sadistic traffic warden busy scribbling one out on the bonnet.
It is Sunday, and parking is free. Nothing, it seems, is going to spoil this particular little corner of paradise.
Jack Blanchard was a guest of Temple Sowerby House, a country house hotel with AA two-rosette restaurant in Temple Sowerby, seven miles from Penrith. Bed and breakfast from £125-a-night, short break offers and special feature breaks available. 017683 61578 or visit www.templesowerby.comwww.templesowerby.com