History of the Lake District

Ullswater from Arnison Crag

Ullswater from Arnison Crag

The Lake District is relatively young as a tourist attraction. Before the hordes of visitors arrived, drawn to the poetic picture created by William Wordsworth and others, these rugged lands were primarily used for farming, mining, and defence.

The area is rich in history and during your visit you may encounter Neolithic monuments, Roman forts, Medieval castle ruins, or fine examples of Georgian architecture. What follows is a brief overview of the history of these extraordinary lands.

The Pre-Roman Era: Ancient Settlements

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick

Cumbria and the Lake District were once a barren ice ensconced landscape. It’s thought that settlers briefly set up here around 12,000 years ago during a period of warming, before being forced to leave once the colder weather returned. Settlers later returned during the Mesolithic period (9600BC – 4000BC) but primarily kept themselves to coastal areas, dwelling in caves.

During the Neolithic Period (4500BC – 2350BC), settlers began to move in land to the area now known as the Lake District, drawn to the rich stone resources that were used to create axes and other tools. Stone from Langdale Pike has been found amongst various Neolithic tools scattered around the country, giving rise to the suggestion that the area was akin to a stone factory for these early inhabitants.

There are fine examples of Neolithic stone circles and monuments in the area, including Castlerigg which is located just outside of Keswick and set within an amphitheatre of fells, the Shap Stone Avenue, which is a series of henges, standing stones, and circles, and Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle outside of Penrith overlooked by the standing stone of Long Meg.

Settlements continued to grow and develop during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and the area remained one that featured scattered communities and farmsteads. Later, Celtic tribes began to rise, and it’s thought that Cumbria was initially part of the Carvetti tribe, and then part of the Brigantes tribe at the time of the Roman invasion of the UK.

The Roman Era: Hadrian’s Wall

Roman Bath House, Ravenglass

Roman Bath House, Ravenglass

Initially, Cumbria and the rest of the Brigantes territory in the north remained independently governed, but following periods of rebellion the area came under Roman control thanks to the efforts of Agricola, Roman governor of Britain from 77AD until 83AD.

As skirmishes between the Romans and the Britons who occupied Scotland continued, defences along the border were shored up, with forts and watch towers created at various locations including: Ravenglass, Maryport, Troutbeck near Keswick, and Ambleside.

Later, Emperor Hadrian made the decision that the Britons could not be contained, and construction of the world famous Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 AD, taking just ten years to complete.

Under Roman occupation, it is thought that Cumbria remained a largely rural community with scattered farms. Religion played a central part and cultures became mixed, where Celtic gods were worshipped alongside the Roman cults of Christianity and Mithraism.

Post Roman Occupation: A Tribal Melting Pot

Stone circle on Birkrigg Common, Furness

Stone circle on Birkrigg Common, Furness

Often and controversially referred to as the "Dark Ages" the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 AD is filled with myth and legend, warring tribes, and mysticism. Tales of King Arthur’s exploits in Cumbria during this time may not be factually correct, but they have left a long lasting impression. Instead, what is known is that this period endured tribal warfare, with Kings battling over the landscape.

It is thought that during this time Cumbria became part of the Celtic kingdom of Rheged, led by King Urien Rheged and his family, though this is often disputed. Later, the kingdom is thought to have been incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria following a marriage between the two tribes. Roman Christianity would later become adopted by the Northumbrian tribe, and large estates of land were passed over to the church’s control.

As the church’s power in the area increased, the power of the kingdom of Northumbria diminished, opening it up to successful raids from Norse and Danish tribes, also known as the Vikings. The area of the Lake District became a melting pot of invading cultures, as Celts, Vikings, Anglians, and the Scottish kingdom of Strathclyde all fought over the area. This continued until the Norman invasion of 1066.

The Medieval Period: The Era of Castles

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle

The southern part of the Lake District came under Norman rule in 1066, with the north taking a few years more to conquer, eventually taken over in 1092 following a long campaign that included the Harrying of the North.

Construction of Carlisle Castle began at this time, as part of the Norman defences against the Scottish, as well as castles around Penrith. During the next few hundred years, control of the area would transfer back and forth between the Scots and the English, as both sides fought for land and power.

Throughout this period skirmishes between local clans were rife, with looting and cattle rustling a common occurrence. As a result, wealthy families constructed small forts, known as Peel or Pele Towers for themselves, and several of these still stand today, although many have been incorporated into larger stately homes such as that at Muncaster Castle.

Peace eventually came to Cumbria following the unification of England and Scotland with the appointment of James VI of Scotland and I of England.

The 17th – 19th Centuries: The Start of Tourism

Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, Grasmere

James VI & I was quick to restore order amongst what he termed the "Middle Shires", the borderlands between Scotland and England, with an operation that involved arrests of known troublemakers, the establishment of courts, and public executions. The creation of peace meant that Cumbria was no longer considered to be a wildland, and its natural resources were further exploited.

Mines had been in operation since the 16th century but transport links began to be improved with canals and railways constructed to transport goods to the rest of the country. Graphite was mined around Keswick and used to create the world famous Derwent Pencils, whilst coal, iron, and slate were also extracted in ever increasing quantities.

Tourists began to visit the Lake District at the turn of the 19th century, thanks in part to the works of local poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who extolled the beauty of the landscapes. When Wordsworth published his “A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England” many more visitors arrived.

Hotels were built to accommodate the new visitors, and attractions such as the lake steamers were created. The creation of the railway into Windermere allowed many more people to visit on day trips, and thus began the area’s rise to become one of the UK’s top tourist destinations.

20th Century - The Present: The Creation of the National Park

Sheep looking out over Great Langdale

Sheep looking out over Great Langdale

Whilst Cumbria and the Lake District were largely ignored during the World Wars, the town of Barrow-in-Furness with its large shipbuilding industry did suffer numerous bombing blitzes by the Luftwaffe, resulting in many casualties and damage to thousands of properties.

Within the Lake District itself, the first half of the twentieth century saw children’s author Beatrix Potter become a prominent figure amongst the farming community, and she has been widely credited with ensuring the survival of the Herdwick sheep. When she died in 1943 she had amassed around 4,000-acres of land that she bequeathed to the National Trust, most of which is open today to members of the public.

In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed, which provided the legal basis for the formation of national parks in England and Wales, as well as addressing issues of access onto private land, something that had become a hotly contested topic as increasing numbers of the public visited the countryside.

Just two years after the act had passed in 1951, the Lake District National Park was created, thus bringing even more visitors to the area. In 1955, Alfred Wainwright published his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, with hand-drawn maps of 214 fells and detailed information on how to access each one. It later became a challenge for fell walkers to reach the summit of each one of the 214 fells, known as "The Wainwrights".

Today the area attracts nearly 16 million annual visitors, drawn to its stunning landscapes, outstanding opportunities for activities/sports, festivals/events, historic buildings, and plethora of tourist attractions.