27 March 2015

Field and Farms Forever??

How the landscape Beatrix Potter loved came to be.

It's easy to understand why Beatrix Potter, like many others, fell in love with the Lake District.  The pattern of undulating fields and stone walls sprinkled with farmhouses and woodland, along with the quaint villages and quiet tarns, give it a special feeling of intimacy.  This is set against the grandeur of the fells - when they don't disappear mysteriously into the clouds!
Fields around Near Sawrey  showing Castle Cottage where Beatrix Potter lived as Mrs Heelis

Moss Eccles Tarn above Near Sawrey

However, the landscape, even that of the high fells, is largely man-made and would have been woodland.

People started to change the look of things in the Neolithic (around 6,000 years ago).  Polished stone axes from Great Langdale became the 'must have' gifts exchanged by the upper classes across the country.

The sporadic woodland clearance became more extensive in the later Iron Age (say 300 BC to Romans).  Recently (I mean that - about 2013!) an observant boy found a strange piece of metal in a hedgerow near Hawkshead.  Not convinced that it was a bit of junk, he took it to Kendal Museum and it proved to be an Iron Age sword!  Esthwaite Water was probably larger then so the sword might have been ritually broken and thrown into the water as a gift for the god.
Iron Age sword - broken intentionally (Kendal Museum)
From around AD 300 and through the early medieval the climate became warmer and drier - sorry, you missed it!  The Lake District would have been patched with cereals, grown for food, and blue flax and hemp mainly for their fibres.  No, they weren't all high on cannabis!

The many 'thwaite' names, Norse for 'clearing in a wood' suggests that more woodland was cleared under the Danelaw.  Hawkshead's name derives from the Norseman, Haukr, who had his dwelling, Saetr, there.  Sawrey, a muddy place, had its first mention in 1336 as Sourer and Esthwaite Water is literally the 'water by the easten clearing'.

After AD 1000 more trees went and in the late medieval sheep ruled as there was money in wool and monasteries (in this area Furness Abbey) practised large scale sheep farming in the uplands.  The Court House in Hawkshead served as the administrative centre for this area.  If you want to find out more and look inside, call in the National Trust Hawkshead Corner shop for the key.
The Courthouse, Hawkshead

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Hawkshead developed as a market town and many of the buildings, including the one which houses the Beatrix Potter Gallery and retains many original features, date from this time.  The name 'Rag, Wool and Putty Street' reminds us that much of the 'industry' would have been based on animal products and the air redolent with more pungent odours than that of roast dinners!
Leather, Rag and Putty Street, Hawkshead
Stone walls make good barriers, and shelter, where hedges might be hard to establish and useful places to put stones cleared from the fields.  In medieval times, ring garth walls marked the open fell from cultivated vally bottoms.  Cultivated land was divided as feudalism gave way to individually farmed land.  Finally, the Enclosure Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries led to the long walls crossing even the most forbidding areas of the high fells.

In the late medieval there was a 'Little Ice Age' (ending around AD 1700 but persisting in Hill Top ticket office) which contributed to the spread of mire and acid grassland.
Sam particularly likes mud! (and moves too fast for my camera action)
From AD 1600 to AD 1900 coppicing for charcoal has left patches of overgrown or managed coppiced woodland in which oak and other species may be encouraged to regenerate.

For more on how we're caring for the landscape now, check out the Rangers' blog.