New York Times names Cartmel as a must-see destination - we find out why

PUBLISHED: 11:40 14 April 2014 | UPDATED: 20:49 19 April 2016




Just what is it about this Lancashire village that makes the New York Times put it on its worldwide ‘must visit’ list? Roger Borrell investigates

Cavendish StreetCavendish Street

The word is well and truly out – Cartmel is no longer a well-kept secret whispered between those in the know. They’re even talking about it in the Big Apple.

When the New York Times published its global list of 52 places that readers should visit during 2014, Cape Town came top. But this lovely little Lancashire village came a very respectable 44th ahead of Nepal, Vienna and Niagara Falls.

But then, they only have sacher torte in Vienna not sticky toffee pudding, Simon Rogan doesn’t have a restaurant in Nepal (yet), and Niagara Falls might be spectacular but perhaps a little ho-hum after the drama of Cartmel Priory.

‘I was staggered when I heard about it,’ says Jonathan Garratt, managing director of Cartmel Races. ‘But in a way, I can understand it. I’ve loved Carmel since the first moment I saw it.

Jonathan Garrett at Cartmel RacecourseJonathan Garrett at Cartmel Racecourse

‘It’s picturesque but it also has a special atmosphere and that extends to the racecourse. It is an atmosphere that remains after the race crowds have gone. It imprints itself on the village.’

Nick Devenish, the vicar of Cartmel’s stunning priory, was just as surprised. ‘I couldn’t believe it. I’m fascinated by the fact we have what was originally an Augustinian monastery offering hospitality to pilgrims and here we are, some eight centuries later, still offering hospitality. We’ve been doing it since 1188 and it seems to be in the DNA of the village.’

Closer to home, BBC Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans, recently spent a holiday in Cartmel and he raved about it on his breakfast programme, urging millions of listeners to visit the ‘gorgeous’ priory. Not all at once, hopefully, because Cartmel does get busy.

While this ancient place of worship, out of all proportion to the rest of the village, provides great spiritual tranquility, only a short stroll away is a centre for noisy excitement – Cartmel Racecourse.

Guy Harnby and Martin Gott of Cartmel CheesesGuy Harnby and Martin Gott of Cartmel Cheeses

However, there is a bond between the two. Records of horseracing – then on the flat - have been in existence since the 1850s but there is evidence that the monks raced mules here in the 15th century. Whether they indulged in the odd each-way bet, we’ll never know.

The monks and the mules have gone but the priory still holds a steeplechase service once a year. During this Sunday gathering a racehorse is brought to the priory doors to be blessed by Rev Devenish. Jonathan Garrett has been watching to see if divine intervention is affecting performances on the track. ‘I’m afraid not,’ he laughs.

Jonathan took charge of racing on Lord Cavendish’s Holker Estate four years ago after running courses in Scotland and at Fontwell Park. He and his family settled in swiftly.

‘Cartmel and its racecourse are unique,’ he says. ‘It’s odd, it’s quirky and it’s great fun with a lovely rural backdrop. This is the only racecourse in the country where almost everyone brings a picnic or a barbecue. It’s a place where race day can be more like a family party.’

It is also an important part of the local economy with hotels, guest houses, pubs and restaurants packed to the gunnels on the seven days of steeplechasing held each year. People tend to rebook their rooms for the next year as they check out.

‘We would always consider racing on more days but we have to be mindful of the fact that these are very special events and we wouldn’t want to water that down,’ he says.

‘We have the third highest average crowds after Aintree and Cheltenham and on a busy, sunny bank holiday we have attracted 20,000 visitors. Probably the biggest challenge is managing the traffic. We want to provide visitors with the best possible experience but we must also work with the local residents to ensure they can get around the place.’

Most recently the racecourse has become a popular venue for weddings and family celebrations. There has also been some diversification with Caravan Club gatherings, cross-country races and cycling events which attract up to 800 riders.

When there is no racing, the dedicated racecourse team concentrate on maintaining a perfect track that is safe for racing.

Come race days, there are up to 500 people working on the course. ‘The village supports four pubs, unusual for a community of this size,’ adds Jonathan. ‘If you ask the publicans which is most important to them from a business perspective, Christmas or the racing, I think they’d chose racing.’

Pine cladding and Weetabix

The Victorians did many things that seem strange to us today. Putting small boys up chimneys, for instance, attaching bloomers to chair legs and dressing stuffed kittens in little sailor suits before displaying them in glass cases all spring to mind.

Nothing quite so extreme in Cartmel but, like legions of 1960s DIY fanatics, they did like their pine cladding and they used it to cover the mediaeval oak timbers in the roof of the wonderful village priory. It appears they wanted the beams to have a uniform look.

They also masked the wear and tear suffered through the centuries. Nick Devenish, the vicar at the priory, said: ‘After 150 or so years, the slates on the nave roof had developed the consistency of Weetabix.

‘Once they had been removed, they took off the pine cladding and the state of the true timbers was revealed. About 14 or 15 are being replaced.’ The work started in June of last year and will take until May to complete.

Whatever is happening on the outside, the inside of the priory is an exceptional place to visit. It started off as an Augustinian monastery in the 12th century, a very welcome sights to the many pilgrims who survived the crossing of Morecambe Bay to worship there.

3 steps to foodie heaven

Cartmel would certainly be a contender if the north west had to select a food capital. Here are three reasons why:

1. The village shop is the home of Cartmel sticky toffee pudding, which supplies Booths, Selfridges, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, Fortum & Mason plus something like 1500 farm shops and delis.

The younger generation can have their raves but those of a more refined disposition can have sticky toffee pudding parties since the arrival of the party size pudding which weighs in at just over 2lbs.

2. Cartmel Cheeses is based in Unsworth Yard, which also has a top class micro-brewery and an artisan bread outlet. Farmer Martin Gott learned to make cheese as a teenager and he and his partner, Nicola Robinson, have a herd of Lacaune sheep – used in France for Roquefort – on a Holker Estate farm. The unpasteurised St James cheese is a favourite at Neal’s Yard Dairy and wins awards around the world.

3. Padstow has Rick Stein but Cartmel has Simon Rogan. His two Michelin star restaurant, L’enclume, has attracted worldwide attention and this remarkable chef, current holder of the Lancashire Life award for outstanding achievement, now runs the restaurants at The Midland in Manchester and Claridges in London. He also has Rogan’s, a bistro in Cartmel, and a local pub, the Pig & Whistle.

Latest from the Lancashire Life