Our home, Damson Cottage, is situated on the elevated height above Crosthwaite Green at the Starnthwaite/Crook junction. We get a great view of the comings and goings in the centre of our village and in the first week of virus lockdown notable changes happened. We are used to cars, farm vehicles and delivery vans driving past, quite speedily and sometimes, if we are out and about in the garden, walkers and cyclists shout hello as they swiftly pass through.
In mid March the weather changed. After what had seemed like months of daily heavy rain and cold weather, Spring started… just as we realised we needed to stay close to home. People kept a good broom distance apart (much more actually), but neighbours came out into the sunshine, dog walkers dawdled and said hello and the foot traffic increased as the vehicle traffic declined. It struck me that in some ways this must have been how our village might have been in the first part of the last century.
In those days there would have been occasional motor vehicles, the milk collection and animal feed lorries as well as carters out of Kendal that passed, but mostly it would be local farmers, horses and people using Crosthwaite Green.
We have a picture from around a hundred years ago of what looks like a meeting of trail hounds with carts and trade implements parked untidily around the green. It was very much a working and social environment in those days and had been for centuries before this. There are records of the road from Kendal to Ulverston through Crosthwaite from Roman times. Roman roads are often described as straight. This was largely true but ‘direct’ is a better adjective. This explains why a road exists that is more or less as the crow flies from Kendal to Ulverston via Newby Bridge.
In the 17th and early 18th century Kendal had become the local marketing centre for the woollen trade and was served by numerous packhorse routes. The route to Ulverston followed the old Roman way through Underbarrow, Crosthwaite and up Strawberry Bank to Gummers How and then Newby Bridge. The bottom of the Lyth and Winster valleys towards the bay were as yet undrained and ‘foul swamps’ made this land virtually impassable so a route to Furness through Crosthwaite was important for trade.
Packhorses were a flexible and reliable form of transport, but very slow. The ponies were bred for purpose and often came from Galloway in Scotland. The county gave the breed its name. At its height, around 1700, there were more than 20 regular trains of packhorses moving trade in all directions out of Kendal. They would gather in yards of the old inns on Highgate very early in the morning. Ye Olde Fleece is one that still exists in town today.
Each train of horses could comprise up to 30 animals and they were capable of carrying loads up to 1cwt (100kg) each. The train would leave Kendal and stop for refreshments in villages along the route. I would speculate that The Punchbowl Inn and The Masons Arms would have been late morning stops for dinner. Travel was slow along the maintained road, which would rarely have been more than 4 feet wide. This was just wide enough for the panniers each horse carried. It must have been very hard work for even these sturdy and strong animals. The modern tourist map shows sixteen steep inclines between Kendal and Newby Bridge, though at least the steepest hill has a pub halfway up it!
The village of Crosthwaite would then just have been a linear cluster of farm houses and barns with a few family homes with trades that supported farming in the valleys. The packhorses coming through around lunchtime must have been an exciting sight for children and villagers and doubtless news would have have been exchanged and small packages traded on the route back into Kendal.
I’m guessing that Kendal’s famous woven cloth and partly or wholly finished leather goods would have been carried out of Kendal to the valleys and on to Ulverston. Probably documents and letters too as well as other household goods. Coming back into Kendal would be wool fleeces from farms in the area. It would seem likely that from side valleys like the Gilpin, farmers and their wives would meet the packhorses in areas like Crosthwaite Green. Maybe butter, cheese and eggs would be carried back into town as well as fleeces. There must have been some seasonality to this and I doubt that in the short winter days the train would have made it from Kendal to Ulverston in one go, though they were capable of 20 miles or so in a day. The Masons Arms at Strawberry Bank is the obvious half way house.
From a commercial perspective these times were probably the most important for our road through Underbarrow, Crosthwaite and Bowland Bridge. The age after packhorses was the age of the wheel and with its mountains and undulations, our road was much less suitable for wheels than animal’s hooves. The period of turnpike mania started in the mid 18th century and early attempts to follow the pack horse zig zags around Underbarrow and up Strawberry Bank proved dangerous indeed.
That might be a story for another day. In the meantime I have enjoyed reflecting on a slower pace of life and the comings and goings on Crosthwaite Green over the centuries. In so many ways our forebears were not so different to us. If we put aside cell phones and iPads we still enjoy a hello, a chat and a gossip with our neighbours and fellow travellers – at brush length of course.
In the second month of lockdown at our cottage on Crosthwaite Green we seem to spend quite a lot of time directing delivery vehicles to homes around the village and farms beyond. We don’t mind a jot and this has reminded me of former times when our road was so important in connecting people around and beyond our lovely valleys.
Until the 1730’s the foot and hoof was the only way both goods and people moved through England. Other than roads close to London, the tracks were not good enough for wheeled vehicles to be used over longer distances and it took the coming of industry to change this. The age of the Turnpike was the next 100 years, when along with canal building, road improvement was king and Turnpike Mania was rampant throughout the land. The age of rail ended this -but that wasn’t to be for another hundred years, in the 1830s.
Our communities had previously been linked by the pack horse routes, and I wrote last month of the very significant one passing through Crosthwaite, over Gummers How and on to Ulverston.
The pack horse routes were designed for carrying mainly agricultural goods and food, but with the advent of new technologies and the discovery of rich mineral seams in the area, the great inventors and innovators of the era had an incentive to think of better and more efficient means of communication and transport, as the old routes became inadequate. The ports of Whitehaven and Lancaster were at that time amongst the biggest in the land, and the increasing flow of exotic goods in and out of them needed a better transport infrastructure to distribute goods to and from them.Whilst there was a need for development of better roads, the mosses of the Lyth valley were still undrained and this made tracks down the south of the valleys virtually impassable for most of the year. From the south traffic into Furness and West Cumberland was ‘over the sands’ with the delays and dangers of tide and weather always present.
Inevitably the drive for a new turnpike linking ‘Lancashire over the sands’ with the rest of England was commercially driven. The aristocratic families who owned the land sensed they could make return on their capital and their surveyors sniffed out valuable minerals.
Rich seams of iron ore had been discovered in Low Furness and further north, the west Cumberland Georgian towns of Whitehaven and Workington were growing as ports and industrial centres. The original pack horse routes linked market towns, but the growth of new industries explains why the 1763 turnpike act which improved the road through our valleys extended beyond Ulverston to Kirkby Ireleth on the Duddon estuary, but misses out the market town of Dalton, then the most significant in Furness.
Sir James Lowther and Lord Cavendish were amongst the leading trustees and each had strong commercial interests in it’s success. Each must have had a really good nose for sniffing out new trade routes and the affluence of both families was significantly extended by using this talent in entrepreneurship.
There were three acts of parliament that relate to the road and the need for these can be partly explained by the terrain through which our road passes. Initially no attempt was made to re route the existing pack horse route. This meant the same zigzags that were useful for ponies carrying loads up hill were maintained and the direct route over fells and through valleys was unchanged.
The ways that Toll Roads worked is that capital was provided by the trustees to widen and improve the road, build bridges and improve the surface (techniques of road building were still at this stage unchanged for centuries). Toll cottages were built to collect traffic fees and the income provided used to maintain the roads and pay dividends to the trustees.
Our road had four toll houses. The toll house at Underbarrow Scar is still very prominent and the 1763 date evident above its door. Elsewhere tolls were collected at Penny Bridge and further west at Lindal and Tytup. Records show the Underbarrow income around a steady £80 per year but the western tolls were substantially larger as traffic increased and routes improved. It is difficult to convert income from this period into current day value but £80 would today be a minimum £150,000 and possibly have a current buying power of around £1,000,000.
Despite this, our road through the two valleys was not so successful. The route up Strawberry bank and down to Newby Bridge was very dangerous and wagons regularly overturned, horses bolted and people were injured. Heavy goods could not be transported over this terrain and our 1763 turnpike had little impact on traffic across the sands.
An intermediate solution was to re route from Bowland Bridge through Witherslack but It was still a really hard pull up the hill out of Witherslack. The route went past St Paul’s in Witherslack and the vicar of the time, Rev FRC Hutton reports, “ the mail coach came after the packhorses and the farmer at Kay Moss made a good living by keeping a team of horses to drag them up the hill’. Nearby Spa house was then an inn that provided sustenance and accommodation for travellers.
Undoubtedly this improved the safety of the road, but it was a circuitous way round and did not make a material difference to its prosperity. Sections were still described as ‘mountainous track which beggar description’.
The third act of parliament which impacted and finally made ‘our road’ redundant as a mainstream route came in 1818. Following the Heversham Award in 1815 the new owners of enclosed land had the incentive to improve agricultural productivity by draining the mosses. This act allowed significant re routing, bridging and drainage of the Levens Bridge to Pool Bridge area. Worked commenced rapidly on a new turnpike. This road was laid over a bed of juniper twigs sourced from Whitbarrow. It was opened in 1820 and was an immediate success. Tolls taken at the western toll booths immediately trebled.
It was soon reported that the old turnpike road through Crosthwaite and Bowland Bridge was now deserted and had grass growing in the middle of it. Although ‘our road’ continued to serve the local parishes well for the next two hundred years it has possibly taken an epidemic that has kept us at home and delivery by those vans from Amazon, Asda and others to make it a proper commercial thoroughfare again.
Various Internet articles
Roads and Tracks of the Lake District, Paul Hindle, Cicerone.