It’s not just majestic mountains and shimmering lakes; The Lake District, and those who have made it their home and derived their livelihood from its landscape, has a rich and varied heritage.
History buffs therefore will find plenty to with occupy themselves with during a visit to the Lakes. From ancient stone circles to antique motor cars and from Roman forts to grand country houses the history of the Lakes and its people stretches back stretches back thousands of years.
5,000 years ago the mountains of the Lake District became the source of stone for axes and for atmospheric stone circles such as those still standing at Castlerigg, near Keswick and at Swinside near Broughton-in-Furness as well as the enigmatic “Giant’s Grave” at Kirkstanton near Millom. Later inhabitants would go on to dig parts of the Lake District for copper, such as our own historically important Coppermines here in Coniston, as well as iron-ore, graphite, and green slate.
Celts, Romans, Angles, and Vikings in succession settled among the lakes, and it was the latter who gave us the place names “thwaite” (clearing), “fell” (mountain with grazing), “gill” (ravine) and “force” (waterfall), all of which we are still using today. The Vikings also introduced the locally famous Herdwick Sheep which are still to be found grazing on Cumbrian fells to this day. Cumbria still has physical evidence of these settlers in the form of sites such as Hadrian’s Wall, which stretches seventy-three miles from Bowness-on-Solway in north-west Cumbria across to Wallsend near Newcastle in the east, and its impressive Roman Forts such as the dramatically-sited Hardknott Fort on the western side of the “once driven, never forgotten” Hardknott Pass, which connects the Lakeland valleys of Eskdale and Duddon.
Moving into the Middle Ages saw the construction of powerful monasteries throughout what is now Cumbria, the soaring ruins of which can still be explored today. One such site is Furness Abbey which, in its day, was one of the richest Cistercian monasteries in England. Located in a peaceful valley on the Furness peninsular, the majestic 900 year old red sandstone remains which once housed the wealthy order, are ripe for exploration. Wander amongst the imposing ruins and soak up the atmosphere of this historic site. The Abbey also built a castle on nearby Piel Island for protection which, like the Abbey itself, is well worthy of a visit whilst at Dalton-in-Furness stands Dalton Castle, a 14th Century Pele Tower, once used by the Abbey as an administrative centre and court house.
Also worthy of a visit, Cartmel Priory is a fascinating and architecturally impressive 800 year old church which presides over the picturesque village of Cartmel. Built by canons between 1190 and 1220 a great part of the Priory was destroyed at The Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the church was spared and remains today.
Scattered throughout the Lakes are grand country houses and castles such as the medieval Sizergh Castle and the impressive Muncaster Castle, the original parts of which date back all the way to the 13th Century. Also worthy of a visit is Lowther Castle, which was built at the turn of the 19th century but now stands as a commanding ruin amidst its sprawling grounds. Visitors can discover the history of the estate at the on-site exhibition which chronicles the story of the house and its inhabitants.
The industrial revolution saw rapid growth of the Lancashire textile industry, for which the wooden bobbins – the spools or reels around which yarn is wound – were vital. Stott Park Bobbin Mill located near to Newby Bridge at the southern tip of Windermere, dates back to 1790 and at its peak was churning out 250,000 wooden bobbins a week. Today the mill operates tours where visitors can see bobbins being made using the same methods as they would have used 200 years ago.
The Lake District is also famous as an inspiration for writers and artists throughout the centuries and consequently enjoys a rich literary and artistic heritage, with houses and museums to some of its most famous wordsmiths open to the public including Beatrix Potter’s 17th century farmhouse Hill Top at Near Sawrey and William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage & The Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere. Here in Coniston there is The Ruskin Museum dedicated to the life and works of writer, artist and social reformer John Ruskin, along with his nearby lakeside home Brantwood which is filled with fine paintings, beautiful furniture and Ruskin’s personal treasures and enjoying spectacular views across the lake and to the Old Man of Coniston beyond.
Meanwhile The Museum of Lakeland Life in Kendal allows you to discover how people have lived in the Lake District and how the unique landscape has shaped their lives. You can also find out about Arthur Ransome, one of the Lake District’s most famous authors.
If cars are your thing then the Lakeland Motor Museum at Backbarrow, near Newby Bridge, has a fascinating collection of over 30,000 exhibits that trace the development of road transport throughout the twentieth century.
The landscape of the Lakes means that its riches have been extracted over the years. Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum is situated three miles East of Keswick and offers visitor the chance to learn of Cumbria’s industrial heritage, and features an underground tour and narrow gauge railway. Whilst at Honister Slate Mine spectacularly located at the top of the Honister Pass in Borrowdale you can watch slate being riven (or split) using processes that have changed little over the past 300 years.
Back in Coniston and copper extraction dates back to the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth introduced skilled German workers to the mine operations here in Coniston. Coniston copper mining flourished and continued to be mined up until the 1950s. Today you can still wander amidst the remnants of the industry within the Coppermines valley and across its surrounding fells.
Whatever slice of history you choose to immerse yourself in during your stay, the Lake District cannot disappoint. And, now granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Lake District’s future looks as bright and colourful as its fascinating past.