Braithwaite and Cumberland: History

Castlerigg Stone Circle The area around Braithwaite has been settled for centuries: probably millennia, given the fertile nature of the ground between Derwent Water and Lake Bassenthwaite. Perhaps the earliest evidence of settlement in Cumbria is the deforestation carried out in the Mesolithic (around 5500BC) and the Neolithic periods: the peat record shows that the majority of the Lake District fells were covered by trees, which were cut down to produce clearings for settlement and for the grazing of livestock. For eight thousand years, farming has remained a constant, and is still a major part of the life of the area. Indeed, the wild appearance of the Lake District that draws visitors from all over the globe is actually a product of man’s attempt to dominate the environment!

Sheep and Standing StonesFive miles from Braithwaite is one of the most prominent – and most interesting – monuments left by these prehistoric people: the Castlerigg Stone Circle. Constructed around 3,000 years BC, these 38 stones in a 30 metre circle give a tantalising time-travel opportunity for the thousands of people who visit this spectacular location.

Various suggestions have been put forward as to its purpose; one of the most popular is that it had astronomical significance for charting the solstices, whilst Professor Aubrey Burl posited that it may have functioned as a trading post between the Langdale Neolithic axe factory on Pike O’Stickle and the sea. Certainly trade in these axes was important: the characteristic Langdale greenstone axes have been found throughout Britain and Northern Ireland.

Further afield, a 30 minute drive from Braithwaite, can be found a fascinating example of a prehistoric hill fort on Dunmallard (or its older name, Dunmallet) Hill near Pooley Bridge. (Grid Ref. NY467246). The short walk to the top allows access to an acre and a half site with ditch and ramparts up to 10 metres high: but you have to search for their remains in the undergrowth!

DunmallardThe summit is a place haunted by the past, and in this quiet place it is not hard to imagine what this defensible site has seen. Mistakenly identified as a Roman fort by one of the earliest guide book writers, Thomas West in 1778, Dunmallard is an Iron Age fort, probably dating around 600BC: the Brythonic Celtic word Din means fort.

Evidence for Roman influence in the Braithwaite area is scarce; however, such influence must have been present given what we know of the ways the Romans pacified their Empire up to the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall (and later the Antonine Wall.) As well as Hadrian’s wall, and partly to service it, there are several Roman roads in Cumbria: from Carlisle (Luguvalium) to Brougham (Brocavum); from Brocavum to Windermere via Yarnwarth (just south of Penrith) over the fells – this route is called High Street, passing over the mountain of that name, and can be followed on foot by the hill walker. West of Ambleside (Galava) a road passes through the exposed fort at Hard Knott, Mediobogdum, and then to Ravenglass and the sea (Glannaventa), according to Dr. C. A. Parker. A road also connected Carlisle (Luguvalium) to Papcastle (Derventio?), Egremont and Maryport (Alanva) and then perhaps to Ravenglass (Glannaventa).

There are frequent suggestions that Keswick might have held a Roman station; and the possibility of a Roman road over Whinlatter Pass to link Keswick to the coast directly has also been mooted. This is perhaps an area for research on foot.

With the withdrawal of the Romans in 400AD, the Cumbrian Celts were gradually faced with two groups of invaders: the Anglo Saxons and the Scandinavians. Intent on procuring land to work, the Celts were either assimilated or driven north or to the Isle of Man.

Braithwaite SignpostThe Scandinavian origin of the name “Braithwaite” – Braith” (Old Norse - O.N. - breithr, broad) + “thwaite” (O.N. þveit “clearing”) – indicates that the area was settled by the Norsemen around the 10th Century. (The name was first recorded – “Braythwayt” in 1230 according to Robert Gambles, 1980, Lake District Place-Names) Their principal legacy is indeed in names: Braithwaite and Thornthwaite; Borrowdale; Bassenthwaite; Grizedale and Coledale (O.N. dalr, valley). There is interesting evidence about the lack of Anglo-Saxon settlement here too: no “mere”s, unlike in much of the Lake District. (“Water” in “Derwent Water” may derive from the Anglo-Saxon. wætre, or from the Old Norse vatn.) However, Keswick is Anglo-Saxon: Old English - O.E. - cëse + O.E. wíc: “cheese farm”, suggesting the fertile grazing land around the area. (First recorded 1240, again according to Robert Gambles.)

Following the Conquest, it seems that little attention was paid to this area, and this may explain the Celtic survivals, and also the retaining of Old Norse elements in Cumberland dialect. David Head, late Headmaster of King Edward VII School, Lytham, was a well-known cave explorer in Norway, and claimed that he could make himself understood by speaking broad Cumberland to the Norwegians. The Domesday Book of 1086 does not mention northern Cumbria. William Rufus built a castle in Carlisle (1092), and castles were also built at Brougham, Egremont and Cockermouth. The establishment of the monastic houses (itself a statement of Norman control) did not encroach on the Keswick area: the closest monastic farm site was Grange in Borrowdale – the word “Grange” comes from Old French and means “farming area”, and was part of the Furness Abbey estate thirty miles to the south.

However, Keswick gained both market and borough chartered status in the 13th century – the only town in the modern National Park area to do so. Its principal commodity was wool (and wool remained an important part of the local economy until the 19th Century.) Lelannd’s Itinerary of 1540 mentions Keswick (Chiswick) – the only place in the modern National Park to be mentioned – but he gives no mileages or routes to or from the town, suggesting that such roads as they were were of little consequence. (Keswick is the only Cumbrian town of which this is true.) However, 40 years later, William Harrison lists the roads “from Cockermouth to Kiswike” – 6 miles – and “from Kiswike to Grocener” (Grasmere) – 8 miles as being two of the “best thorowfaires and townes of greatest trauell of England”. (Brian Hindle, Roads and Trackways of the Lake District: 1984) What had changed in those few years? Mining.

The Keswick and Braithwaite area had become important to England in 1564, when a group of German miners were invited by Queen Elizabeth to prospect and then mine for copper. Mining remained an important industry for the area; indeed, Force Crag Mine, a 3 mile walk from Braithwaite, was the last metal mine in Cumbria to close (in 1991) after 152 years of producing lead, zinc and barites. Owned by the National Trust, it is now an Ancient Monument and an SSI , and can be found at the head of the Coledale valley.

The pencil industry that once characterised this area probably began in the early 19th Century: what is now the Cumberland Pencil Factory in Keswick traces its origins to 1832, but graphite was discovered in Borrowdale in the 16th Century. This deposit – uniquely in the world – is part of an igneous intrusion, and therefore provides solid graphite that can be cut into sticks – hence its later use as pencil “lead”. Braithwaite had its own “pencil mill” on the site of what is now the Coledale Inn.

Interestingly, it is possible that the German miners of the 16th Century discovered this deposit in their search for lead deposits: graphite used to be called “plumbago” (a word in use by German miners in the 16th Century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) or “plumbago sterilis”, due to its similarity with lead oxide, and this accounts for the rather confusing term of “pencil lead” to describe the graphite core of pencils.

Tourism is now, of course, the largest industry in the area. Interest in the Lake District (perhaps sparked by the Romantic poets, especially Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge) led to visitors by horse drawn carriage, but the coming of the railway saw a huge increase in visitor numbers. The Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway opened in 1865; there was a station in Braithwaite . The line finally closed in 1972. There has been talk of reopening part of it; at present, however, some of the route around the Keswick area can be walked, giving good views of the Derwent and Skiddaw.

Of course, with the increased investment in roads, the upgrading of the old Penrith to Whitehaven coach road to the A66 and the London to Glasgow turnpike forming the basis of the route now taken by the M6, the vast majority of tourists now arrive by car. The National Park recognises the threats posed by increased traffic to the area, and has supported an increase in the provision of public transport. There is a good local bus service, and there is an excellent bus service that services Braithwaite regularly, picking up opposite the campsite. The bus allows access to Keswick, Bassenthwaite, Whinlatter and the Dodd Wood Osprey viewing sites, as well as visits further afield. (See our Walking page for details of a walk to the viewing point and Mirehouse.)

By using this service, visitors can congratulate themselves on doing their bit to help preserve this wonderful part of the country.

Cottage for holiday lets in Braithwaite

    Our second home, 1 Bridge Cottage, Braithwaite, near Keswick, is available for holiday letting. We use Cumbrian Cottages as our key-holders and letting agent: please follow the link to their site if you are interested in staying in our comfortable, welcoming and wonderfully located cottage.