A History of Cumbria

A History of Cumbria


This is the story of one small part of Britain. if you look at a physical map of England you will see that Cumbria has a diamond shape; the two left-hand edges are set by the Irish Sea, the Solway Firth and Morecambe Bay; the two right-hand edges by the Eden and Lune valleys which divide the area from the Pennines. Cumbria, then, is that little bit which projects from the top left-hand corner of England just below where it joins onto Scotland. Away from the mainstream of British social development, but affected by the events taking place in the rest of the country, Cumbria has always been an awkward area.

One of the main reasons’ for ‘this awkwardness is the nature of the region – steep hills and narrow valleys, poor soil and wet weather. The physical shape of the country­side set the stage and also the manner in which human societies could develop. In telling the story of the social development within the area (from the earliest Stone Age nomads down to the National Park, the holiday-makers and the people who live and work in Cumbria), there are large spans of time for which one can only suggest reasonable explanations. Similarly, the development of the idea of “The Lake District” as a special place, apart from life and industrial hustle and bustle, is an event that has different viewpoints.

The last section of the book consists of a brief description of some of the different facets of life in the region, taking the Buttermere valley as a reference point. This area was chosen for two reasons; the first is that the village of Buttermere is very similar, both visually and in the general tenor of life, to what it was in 1851 when Henry Mayhew visited the village and then wrote a book contrasting it with the London of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition. The second reason is that the present author knows the Buttermere valley very well, having worked at the Buttermere Youth Hostel in the late 1950’s, was married in the village church of St. James, and though now living in Cheshire has retained close ties with the village.

The limitations imposed by the size of this book ensure that it cannot be more than an outline introduction, but the bibliography may provide anyone sufficiently interested to want to dig further with a lead-in to the subject.

The present book is a composite of as many views as possible—in the words of a 9th Century Welsh scrivener, “I have made a little heap of all that I could find.” While talking to people round Cumbria to find out how they live now, I was constantly reminded that the dales way of life is changing – in effect that, just as during so many times in the past, the region is being taken over by “off-comers.” In the 6th Century a British monk came to a similar conclusion about Britain; in his case the take-over bid – by the English – was for the whale island. He too wrote a book pointing out to the British their past history and their impending danger. It is a matter of historical record that the English were successful, reducing the native British people to economic subservience and, at best, second-class citizenship.


WHEN MAN first arrived on the Cumbrian stage, perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, the stage had been set by 600 million years of continuous geologic processes. Almost immediately as part of his act, Man started shifting the scenery and re-arranging the props. This would have been done anyway by the elements. Given time, the lakes will silt-up into marsh land, mountain tops erode, and climatic changes alter the beast, bird and plant populations; but Man’s activity has changed the regional appearance at a far greater rate than any that the elements could achieve. One of the purposes of this book is to demonstrate that such change is a vital part of social development; but to do this, to see just how Man has reacted with the regional environment, the initial construction of his stage must first be examined.

It is now generally accepted that the continental land masses are constantly being shunted over the earth’s surface. This is because volcanic action along well-defined regions within the oceans throws up new material for the earth’s crust at a fairly steady rate, pushing the outer edges of the ocean within which the new material is being produced further and further outwards. The sections of crust (called plates) which contain these expanding oceans are thus constantly being driven against other crust sections. If an oceanic plate is driven against a plate which carries a land mass the oceanic plate is pushed under the continental plate, producing intense volcanic activity on the landward side of the collision. Similarly, continental crust sections some-limes collide. When such a collision occurs the two land masses crumple along the impact boundary and weld them­selves together, throwing up a mountain system along the join and transmitting shock waves far into the adjacent hinterland areas. Such mountain building activities are called orogenesis.

Both types of crust movement (destruction of oceanic crust and confrontation of two continental masses) have been instrumental in shaping the Cumbrian region. Their direct effects have been in folding and shattering the existing rocks as well as giving rise to volcanic activity; their indirect effects have been in moving what is now, Britain from the southern tropics to its present location (and thus subjecting it to a con­tinuous range of varying climatic conditions). The evidence to support the theories of sea-floor growth and continental drift (normally grouped together under the general heading of Plate Tectonics) is presented, in popular form, in Nigel Calder’s book The Restless Earth (B.B.C. Publications). A more detailed text book treatment of the evidence is given in Understanding the Earth (published by the Artemis Press for the Open University).

The oldest rocks in Cumbria are what is now termed the Skiddaw Slates. These were originally part of a mud bed into which molten rock was forced from below by volcanic action. The molten rock then solidified. The same volcanic action left ash and lava deposits round the cones of the volcanoes, these deposits becoming the Borrowdale Volcanic rocks. At the end of this volcanic period the entire rock crust was squeezed sideways, forcing it into folds like a tablecloth. The top layers of these folds eroded and then, as the sea washed in over the land, the erosion cracks were filled up with sand and pebbles and deposits of dead marine organisms to form the Coniston Limestones. The sea then became deeper as the land level sank still further (about 450 million years ago) and layers of mud, grit and silt were deposited. These layers, collectively called Silurian rocks because of the period in which they formed, contain what are now termed the Coniston Flags and Grits, the Bannisdale Slates and the Kirkby Moor Flags.

It was at this time that what is now North America and Europe converged The volcanic activity of the Ordovician period resulted from the destruction of the intervening ocean. The final collision between the two land masses gave rise to the Caledonian orogenic movement, welding the northern third of the British Isles and Ireland onto Europe, and bending the rock structure of Cumbria into a north-east/ south-west crest parallel to the collision boundary. The rocks were folded, fractured or crumpled like tissue paper according to their structure. The softer rocks took on a cleavage structure at right-angles to the direction of pressure to become slates. Simultaneously, molten rock from the Earth’s mantle was forced from below into the older rocks where it cooled under pressure tol form coarse-grained intru­sive igneous rocks such as granite, gabbro and syenite. As the land was forced upwards above the sea-level the upper crust was eroded and the debris was deposited beyond the rim of what is now Cumbria. This debris is now called old red sandstone. At the same time accumulations of mud and stony rubble were washed down from the valleys and ravines that existed at that time to become the carboniferous basement conglomerates. Mell Fell is a good example of such an accumulation. These conglomerates were then overlaid by a surface lava flow Which cooled quickly to form a fine-grained layer of basalt. The area was then again inundated by the sea. The name given to this inundation is the Early Carboniferous Sea because while it lasted the sea bed was covered by deposits of carboniferous limestone. The sea was quite shallow and the land (or sea bed) was steadily built-up to sea-level by mud and silt of millstone grit. This action transformed the area into a deltaic swamp (as at the mouth of the Mississippi) in which alternate layers of peat forest and mud were deposited to form coal measures.

As the land rose above the early ‘Carboniferous Sea the older rocks lay beneath some 3,000 feet of carboniferous sediment. The next major shock, the Hercynian orogenic movement, was caused by a collision ‘between the African continent and the Euro-North American continent. Within the Cumbrian region the impact caused fractures along the folds made by the Caledonian Uplift, thereby allowing the introduction of copper, lead, zinc and barytes into the fracture from below. This orogenesis comprised several uplift fracture cycles, the debris produced within Cumbria being deposited on the outer rim of the area to form new red sandstone.

As the Permian period gave way to the Triassic about 225 million years ago, the area was starkly mountainous with rain torrents sweeping rock debris through the rim to the outlying lowlands. Dune sand on the plains bordered desert lakes which deposited sheets of magnesian limestone and gypsum by evaporation. The waters extended to inundate the area, but the lagoon beds rose at the same time, so that the lagoons either remained quite shallow or even dried up completely. The St. Bees – Kirklinton Sandstone was formed by windblown sand and river deposit at this time.

The Geology of Cumbria
The Geology of Cumbria

After another one hundred million years the super­continent of Europe, Africa and North America began to break up. The effect on Britain of that disintegration was, initially, yet another marine inundation. During this marine phase Lias, Chalk and Oolites were liberally deposited over many parts of Britain, but the only deposits so far discovered in Cumbria are the Lias beds in the north of the region.

At the start of the Jurassic period, the North Atlantic opened slightly between Africa and North America. Africa also separated from Southern Europe. Then, during the Cretaceous period the Atlantic gap was extended southwards, parting Africa from South America. This gave Africa a slight anti-clockwise motion and drove the north-east corner northwards towards Central Southern Europe. As part of this pas de trois, the Iberian peninsula became detached from Southern Ireland, following the African motion and opening up the Bay of Biscay. The Atlantic opened north­wards to the Arctic and the collision between Africa and Europe drove Italy into Southern Europe about 50 million years ago. By now Britain had reached the latitude of 40° N. The shock of the Italian collision produced the Alpine orogenic movement and affected Cumbria in a similar manner to the Hercynian movement. As the Cumbrian rocks shattered, iron-bearing water seeped into the carboni­ferous limestone to form haematite. The characteristic dome shape was formed about this time and the Vale of Eden was blocked-off by the uprising Pennines. The new red sandstone and other new rocks ‘were tilted away from the central area and a radial drainage pattern thereby imposed on the district. The new rocks that covered the dome were eroded away, but in the process the radial drainage pattern was transferred to the old rocks beneath.

About one million years ago, when Britain reached its present latitude, northern Europe was overtaken by the last Ice-Age. The glaciation patterns within Cumbria were part of the complex that affected the whole of north Britain. There were three main movements; in turn the Early Scottish, the Main and the Valley Head. The Early Scottish swept south via Carlisle and the Solway Firth areas to be turned eastwards, over Stainmore and the Tyne Gap and westwards round the coast into Lancashire by the ice build-up in the Vale of Eden. The ice streams that built up in The central dome area were forced round the rim of the dome by these two main streams. The Scandinavian ice-sheet spilled over the East coast several times during the Main phase, during which sheet ice covered all north Britain down to the Wash-Severn. The ice was several thousands of feet thick in parts, leaving only the highest peaks protruding as nunataks. As each phase succeeded its predecessor, the glaciers flowed back and forth scouring the land under and adjacent to the ice sheets with rock debris just as an enthusiastic housewife scours a sink with vim.

The retreat from this state started about 20,000 – 15,000 years ago, leaving behind a tundra of ice-scoured rock and boulder clay. By 11,000 B.C. the Cumbrian dome was ice free, and the major lakes had been formed by trapped ice melt. Between 10,000 B.C. and 8,800 B.C. a climatic improve­ment melted any pockets of ice that remained in the uplands, but between 8800 B.C. and 8,500 B.C. a climatic deterioration allowed a glacial re-advance which, although transitory, de­posited the hummocky moraines that can still be found at the heads of glacial valleys, such as at Seathwaite. In the west of the region the Irish Sea was still choked high with ice, thus preventing the ice-melt escaping westwards. The trapped water eventually cut channels across the south and south-west, giving rise to the overflow channels that now­adays are either completely dry, or else carry only a trickle of water.

From all the glacial action emerged the gouged-out U-shaped valleys (Langdale, Buttermere, Wasdale, Ennerdale) with their ancillary hanging valleys (such as Bleaberry Coombe in Buttermere) containing corrie lakes or tarns which spill over into the main valley in cascades (the Lodore Falls in Borrowdale). At the dome centre the lower slopes were plastered with boulder clays and lateral moraines while the uplands comprised bald ice-scoured bedrock dotted with small tarns. The outer rim of the dome was covered by glacial debris which, as in the Eden Valley and along the coastal plain, was moulded into hummocks called drumlins.

After the final ice-melt a boreal phase set in and the dis­trict was colonised by Ibirch, hazel and oak on the better drained slopes up to around 1800 ft., while elm and willow established themselves in the lowlands and along the valley bottoms. Above the tree line grassland and true montane vegetation developed. About 5,200 B.C. the Greenland ice­cap temperature reached an unusually high level and an Atlantic phase set in during which the sea level rose, flood­ing the lower forests and depositing the raised beaches that are found along the present Cumbrian coast. The sea retreated to its present shore-line about 4,000 B.C. The stage had been set.