Sparkling lakes, daffodils nodding in spring sunshine, rugged windswept hills—Cumbria’s famous for them. But there is more here than first meets the eye. Scattered like jewels amongst the fells and valleys, Cumbria’s ruined castles, forts and abbeys tell tales of the region’s historical connections to conflict and worship. ...That river and those mouldering towers
Let us begin our explorations by skirting the eastern edge of the Lake District and heading up the A6 to the tiny village of Shap and the road signposted for the Abbey of St. Mary. Follow the narrowing lane to the crest of a steep hill that leads down into the isolated valley of the River Lowther. It’s an experience not to be missed—the sight of the gaunt ruins of the Abbey gatehouse standing stark against the sky. In this remote and isolated countryside, little remains of the 12th century Abbey, once the home of a dozen Premonstratensian monks—their white robes earned them the name “white canons”—who combined a life of prayer and discipline with parish work as priests.
The medieval records of the abbey have disappeared—like other abbeys, its doors closed when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The Abbot and Canons received a pension, and the abbey lands were sold. Parts of the building were converted into the farm at the site and other stone was used to build Shap Market Hall and Lowther Castle.
From Shap travel northeast to the well-preserved and extensive ruins of Brougham Castle. Brougham’s setting, in a tranquil and pastoral spot beside the River Eamont, contrasts with its history as one of northern England’s important strongholds. This notable landmark began its life about 1214 when Robert de Vieuxpont, King John’s agent, acquired the site. He fortified the place against Scottish invasion by constructing a stone keep and service buildings. The castle we see today incorporates the features of several centuries.
Robert Clifford acquired the Castle and added an inner and outer gatehouse, a top storey to the keep, a tower and stone curtain walls to strengthen its defences. Edward I spent the night of July 22, 1300 here while on one of his forays against the marauding Scots. 100 fighting men were garrisoned in the castle, but the Scots still managed to capture and sack it.
After passing to the Neville family, the Cliffords recovered the castle but neglected it, hastening its road to decay as early as 1558. Even the visits of two kings, James I in the early 1600’s and Charles I in 1629, failed to stop its decline.
Lady Anne Clifford, a strong-willed, independent woman, inherited Brougham along with other castles and land and spent enormous sums on their restoration. She erected a slab to commemorate her restorations in Brougham’s outer gatehouse. It quotes Isaiah: ‘... rise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in’.
Her grandson took stone from Brougham Castle in 1714 to use in construction work at Appleby Castle, hastening its decline. The castle’s picturesque decay caught the eye of Wordsworth, who wrote in ‘The Prelude’ how he clambered among the ruins:
Have seen us side by side, when, having clomb
The darksome windings of a broken stair,
And crept along a ridge of fractured wall,
Not without trembling, we in safety looked
Forth, through some Gothic window’s open space,
And gathered with one mind a rich reward
From the far-stretching landscape...
The massive keep dominates the site—the earliest part of the castle still standing. Look for the decorative corbels, the remains of column capitals and an inscribed Roman tombstone built into the wall. A fireplace with a fine arch, a boss carved with two human heads and a seven-ribbed vault can be spotted in the oratory on the third floor. If you can spare the time, visit the other Clifford castles in the area—Brough, Pendragon, and Appelby.
From Brougham castle we continue north to Brampton, where a minor road leads to Lanercost Priory in a tranquil valley of the River Irthing. The Augustinian Priory, founded around 1169 by the Vaux family, is built mostly from stone scavenged from nearby Hadrian’s Wall.
The palpable peace of this place gives no hint of the violence it once witnessed. Its location, close to the Scottish border, marked it for conflict. Two famous Scots, William Wallace and Robert Bruce, attacked the priory, and raids continued well into the 14th century.
Lanercost was one of the first priories dissolved by Henry VIII, who gave the buildings and the land to Sir Thomas, Lord Dacre, the illegitimate son of Lord Dacre of Nasworth. He turned part of the Priory into a country mansion. The family died out in 1716, and trees and shrubs soon claimed the site for their own.
The ruined priory church was partly reclaimed in 1740 when the nave and north aisle were roofed to serve as a parish church, still in use today. Three stained glass windows in the north aisle are by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Search for the two ornate altar tombs—Sir Thomas Dacre’s is well preserved—and the medieval grave slabs. Don’t miss the Victorian tomb of Elizabeth Dacre Howard with its stone figure of a tiny baby.
We now head southwest across Cumbria to the west coast. Situated among the trees of Curwen Park, on Workington’s eastern outskirts, are the compelling 14th century stone ruins of Workington Hall. This large quadrangular structure, begun as a fortress built around a pele tower, is named after the Lords of the Manor of Workington, the Curwen family.
The family moved to Workington in 1250 and played an important role for the king, providing from their ranks 28 High Sheriffs of the County of Cumberland and 18 terms in Parliament. The infamous member of the family, Henry Curwen (1661-1725), was a Jacobite Rebel. His ghost can apparently be seen wandering among the ruins. It was here that Mary, Queen of Scots, sought refuge after the defeat of her forces in May 1568. Over the centuries the Hall was embellished several times. In 1929 the family vacated the Hall, and, neglected, it fell into decay.
From Workington our trail leads south to Ravenglass, then east over the Hardknott Pass. Driving this road is a challenge at the best of times and one to be avoided in the winter. The road dips and twists and turns to take in the breathtaking scenery of the stark moors and valleys of the Lake District National Park.
Hardknott Roman Fort (called Mediobogdum by the Romans), built between 120 and 138AD, is situated at the peak of the famous pass—a memorable and stunning site. Linger here to take in the striking, wild and lonely landscape and the unfolding views across Cumbria to the sea—a plus for the Romans seeking to control the area. Visible stone remains of the fort include granaries, a headquarters building and a commandant’s house. A bathhouse and parade ground are located outside the walls. Archaeologists believe this fort was used for only a short time, as there is no evidence of its use past the second century.
Continue your journey to the end of the scenic Hardknott Road, and drive south to Barrow-in-Furness. Sandwiched between Barrow and Dalton are the magnificent and substantial red sandstone remains of Furness Abbey set in the beautiful Vale of Nightshade, a narrow wooded valley. These ruins moved Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ to emote:
“...a mouldering Pile, with fractured arch,
belfry, and images, and living trees,
A holy scene!
The abbey was founded in 1123 by Stephen, who later became King of England. Robert the Bruce raided the abbey in1322, promising not to plunder or burn it, upon accepting a ransom from the abbot, John Cockerham. The abbey’s fortunes—based on agricultural and mining interests—declined over the years as famine, plague and war took their toll. Still, at the time of its dissolution in 1537, it was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England. The extensive ruins today reflect the powerful presence of that wealth.
Start your tour at the modern visitor centre and museum, which houses an extensive exhibition on the history of this splendid abbey. There is much here to capture the visitor’s interest. The large green expanse approaching the ruins once held buildings, including a guest hall and houses, kitchens and stables. The church—first built in the Romanesque style and later rebuilt in the Early Gothic—has lost most of the nave and central tower, but some of the walls still stand. The Perpendicular western tower, built in the late 15th century, is striking.
Flanking the high altar are impressive sedilia (seats) covered with seven vaulted, tabernacled canopies. In the south transept on the eastern side, just above the arches, look for a band of decorative Romanesque mouldings used as facing stones. The large east range of the cloister sports five elaborate moulded, round-headed 13th century arches and was the principal living quarters of the choir monks.
South of the Abbey, Piel Island stands guard over an excellent harbour. King Stephen granted the island to Furness Abbey in 1127, providing the monks with a safe harbour and a place for warehousing their goods. To visit the island, drive to Rampside and over the causeway to Roa Island. On the far side of Roa Island a small boat will transport you, in the summer, to Piel Island.
A wooden tower was built on the island in 1212, and, in the early part of the 14th century, a motte and bailey castle, Piel, was added on a low mound at the highest point on the island. Stones for the castle were taken from the beach and roughly worked, although red sandstone from the quarries around Furness Abbey was used to provide architectural detail. Piel Castle did more than provide safe storage from pirates. It also was a creditable defence from the King’s customs men—the abbey had a roaring trade in smuggling.
Lambert Simnel, the pretender to the throne, landed on Piel Island and crossed Furness on his march to London. The Parliamentarians took charge of the island in the Civil War and anchored their fleet there. In 1727, Revenue Officers were successful in shutting down the smuggling trade.
King Henry VIII sounded the death knell for Piel Castle, already in a state of disrepair. Trees and shrubs enfold the moss-covered ruins of a large three-storey keep, and the ditch surrounding the inner and outer baileys is overgrown with shrub. Tumbling towers guard three corners of the Castle. Curtain walls have collapsed onto the beach where their remains still lie.
This quiet and seemingly remote island, without electricity, and only one permanent resident today, belies its busy past as a port and a smuggling haven. Only the overgrown and haunting remains of the castle, the Ship Inn and a few 18th century primitive homes dot the island.
The landlord of the Ship Inn is traditionally known as the King of Piel. This custom dates back to Lambert Simnel’s time when he declared himself king upon landing on the island. If you have ever fancied yourself a knight, all you have to do is sit in the Ship Inn’s oaken chair and have the King of Piel perform a ceremony. Then buy everyone a drink, declare you are of good character and are an ardent lover of the opposite sex.
On this dramatic note we end our journey. But there are more hidden treasures to be found for those who wish to seek them out. From north to south, east to west, in many quiet corners, Cumbria’s ruins speak of a rich heritage waiting to be explored.
PLACES TO VISIT
Shap Abbey: tower and other remains of the Abbey of St. Mary. on minor road 1 ½ miles west of Shap (on the A6 north of Kendal) on banks of River Lowther. Open any time. Entry free. English Heritage, managed by Lake District National Park
Brougham Castle: impressive ruins on the banks of the River Eamont include an early 13th century keep and later buildings. Introductory exhibition. 1 ½ miles southeast of Penrith on minor road off A66. Open April 1 to Sept. 30, 10am-6pm daily. Oct 1-31, 10am-5pm daily. Closed Nov. 1-March 31. Entry L2/L1.50/L1. English Heritage
Countess Pillar: Monument erected by Landy Anne Clifford in 1656 to commemorate her parting with her mother in 1616. Bears sundials and family crests. One mile southeast of Brougham on A66. Open all hours. Entry free.
Brough Castle: 12th century keep restored by Lady Anne Clifford. Magnificently situated high in the Pennines and built on an old Roman station. 8 miles southeast of Appleby off A66. Open April 1 to Sept. 30, 10am-6pm daily. Oct 1-31, 10am-5pm daily, Nov. 1-March 31 10am-4pm daily. Entry free. English Heritage
Appleby Castle: in the village of Appleby where Lady Anne Clifford is buried in St. Lawrence’s Church. 12th century keep and 17th century mansion overlooking the River Eden.
Pendragon Castle: another of Lady Anne Clifford’s castles. 12th century pele tower. Not open to the public but can be viewed from the road.
Wetheral Priory Gatehouse: Benedictine priory gatehouse. On a minor road in Wetheral village on the B6232, 6 miles east of Carlisle. Open April 1to Sept. 30, 10am to 6pm daily. Oct 1-Oct 31, 10am to 5pm daily. Nov 1 March 31,10am to 4pm daily. Closed 24-26 Dec. and 1 Jan. Entry free. English Heritage
Lanercost Priory: Augustinian priory founded about 1166. The nave is now a parish church. Ruined chancel, transepts and priory buildings. Off minor road south of Lanercost, 2 miles northeast of Brampton. Open April 1-Sept. 30, 10am-6pm daily. Oct 1-31, 10am-5pm daily. Closed Nov. 1-March 30. Entry L2/L1.50/L1. English Heritage (Parish church not managed by English Heritage)
Birdoswald Roman Fort: Hadrian’s Wall fort with remains of granaries and east gate, which is among the best preserved on the Wall. Two ¼ miles west of Greenhead, on minor road off B6318. Open April 1-Oct. 30, 10am-5:30pm daily. Winter season, exterior only. Small admission charge. Managed by Cumbria County Council on behalf of English Heritage.
Workington Hall: ancient stone seat of the Lords of the Manor of Workington. On A66 eastern outskirts of town of Workington. Open from Easter –Oct. 31, Tues-Fri. 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm-5pm, Bank Holidays 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm. Entry Adults 90p, children, OAP 60p. Tel: (01900) 606699
Helena Thompson Museum: pottery, silver, glass and furniture dating from Georgian, Regency and Victorian times, 18th to early 20th century dresses and accessories, social and industrial history of Workington. On A66 eastern outskirts of town of Workington across from Workington Hall. Open April 1-Oct. 31 Mon-Sat. 10:30am-4pm, Nov. 1-March 31, Mon-Sat. 11am-3pm. Tel: (01900) 62598.
Hardknott Roman Fort: Visible remains of Roman fort founded AD 120-138. 9 miles northeast of Ravenglass at the western end of Hardknott Pass. Open all hours. Entry free. Owned by English Heritage and managed by the National Trust. For those who don’t want to drive the Pass Road, the National Trust runs tours. Contact them at Lakeside NT shop 017687 7378 in Keswick or Bridge House NT shop 015394 32617 in Ambleside. Reservations may also be made through Tourist Information Centres in Ambleside, Bowness, Coniston, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Keswick or Windermere.
Furness Abbey: Extensive remains of abbey founded in 1123, museum.
1½ miles north of Barrow-in-Furness on minor road. Open April 1-Sept. 20, 10am-6pm daily, Oct 1-Oct. 31, 10am-5pm daily, Nov. 1-March 31, 10am-1pm and 2pm-4pm Wed-Sun. Closed Dec 24-26 and Jan 1. Entry L2.60/L2/L1.30.
Piel Castle: ruins of 14th century castle with massive keep. On Piel Island 3 ¼ miles southeast of Barrow. Reached by small boat from Roa Island during summer, subject to tides and weather. Open all hours. Entry free. English Heritage. For information call 01229 833609 or 01229 870156. No electricity on the island except at Ship Inn. Camping facilities.
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine
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