Great Landscapes Festival 2022

Great Landscapes offer endless opportunities for physical, spiritual and mental well-being but they are also under threat and, in our busy lives, we can take for granted the true beauty and importance of what is above, below and all around us.

I have been asked to write a blog about the Lake District landscape I have lived and worked in all my life and of which my family have been part of for at least six hundred years and probably longer. Most folk see the Lake District landscape as one of boundless beauty of woodland, lakes, fields and mountains.  

But I would like to talk about the people who formed this wondrous landscape and its cultural history, of stone circles, quaint cottages, and rustic farms. Mixed in with the massive architectural opulence of big houses and hotels all set amongst the lakes, valleys and mountains. 

The truth is the landscape has been formed by mans influenced for at least the last six thousand years and is a major part of the industrial heritage of our country. Early Neolithic man started farming and mining stone axes on the Lake District mountains around 4000bc, taking their livestock on to the high fells of Langdale, Borrowdale and Eskdale.  

While tending their stock they also quarried stone axes from the hard volcanic green stone using fire and water to break shards off then roughing them out with granite stones they collected from the coastal shores where they spent the winter polishing the axes to make them strong for cutting down trees and trading for flints and goods from the east and south.  

These early farmers and manufactures and industrialists also built the stone circles such as Castlerigg and Swinside, either as market places for trading or as early churches, but probably both.  

If we move on a few thousand years to the bronze age, again the lakes and mountains were important to this second early industry, by this time the valley floors were used for trade, farming and travel as well as the high mountains, We can still see the early bloomeries on the lake shores where early bronze age man smelted copper ore to make bronze. This led to improved tools and so more land was cleared and a less transient population settling in the valleys.  

For a long period nothing much changed with the Romans coming and leaving the roads over Hardknott and High Street, the Vikings followed the romans but farming and the clearance of wood and stone from the valleys continued largely uninterrupted.  

Many of the place names and descriptive words we use are of Viking origin; in fact the local dialect is largely Norse in origin. Even our very own Herdwick sheep were most likely introduced from Scandinavia at this time, the name Herdwick being derived from Herdvyck or sheep pasture. 

During Medieval times industrialization of the valleys and hills through mining and charcoal production moved on apace and this plus the large sheep farms run by the monasteries of the time saw the formation of the landscape we see today.  

Woodland was cleared at an alarming rate to feed the growing need for charcoal to smelt the iron of the Furness and Cumberland mines, walls were built to hold in the large flocks of sheep that produced wool to clothe the growing populations across the whole of Europe.  The amount of smoke produced by the charcoal production, smelting of the iron and peat heated homes would have made the lakes more akin to the dark satanic mills of early industrialized Lancashire than the Lake District we know today.  

This period of history also saw the formation of the right to common grazing which still continues today. The lord of the manor gave permission for his tenants to graze sheep and cattle on the open common while he retained the rights to hunt and quarry stone and ore. 

As far as the Landscape was concerned nothing much changed till the mid nineteenth century, the enclosure of land continued up the hill as improvements in quarrying supplied more stone and laws made it easier due to the enclosures act. In fact if you look at the walls and houses of the lakes you can roughly date them by the type of stone used in there construction. But two major changes happened which saw the landscape of the lakes change for ever: the fashion for cotton and the invention of coke.  

Cotton became much more popular than wool and the influx of cheap cotton from the southern states of America plus the invention of spinning machinery change the countryside for ever, The spinners, weavers and traders all had to move to the towns and cities as their goods became too expensive and were no longer wanted. The ability to make coal into coke meant that could be used to smelt iron so charcoal became virtually obsolete. The coppice industry continued on a smaller scale right up until the mid twentieth century as they adapted to provide bobbins for the cotton factories and other goods.  

People had come from all over Europe to work in the lakes either as invaders or to bring their skills and knowledge, but they left in droves as the work dried up and they sought employment elsewhere or their fortune in the new world. They were replaced by the newly rich industrialists from Lancashire and Yorkshire who spent their immense new found wealth on building massive homes on the sides of the major lakes each vying to out do the other.  

Their influence was short; as nearly as soon as they came the advents of two wars saw their families and wealth disappear. But the buildings still remain and are now mostly hotels or were given to the National Trust in lieu of death duties, which is rather ironic in that the National Trust was set up to try and stop the buying up of the Lakes by these wealthy folk at the expense of the locals! 

So what I am trying to say through this short history lesson is that the landscape of the lakes has been changing and forming for over six thousand years and the landscape we see today and the access we all enjoy is not down to any government or conservationist but by hard working people and the strange medieval right of common access.  

We as farmers are doing almost exactly the same as those medieval forbearers and grazing sheep and cattle on the hills and valleys. It’s not a landscape in aspic but it is one that would be recognisable to someone who lived six hundred years ago.