Farming in Borrowdale, as we know it today, goes back at least 1000 years to when Scandinavians came as refugees from Ireland and settled the valley. No doubt they felt at home in this mountainous environment. Picture a valley, probably wooded up to 1,500ft or 2,000 ft. and imagine settling here. They made clearings or ‘thwaites’ to create settlements and established summer pastures or “saetres” higher up the valley for their livestock; as at Seatoller – “the summer pastures with alder trees”. Notice the tightly grouped hamlets in Borrowdale and how many of them end in ‘thwaite’. There may be even older settlements; archaeological remains at Thorneythwaite near the head of the valley have recently been identified as probably Iron Age; we’ll let you know what develops!
The Abbey Factor
Following the Norman Conquest Borrowdale was part of the great Norman baronies established in the north of England. In 1209 Alice de Rumelli sold some of her lands, including the Manor of Borrowdale, to Furness Abbey. Monks from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire also owned and farmed land here. Medieval Abbey records mention the Herdwick sheep (the true native Lake District breed) and the monks wore habits made of the heavy, coarse Herdwick wool. For nearly 350 years the valley was farmed by the monks, not just for wool, but for rye, oats and barley.
Their monastic ‘grange’ (farm) was at present-day Grange-in-Borrowdale. Cistercian monks were known to be industrious. Imagine them draining and cultivating the land, possibly building the first field walls and trading their produce. Look out for evidence of the monastic routes, with their packhorse bridges, which ran east and south from Borrowdale over the fells. (Today’s routes north to Keswick and west into Buttermere came much later.) After the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII monastic land passed into private ownership via the crown.
Medieval practices and beyond
From the medieval period, the inhabitants of Borrowdale would have been much more self sufficient than today. Some of the land by the settlements would have been arable with crops grown to feed the inhabitants and there would have been more cattle. Ploughed land would have been ‘ridge and furrow’ identified by the corrugated, wavy surface created by the ox drawn plough, cutting and turning the soil over. Look for evidence of ‘ridge and furrow’, particularly around Rosthwaite, most noticeable in low sunlight or if snow-covered.
Clearance Cairns – you will see piles of stones or cairns, especially around the edges of former fields – imagine the work it took to clear the fields of stones.
Field Barns – you can see some surviving examples of field barns which were used for livestock and storage. Imagine the fell sides covered with oak, rowan, birch, holly and hazel about 300 years ago; the woodland provided much needed timber for local use and making charcoal. The increase in sheep farming has prevented regeneration of natural woodland and many of the fells are grass covered now. Borrowdale has more surviving woodland than many Lakeland valleys.
An interesting fact – in 1793 – population of Borrowdale: 361 humans and over 9,000 sheep! In the 18thC, oats were grown in the valley to provide the staple food, and there would have been some arable farming well into the 20thC.
Recollections from the 20th century
Swaledale and Herdwick sheep were the main breeds. Dairy herds provided local milk and butter until the government imposed Pasteurisation regulations. Each farmer had ‘a green crop’ field where they grew vegetables, potatoes, turnips or oats for their own use. Willie Hind of Stonethwaite recalled (in the 1940s) that there used to be three farms in Stonethwaite – farming at subsistance level.
The man worked elsewhere, probably Honister Quarries and he did his farming in the evenings and at weekends. Everybody mucked in to give a hand, even those that didn’t live on the farms. We yoked horses, and lead carts to where they were needed even though we had nowt to do with the farm. Every farm had a bit of arable land to grow their vegetables, and they had a few cows for milk that they sold round t’ village.
Farmer Dick Richardson remembers when there used to be three working farms at Watendlath (there is now one) with nine men employed on them. Most farms took in visitors for crucial additional income, especially after World War II. The National Trust (formed in 1895) owns the whole of Watendlath with one tenant farmer at Fold Head Farm. Most of the farms in Borrowdale are tenanted. Chapel farm at Stonethwaite is the only privately owned family run farm in the valley.
Today and the Future: Today upland farming has changed and many farmers either work single-handed or with the support of one family member, bringing in contractors for shearing and other busy periods such as cutting for silage. Some farms have a few cattle, Shorthorn or Hereford Crosses, and Ashness Farm has some Belted Galloway, otherwise it is sheep farming, supported by tourism; self-catering, bed and breakfast and tearooms.
Farmers are the guardians of the landscape that we see and cherish today. The valley bottoms with their network of green, stonewall enclosed fields and the open, grazed fell sides, largely free of scrub and trees, are a result of sheep farming that has been passed on by their ancestors. Long may it continue.
An interesting fact – in 2010 – population of Borrowdale: 274 humans, about 5,500 fell ewes, 11 farms and about 60% of homes are holiday cottages!
To discover more about farming visit the Flock-in at Rosthwaite and learn more about the Herdwick sheep and the sheep-farming year or have a cup of tea in one of the many farm tearooms.