A History of Cumbria and the Lake District

The History of Cumbria and the Lake District

The county of Cumbria is formed from the older counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, and parts of North Lancashire, and North Yorkshire. It contains The Lake District National Park, the largest national park in Britain, established in 1951 and covering 2,292 sq km (885 sq mi). It is an area of glaciated mountains – including Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England at 978 m (3,209 ft).

It also contains a small part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The northern ranges of the Lake District consist of Ordovician slate, about 500 million years old; the central ranges of younger volcanic rock; and a southern range of limestone and other Silurian rock about 440 million years old. These highlands are dissected by U-shaped valleys, known as dales, containing the lakes, some of which are artificial and all but one of which do not have the word “lake” in their names, being known instead as “meres” (Windermere, Grasmere, Thirlmere) or “waters” (Ullswater, Wastwater, Coniston Water); the exception is Bassenthwaite Lake. The animal life of the Lake District includes three unique species of fish: the schelly, the vendace, and the char; and a number of golden eagles.

In due course, this page will describe the influence of man on the Lake District, including :

    • Early Settlers :
      Human settlement began in the Lake District at least 5,000 years ago, when Pike o’Stickle and other mountains became the source of stone for axes and the sites of stone circles at Castlerigg, Long Meg, and elsewhere. Later inhabitants dug parts of the Lake District for copper, iron-ore, graphite, and green slate.

      In Neolithic times, the Lake District was a major source of stone axes, examples of which have been found all over Britain. The primary site, on the slopes of the Langdale Pikes, is sometimes described as a ‘stone axe factory’.

      Celts, Romans, Angles, and Vikings in succession settled among the lakes, and it was the last of these who provided such place-name elements as “-thwaite” (clearing), “fell” (mountain with grazing), “gill” (ravine), “force” (waterfall), and also introduced the local Herdwick sheep, which are born black and become white.

      Cumbria still has evidence of these settlers in Hadrian’s Wall, and its Forts, and Viking crosses.


    • Numerous Tower Houses and Pele Towers were built in the 15-16th centuries, when ‘Border Reivers’ were a constant menace, rustling livestock, pillaging, kidnapping and extorting protection money. In 1551, the ‘Debateable Land’ was divided between the two countries England and Scotland, and the boundary was defined by a shallow ditch which became known as the Scot’s Dike.


    • There were twelve houses of monks, nuns and canons in Cumbria in the middle ages, as well as four friaries of which nothing remains. As well as Carlisle Cathedral, four of these monasteries have remained in use as parish churches – Cartmel, St Bees, Holm Cultram and Lanercost.


    • Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke, was born at Skipton Castle on 30 January 1590, during the reign of Elizabeth I. She is celebrated for her diary and her tireless restoration of her properties in Cumbria and North Yorkshire which were badly damaged in the Civil War. She died at Brougham Castle in Cumbria on 22 March 1676, when she was 86 in the room where her father had been born.


    • Statesman farmers, their sheep, and their homes eg Townend


    • Mining. As early as the 12th Century there is evidence of mining and quarrying in Cumbria, and it probably dates back to Roman times. Everwhere in Cumbria there is physical evidence of this industry to be seen – lead, copper, zinc, baryte, haematite, tungsten, graphite, fluorite, and coal were being mined and quarried.
        • Slate. Some mining still takes place today – for example slate mining continues at the Honister Mine, at the top of Honister Pass. Abandoned mine-workings can be found on fell-sides throughout the district, including the impressive Hodge Close Quarry in Langdale.


        • Graphite. The locally-mined graphite led to the development of the pencil industry, especially around Keswick.


        • Gypsum is the naturally occurring form of Calcium Sulphate in its hydrated form. The anhydrated form also occurs and is usually termed Anhydrite. These minerals occur mainly in three areas in Cumbria where they have been exploited commercially. These areas are around the village of Cotehill, just south of Carlisle, Kirkby Thore in the Eden valley and St Bees Head near Whitehaven. The only site working at present is the Kirkby Thore site.

          Its main use is for the plaster industry from the 1820’s onward. The production of plaster involves crushing the gypsum and then heating it in pans to drive off the water of crystalisation. If heated to about 163ºC only part of the water is driven off and Plaster of Paris is produced. If heated to above 200ºC all the water is lost and a soluble anhydrite is formed. This differs from natural anhydrite because it will reabsorb water and will set as a solid mass. This is the basis of plaster.

          Anhydrite was used in the chemical industry as a component in the production of Sulphuric acid. The Marchon Co at Whitehaven used the extensive deposits below their site for this purpose. Large quantities of anhydrite were quarried in the Eden valley, at Long Meg mine and shipped by rail to the chemical works at Billingham.


        • Haematite. It was known in earlier times that West Cumbria was rich in iron ore but it was not until the 1830’s that this valuable mineral was mined here on a significant scale.The best quality iron ore to be found anywhere in the world is called hæmatite and it is this rich mineral which is can be found in the limestone layers of West Cumbria. The rich hæmatite deposits are found in a variety of different forms penetrating faults in the Carboniferous limestone strata of West Cumbria.The Florence Mine Heritage Centre at Egremont, West Cumbria has a heritage centre, and underground mine trips.


        • Coal. Coal mining in West Cumbria dates back to the 13th Century when the monks from St Bees Abbey supervised the opening of coal mines at Arrowthwaite. This long history ended in March 1986, when Haig Pit, Cumbria’s last deep coal mine, finally closed. Over 1200 men, women, and children have been killed in the Whitehaven pits while winning coal in workings up to four miles out beneath the Solway Firth.


      • Granite and limestone. Shap has built up around its quarrying activities. As well as limestone, there is the Shap blue granite, and the more famous Shap pink granite, seen throughout Britain in kerbstones and building frontages, and both quarried about two miles south from the village, near Shap Summit.



    • Before the railways, three canals were built in Cumbria – the Kendal canal, the Ulverston canal, and the Carlisle canal.

      The Preston to Tewitfield portion of the Kendal to Lancaster Canal was officially opened on 22nd of November 1797, with the Tewitfield section finally linking the Kendal section in 1819, completing the canal course to Lancaster.

      In its 125 year working life span, the canal brought prosperity to Kendal, as coal was imported for the various industries that were housed in and around the town, and limestone and slate from local quarries and other manufactured goods that local industries were producing at the time were exported.

      The Ulverston Canal opened in 1796, connecing Ulverston to the sea, and lasted until 1945 when it finally ceased business.

      The village of Port Carlisle was developed as a port in 1819 to handle goods for Carlisle using the canal link built in 1823. The canal was 11¼ mile long, and had 8 locks which were all built 18 feet wide. From a wooden jetty, through the entrance sea lock and one other, the canal ran level for nearly six miles. Then followed six locks in one and a quarter miles, with a level stretch to Carlisle Basin. Within a few years the canal ran into financial difficulties, and was closed, finally being drained in 1853.

      As the railways began to improve the speed and efficiency of the movement of goods and raw materials, the canals eventually began to decline. The Lancaster to Kendal canal was no different, and when the railways arrived in Kendal in the 1840?s, the amount of trade conducted over the canal began to decrease. The last barge load of coal was brought to Kendal in 1944, and although small amounts of trade continued, and passenger barges still frequented the 14 mile stretch of canal, it soon became obvious that this mode of transport was needed no more.


    • Lime kilns were used from medieval periods right through to the 18th and 19th centuries. They were used in earlier times for the production of mortar for building purposes, and sometimes, as during the 18th and 19th centuries, for the production of lime for agricultural purposes. There are remains of hundreds of lime kilns – both large and small around Cumbria.In July 2009 the Greenside Lime Kiln in Kendal, a scheduled ancient monument, was preserved to prevent dereliction, and to show visitors the link between the lime burning industry and the Kendal canal, by which the town prospered in the 9th century.


    • In the middle of the 19th century, half the world textile industry’s bobbin supply came from the Lake District area. Stott Park Bobbin Mill, now owned by English Heritage, is still in working order.


    • During the heyday of coal mining, iron ore mining, and steelmaking, many railways were built to service these industries. Due to the decline in the industries that they serviced so well, along with the closures recommended in the Beeching Report in the early 1960s, many have now closed. Some have been adopted as heritage steam railways, some have been converted to foot and cycle paths, others have just faded away. See Railways for more information and history of these lines and railway companies.


    • The Lakes began to attract wider attention after the publication, in 1835, of a Guide to the Lakes, written by one of the area’s most famous residents, the poet William Wordsworth. He suggested that the Lake District should become “a sort of national property”, but objected to the building of the railways and roads, which have since allowed ever-increasing numbers of people to visit it.The largest single owner of land within the Lake District is now the National Trust. Its first members included Beatrix Potter, an artist and writer of children’s books who became a sheep farmer in the Lake District and left many of her paintings as well as her home and land to the Trust.


    • In the Victorian era, many industrialists from Lancashire chose to build grand mansions around lake Windermere, all probably trying to impress and outdo their neighbours.


    • 20th Century – and tourism



    • Historically, farming, in particular of sheep, was the major industry in the region. The breed most closely associated with the area is the tough Herdwick.From February 2001 through to September 2001 hundreds of farms throughout Cumbria were struck with foot and mouth disease, with millions of animals killed. Since tourism in the area was discouraged and in many areas forbidden, this had a devastating effect on many rural businesses, who depended on visitors for their income.


    • Once fishing was a major industry along the coast of Cumbria, though that is much in decline now with EEC quotas etc. Even the traditional Haaf Fishing found only in this area, is under threat.


  • Cumbria has had its fair share of military establishments– mainly because of it remoteness from civilisation.
      • During the 2nd world war – the Windscale site – just north of Seascale – was used as a factory for TNT. This site was later used for the Windscale Nuclear Reactor (Piles) – Britain’s first attempt at a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for the war effort. Here also was the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall, operating from the early 1950’s until 2004.


      • The Spadeadam Rocket Establishment, near Carlisle, was opened in the late 1950s as a test area for the British Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). The first rocket firing took place in August 1959. English Heritage has recently identified the remains at Spadeadam as being of national importance and has recommended that they are protected as a Scheduled Monument.


      • Warcop Army Training Area was established in 1942, as a tank gunnery range, urgently needed to prepare for the coming invasion of mainland Europe. Most of the armoured formations which took part in the D-Day landings trained here. In the ensuring years, generations of tank crews came to Warcop, and armoured vehicles are still frequently to be seen.


    • Broughton Moor Royal Naval Armaments Depot , near Cockermouth, has been used by the MOD between 1939 and 1992. Covering an area of 425 ha (1,050 acres), it is the largest brownfield site in the whole of the North West of England. It is awaiting suggestions for a use.


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