Lake District History and the Future

by David Murray on 14 February 2012

in Cumbria, History, Industries, Lake District NP, Landscape, Opinion

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I was writing a piece on my “Lake District in Books” site when it occurred to me how much material I’d written there over recent months referring to the history of the region. This post is substantially a survey of things I’ve written there in the past, brought together for readers of the Around-England blog. It also gives me an opening at the end of the piece to be opinionated once again on the subject of development and over-conservation.

I recently posted an item on the other site about a great book on the landscape history of Northwest England: England’s Landscape: The North West by Angus Winchester. This one covers a wide area, taking in Cumbria, Lancashire and further afield. Other books mentioned in the past have been more focused on Cumbria, and especially the Lake District.

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The English Lakes – A History by Ian Thompson is an excellent survey, in just short of 350 pages, of the background to the Lake District as we have it today. In my opinion this title should be on the bookshelf of everyone who loves Lakeland.

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The next title is much narrower in scope. A Lakeland Valley Through Time, produced by The Staveley and District History Society, concentrates on the history of Staveley, Kentmere and Ings. It is a good example of how a local group can produce interesting and well-presented history that is sharply focused on a small group of villages.

Historic Farmhouses in and around Westmorland narrowed the view down in a different way to individual farmhouses. This is not easy to find now in good condition but R. W. Brunskill’s Traditional Buildings of Cumbria contains much of similar interest, if not the detail on individual Westmorland properties. The National Trust has played a major role in the conservation of the Lake District landscape, both natural and built, and continues to do so. Last year I wrote a brief item on two histories of the National Trust in the Lake District.

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Turning to industry and economics the Lake District, along with surrounding areas of Cumbria, has an extensive railway history – even if most of it has now gone. The history of rail in the lake counties by David Joy is a must for anyone looking for a comprehensive overview. Individual lines also have their own histories. A more academic work, The Lake Counties from 1830 to the Mid-twentieth Century: A Study in Regional Change, by Marshall and Walton, reviews a century of economic and social change in the region, which is of course the context in which its transportation history developed. The last two chapters are especially valuable on the growth of the tourist trade and of environmental conservation.

All these histories are stories of change over many centuries, leading to what we see today – both above and below ground. Think for a moment of the generations of men working in the Coniston coppermines, deep underground in what are now cavers’ tunnels (but only for those competent to handle the hazards!). Those miners left what at the time were “scars” on the landscape but now they are part of the precious historic character of the region.


Uploaded to YouTube by EdvinDeadman in February 2009

That is a modern film but here below is a 1926 film of slate quarrying, from the Honister Slate Mine which today is once again producing slate products to go around the world in addition to being one of the region’s important tourist attractions – in spite of its opponents! (honisterslatemine YouTube.com)

Well so far we’ve had copper and slate. What about other industrial products of this region? There was the “lead” in pencils – which, of course, is not lead at all but graphite. This was mined in one of the most beautiful valley of Lakeland, Borrowdale down which runs the young river Derwent on its way to Derwentwater. Maybe another day I’ll put up a video of pencil manufacturing in Keswick but for now we’ll move slightly outside the boundaries of the Lake District National Park to Nenthead, near Alston, on the western edge of the North Pennine moors where there was extensive lead mining and today there is a visitor centre. (Uploaded to YouTube, December 2010, by North Pennines Archaeology Limited northpennarch).

That’s Lake District History, But What Of Its Future?”

A subject dear to my heart is Lake District industrial archaeology. Too often the region is treated as though its landscape is totally “natural” and that it must therefore be preserved absolutely unaltered for future generations to enjoy. Forgotten are the generations of Cumbrian men and women who laboured on these mountains and fellsides to carve out livelihoods, to support their families as miners, quarrymen and farmers. In so doing they changed it for ever, and left us the beautiful and interesting place we have today. (See the book on the left).

The legacy of these workers of the past is admired, their derelict buildings are restored and promoted as visitor attractions, but in the twenty-first century (and here comes my provocative thought for the day) Cumbrians are now expected to have only minimal impact, and preferably none, on their surroundings apart from helping to restore it to an imagined romantic vision of past environmental glory. There are even calls to take sheep off the fells!

A study of our history should teach us that change is part of living. Seeking to put an idealised past into deep freeze risks bringing about the slow death of our local communities, then what will future historians have to write about apart from a large tourism facility expensively preserved in aspic for the admiration of visitors?

The Lake District and its surrounding areas are beautiful, but to remain so they must also continue as a genuinely lived-in, and therefore changing, landscape or in the long-term run a severe risk of decline, an unintended consequence of well-meaning preservation.


Related Posts:

To Protect? Or to Preserve?

Toward Environmental, Social and Economic Balance


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