The history of human activity in Borrowdale goes back at least 6,000 years So, how did it develop into what we see today? (See Geology for pre-human history)
There are no written records, just archaeological evidence on the ground. In the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, at least 6,000 years ago, there was a stone axe factory on the slopes of Glaramara at the southern end of the valley. So stone extraction is the oldest industry in the valley, still employing people at Honister today.
Bronze age people came next and their Cairns (stone mounds) and burial evidence suggest a significant presence.
In the Iron Age (over 2,000 years ago) even greater evidence is visible in the form of a hill fort. Perched high on the summit of Castle Crag, it was this fort that prompted the 10th century Scandinavian settlers to name the valley Borrowdale – from Borg (fort) and Dalr (dale or valley).
Roman Samian ware (pottery) was found at Castle Crag by Thomas West, 18C author and antiquarian – maybe the Romans used this fort too. Visit the Keswick Museum to see this.
The Saxons settled in Cumbria from the 7th century, but not in Borrowdale. However, a 7th century Northumbrian saint, Herbert, had a hermitage on an island on Derwentwater. A close friend of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, they prayed that they might die on the same day. They both died on 20th March 687. The island is still called St Herbert’s Island and was used by Beatrix Potter as Owl Island in “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin”.
The Scandinavian settlers came to Borrowdale in the 10th century and named many of the features around them. Have you ever wondered where the names fell (mountain), beck (stream), rigg (ridge) and thwaite (clearing) come from? Look for the -thwaite ending in some of Borrowdale’s settlements. They cleared much of the land forming their thwaites (clearings) for settlements and saetrs (summer pastures) for livestock.
This is when the name Borrowdale is first recorded in writing. In 1209 Alice de Rumelli (heiress of the Barony of Allerdale) sold lands, including the Manor of Borrowdale, to Furness Abbey (a great Cistercian monastery in the far south of the county). Another great monastery, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, also owned land in the east of the valley. Imagine the monks draining and cultivating the land, maybe building the first field walls, and establishing a farm or grange at present day Grange-in-Borrowdale. They grew rye, oats and barley, managed woodlands and made charcoal, but their main produce was wool. Monastic trade routes ran east and south from Borrowdale over the fells with loads carried by packhorses. Today’s routes, north to Keswick and west to Buttermere, came much later. The monks were also involved in iron mining and processing. Imagine monks leading packhorse trains from Ore Gap, high up in the fells by Esk Pike, down Langstrath to the junction with Greenup Gill where they had a bloomery smelting site. The abbeys were dissolved in the late 1530s, their lands taken by the Crown and subsequently sold off. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I German miners, working for the Company of the Mines Royal, extracted minerals, particularly graphite, in the Borrowdale valley.
In 1614 James I sold off former monastic lands in the Great Deed of Borrowdale. Some Borrowdale families were able to purchase their own homes and land. So began the rise of the “yeoman” or “statesman” farmer – someone who owned and worked their small estate. The seventeenth century was a more peaceful and prosperous time for the north of England and in Borrowdale many houses and farms were re-built in stone. Many still survive today. Look out for date stones on walls or date lintels over doorways, often bearing initials. To meet this demand slate quarrying began in earnest. Honister Slate Quarries opened in 1643. St Andrew’s Church at Stonethwaite was consecrated in 1687.
Agricultural land was gradually enclosed with the drystone walls which are now so much a part of the Lake District. In the 18th century, where the main road from Keswick is now, there was just a narrow track, roughly following the river. It was down this track that the early travellers came. Adventurous literary men on horseback who were discovering the Lake District and writing about it – often in dramatic and exaggerated terms: “barren and frightful” “beauty lying in the lap of horror”. Men like the poet Thomas Gray who visited in 1769, the clergyman William Gilpin who visited in 1772 and the Catholic priest Thomas West who wrote one of the early guide books in 1778. West gave detailed instructions of the merits of selected viewpoints that he called “stations”. One such station was Castle Crag. The followers of West’s guide book would go to these stations and view the scenery with their back to it looking through a Claude Glass. This was a pocket sized convex mirror, which reduced the scenery, making it more picturesque. Today we frame the scenery in postcards or by cropping our digital images. In the 18c everybody lived off their own produce and made their own clothes. Sarah Youdale, who died in 1869 aged 101, recalls “Ivverybody lived on their own produce, and were clad wid yam mead cloth. There wasn’t a farmhouse but ye med hard through a’ t’lang winter neets, whirring and burring o’ t’wheels.”
The 19th century saw a big increase in tourism and much building work.
The famous Bowderstone became a tourist attraction in the early 19th century. In 1842 a road was cut directly through the valley from Keswick, replacing the route from Watendlath. St Andrew’s Church, Stonethwaite was rebuilt. In 1860 Holy Trinity Church at Grange was built. In 1894 The Methodist Church and village school were both built. The Lodore, a small inn up to the 1860s, became the largest hotel in the valley. In 1866 The Borrowdale Hotel was built. In 1862 the first Ordnance Survey map of Borrowdale was produced. In 1873 the school at Stonethwaite was built. A new school replaced this in 1968, built by the grandsons of the original builder – Hodgsons of Keswick. In 1891 on 16th June, the graphite mining company was officially wound up.
20th Century to the present day
Conservation began in the 20th century. In 1902, Canon Rawnsley (one of the co-founders of the National Trust in 1895) helped raise money from public subscription to buy Brandlehow and donate it to the National Trust.
They now own about 25,000 acres of land in the Borrowdale area. During the 20th century B and B accommodation for the ever-increasing numbers of visitors, flourished in the valley. Up to 1935 the Honister Pass road was unsurfaced and you can imagine the challenge for visitors travelling over the pass by coach. Beatrix Potter noted that this journey could be used “as a cure for the colic.” With the increasing number of visitors on the fells there was a need for organised mountain rescue. The quarrymen of Honister provided this until, in 1946, Colonel Rusty Westmorland formed an official mountain rescue team in Keswick. It seems incredible to believe that mains electricity did not came to Borrowdale until the 1960s – due to the relative remoteness of Lake District valleys, and a delay of about 30 years because of opposition to overhead power cables. Most power cables are underground. Mains electricity came even later to the little farming hamlet of Watendlath – 19th December 1978. They kept the Christmas tree in the car park lit up until March!
The number of farms in the valley has decreased over the centuries as small farms have amalgamated: In 1418 there were 41 farms in Borrowdale. By 1938 there were only 18. In 2010 there are 11 farms listed for Borrowdale. All are fell sheep farms and some also have cattle. Today the valley keeps its farming tradition and farming landscape. See Farming
The former extraction industries have gone and the employment they offered – with the exception of Honister Slate Mine. There is still some slate extraction here and the site caters for visitors with mine tours, shop and café. There are a significant number of holiday homes in the valley and the resident communities have shrunk. The tourism industry is a major provider and the Borrowdale inhabitants offer hospitality in a time-honoured tradition.