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In time of change


Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal.

From ‘A Fortunate Man’ by John Berger

Profound changes have occurred in the two Langdale valleys during the 20th century. At first glance they might seem to have left little visible impact, and yet economically, socially, demographically and culturally they have been fundamental. The Langdales at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries are very different places.

At the opening of the 20th century the Langdales had a working population employed in the quarries and the gunpowder works as well as on the land. There were 25 farms in the two valleys, those farmers with smaller holdings working part-time in the quarries. At its height before the First World War, Little Langdale School had an average of 46 pupils. The development of Langdale as a centre for walking and climbing in the 1930s took up some of the slack left by the closure of the gunpowder works and the fluctuations of the quarrying industry. However by 1965 only nine school aged children remained in Little Langdale and by the close of the 20th century the majority of the houses in Langdale, with the exception of working farms, had been converted to holiday or ‘second’ homes. 

This story is largely told through the words of local people, accounts of the everyday detail of their lives as well as the major events, collected by the Ambleside Oral History Group. In Langdale these memories stretch far back to before the First World War and include May Bowness’s account of the life of her mother, Mrs Allonby. Her story, even with such a distance of time, is unsentimental. ‘Life was very very raw in the valleys and of course poor people suffered’ is her simple summation. 

Of her many memories, one seems particularly vivid. She recalled how her mother, as midwife and nurse for the community of Little Langdale, spent long hours at the isolated Blea Tarn Farm where a young woman was dying of cancer. Mrs Allonby sat with her and nursed her through her final hours. It was a clear bright winter morning by the time she left and May recalled her mother would only say that ‘she’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life as coming down from Blea Tarn’. 

May and her mother would have understood the American poet and farmer Wendall Berry’s simple statement ‘I stand for what I stand on’. So too would Jim Birkett, foreman at Moss Rigg Quarry in Little Langdale. One of the greatest rock climbers of his generation, born at The Brow, and remaining in the valley for the rest of his life, he developed a passion to protect and document rare birds, animals and flora. He used his climbing skills to mark peregrine eggs so they would be of no value to collectors, and for the thrill of discovering an unexpected nest or rare plant. A deeply compassionate man he also used these skills to rescue crag fast sheep. His wife recalled that ‘he got five off one day and carried the last one down the crag on his shoulders. It was weak so he put it in his motor bike sidecar and drove it to the farm’. 

The work of the National Trust and its early donors to preserve this landscape, with its patchwork palimpsest of field boundaries and buildings, quarries and the heaped remnants of industrial activity has been of vital importance. However it might also be true to say that our complex and multi-layered relationship with the land itself has diminished. The cosmetic perfection of cottages which are no longer homes, but holiday retreats, is a symbol of this. Beatrix Potter in her gift to the Natural Trust understood the importance of authenticity and ‘sense of place’. In her will she stated that her property should continue to be let at moderate rents to good tenants. It was her attempt to help maintain, in one small corner of England, that richness of connection between land and community which is at the root of our sense of identity. 






“…of course Little Langdale didn’t agree with the big Langdale; there was never really any trouble… but Little Langdale did keep itself to itself, and Great Langdale did the same”. (May Bowness, interview with the Ambleside Oral History Group 1983)

Langdale, ‘Long Valley’ in Old Norse, is actually two valleys, Great and Little which run west to east with the high central fells of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags at their head. Great Langdale is a classic example of a U-shaped glaciated valley with the typical features of glacial tarns and hanging valleys. The rough texture of the crags, screes and rock outcrops together with the rough grazing, heather, remnant juniper and extensive bracken beds, provides a strong contrast with the flat, smooth-textured, lush-green and strongly patterned valley floor. Settlement in the upper part of the valley is of scattered white-washed farms, with their associated field systems nestling at the foot of the south-facing fells.

Little Langdale is of an entirely different character, subtler and more intimate, wooded and hummocky, bisected by a narrow winding lane and the River Brathay which once marked the boundary between Lancashire and Westmorland. Settlement is fairly dispersed with loose groupings associated with the extensive slate quarries. Twenty acres of fields around the glacial Little Langdale Tarn are designated a SSSI. The sequence of species-rich undisturbed habitats range from floodplain near the Brathay to higher, dryer hay meadows, marshland around the margins of the tarn and wet woodland.

 The villages of Elterwater and Chapel Stile to the east developed as a result of industries including gunpowder production and extensive green slate quarrying.  Elterwater’s former gunpowder workers’ houses and Chapel Stiles’ quarrymen terraces and church give the villages their distinct character. 

Evidence for occupation and land use in the Langdale Valleys extends as far back as the Neolithic period (4,000 – 2,000 BC), with woodland being cleared at the same time as the production of stone axes in Great Langdale. Settlement is likely to have been seasonal based on summer transhumance. Other important prehistoric remains in Great Langdale include two panels of Neolithic rock art at Copt Howe, near Chapel Stile. The Roman road linking the forts at Waterhead to Hardknott can be traced through Little Langdale and over Wrynose Pass. 

Evidence of Norse settlement in the 10th century is found in the many local place names, although in the archaeological record is so far limited to a rectilinear, terraced earthwork at Fell Foot Farm in Little Langdale. This is believed to be the remains of a Norse ‘Thing’ mound, used for community meetings. 

The first documentary evidence for land use in Great Langdale dates from the 13th century when ‘land at Basebrun’ was granted to Conishead Priory and subsequently became a separate manor from Great Langdale. The course of the boundary wall of this new manor can still be identified on the ground today. The surviving field pattern of intakes on the lower slopes overlooking former medieval common fields date from the 16th-18th century. There are good examples of this at Robinson Place, and the enclosure of cattle pasture at the western end of Great Langdale. 

A survey of 1573 recorded 10 farms in the valley. By the first half of the 18th century, these tenements had been amalgamated and reorganised as larger units and a number of farms abandoned. The last episodes of enclosure took the last few areas of the common field into enclosure with ruler-straight stone walls in 1836. There are a few examples of these in the valley bottom in Great Langdale.


‘…it was hard work, it was dirty, but money was clean and there was only that and quarries.’ (Mr. Braithwaite Rigg from an interview by the Ambleside Oral History Group)

The Elterwater Works was one of seven gunpowder mills in the South Lakes area, situated to take advantage of the availability of water- power to drive the machinery, woods and outcrops to contain explosions, and the low population density. The industry developed in Cumbria in the 18th century in response to the increasing demand for blasting powder from quarries and mines nationally. At this time the village of Greenodd, near Ulverston, was a major port, where sulphur and saltpetre were imported and supplied to the local mills

The Elterwater works was established by Kendal banker David Huddlestone, on the site of earlier water- powered corn and fulling mills. Water-power was the key to its success, the main source being Great Langdale Beck, while Stickle Tarn was at an early stage, dammed to raise the water level and ensure supplies during times of drought. John Holmes who remembered the works as a small boy recalls that it was the job of one man to be up at Stickle Tarn at six in the morning to open the sluice gates and allow the water to run down into the river. From here it was directed by further sluice gates into culverts within the gunpowder works to drive the water-wheels. The same man was required to return to the tarn during the afternoon to close the sluice gate and ensure no water was wasted.

The production of gunpowder involved the combining of sulphur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpetre) into the black powder. Mr Braithwaite Rigg, born in 1903, worked at the Gunpowder Works, during its final years when it employed up to eighty men. He describes how the gunpowder was of different grades of grain, ‘some was bright as silver and a lot was like dust’.  The later was known as ‘straw powder’ which he recalls was generally packed by women whose more nimble fingers could thread them onto a fuse.

Braithwaite Rigg also recalled the ‘snuffers’ and ‘chewers’ amongst the work force, ‘there were a lot of chewers in t’powder works, well it stands to reason, you couldn’t take a pipe or a cigarette out and light them’. Working with gunpowder was dangerous with four fatal explosions occurring in Langdale. One of these was described by Dorothy Barrow whose father was headmaster of Langdale School. From their school classroom in Chapel Stile they heard an enormous bang. The children all got to their feet and the ones with parents at the Gunpowder works knew what it was and ran to their homes. ‘There was complete chaos… we heard how the Corning House had blown up and which people were killed. We were young children and listened to all that was said, how people were blown across the beck…’ This was the morning of the 18th September 1916. There were four fatalities.

The first quarter of the 20th century appears to have been a time of consolidation and quiet prosperity at the Elterwater Works. John Holmes described it as ‘like a large family firm, with its own carpenters, blacksmith, engineers, coopers and their own horses and carts for transport’. As a small boy he was particularly interested in the horses. ‘The shoeing of the horses was something special, because they had to have copper shoes, and they were looked after absolutely magnificently …. I can remember as a youngster going over to the stables and watching the horsemen groom their horses, feed the horses, polish their brasses … one vied with another as to who had the best turnout.’ Braithwaite Rigg also recalled that there were about twelve horses at the works which were paraded outside the Britannia Inn on May Day, their manes and tails bedecked with ribbons.

The period after the First World War was one of uncertainty and hardship, as the demand for black powder declined. The Elterwater Gunpowder Company merged with Low Wood, New Sedgwick, Blackbeck and Gatebeck Mills in 1917 to form the Explosives Trades Ltd, which shortly afterwards became part of Nobel Industries Ltd. The Elterwater Works finally closed its doors in 1930, its distance from both canal and rail links being the decisive factor. The majority of its business records were burned for fear of the tax man; thus bringing to an end 106 years of gunpowder milling in Langdale. The main part of the works became the Langdale Estate, reusing some of the buildings for its conversion into a holiday resort.


Quarrying for slate is one of Cumbria’s oldest traditional occupations. As other rural industries were in decline, slate production was on the rise. The last decade of the 19th century saw half of all the employed labour in Little Langdale working in the industry and it was common to find two or three quarrymen living within the same household. Jane Hodgson, at High Bield, had five sons aged between 16 and 22 all working as slate rivers or dressers. 

Wages increased during the twentieth century but the work still remained gruelling. In 1910 compressed-air drills were first used for boring into the rock face in preparation for blasting and by the 1930s diamond-tipped saws had been introduced. However the riving and dressing of the slates was a skilled occupation which changed little over the years.  Ike Walker, a slate dresser at Hodge Close, was famous for his phenomenal output. His workmate recalled that “he’d be late for work and then if there were any hound trailing going on he’d be away for that, but he still could knock three ton out. No bother”.  

The First World War had a drastic effect on local slate quarrying, reducing not only demand but also the skilled workforce.  At Parrock Quarry it was reported that there was only ‘a foreman aged fifty-five and a boy of seventeen left working’, and that ‘no business in the kingdom has been hit so badly as slate quarrying’. The local press also took up the theme with an article entitled ‘Langdale Quarrymen: Drifting into other Occupations’. Several families moved out of the area and the average number of new admissions to the school fell below ten per year.

The local slate industry had a brief post war boom, but this was short- lived as slate was increasingly being replaced by cheaper clay tiles.  In 1925 the lease of Moss Rigg came up for renewal for a much reduced rent and in 1930 Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) let Atkinson Coppice to the Buttermere Green Slate Co. for a rent of only one shilling, an indication that the slate reserves in these quarries were becoming exhausted. However Herbert Thompson who started his working life at Sty Rigg, Tilberthwaite in the early 1930s recalled that despite the depression ‘there was always somebody buying slate.

Yet another short post-war boom supplying slates for bomb-damaged housing followed the Second World War. The fundamental change in the industry came with the movement away from roofing slates and towards ‘monumental’ and building stone. This allowed two quarries, Moss Rigg and High Fell to reopen. Local opinion was mixed and Harry Griffin wrote an article under the headline ‘Yer’ll deu nowt wi yon girt whol, old folk warned’ about the formation of the Lakeland Green Slate Company at Moss Rigg. By 1961 they were employing around forty men producing slate for ‘steps, cills, copings, flooring, slabs, walling stone, crazy paving, memorials’ as well as roofing slate. Spout Crag Quarry was reopened in 1958 by Burlington Slate Ltd., with an order for slate cladding for the then tallest building in the world, the Imperial Bank of Commerce in Montreal. However, what Harry Griffin described as ‘the age old craftsmanship of Lakeland reborn’, was no longer even a significant employer in the valley. Moss Rigg and Spout Crag closed in 1984. Hodge Close, High Fellside and Burlington Slate at Elterwater continued, but employ only a handful of men. 

Elterwater Green Slate Quarry

Account of a visit to the Elterwater Green Slate Quarry by members of a local studies course of what they saw and did. October 1949

You go into the quarry by way of tunnels or levels driven into the hillside. Stumbling along one of these unlighted levels, and avoiding a pump pipe line, we emerged into a vast cavern. The roof of one of these ‘closeheads’ is supported by pillars of rock left unworked. The main working a little farther on is a deep basin-shaped cavity the sides of which vary in colour from the grey-green of the newly cut rock to the almost rose pink where the weathering has occurred. A tide mark about one third of the way down the quarry shows the level to which the workings were flooded during the War.

The noises of pneumatic drills and heavy hammers came to our ears from about 60 feet below us where the rock hands were at work. One man, perched precariously on a small platform which looks only about 18” square and is fixed to the top of an 18-rung ladder, was drilling into the slate. After he had drilled a hole 3-4 feet deep, he would blow out all the dust before ramming the gunpowder charge. Below him, on the quarry floor, rock hands were busy splitting huge slabs of slate into chunks of a size suitable for hauling to the quarry top. The men split the rock by driving a 2 pound ‘set’ or ‘divil’ into the grain or cleavage with a 14 pound hammer known as a ‘divil hammer’. The workmen attach the chunks of rock to a cable hoist and then to the rail hoist at the opposite side of the quarry. Tippable steel trucks, called ‘jubilees’, are loaded and hauled up the rails by an engine at the top of the quarry. At the top of the quarry another overhead rail hoist carries the rock into the cutting shed.

In the cutting shed is an electric saw, which consists of a circular steel blade with diamond studs. As the blade rotates it moves forward and cuts into the stone. Water is played automatically and continuously onto the saw and the stone; this is to keep down heat and dust. The drone of the saw rises into a terrifying scream as it cuts into the stone: it deafens the visitor who yells to make himself heard. The workmen seem to be talking to each other in quite ordinary voices.

From the cutting shed the slabs are conveyed to the riving shed where roofing slates are produced. Down one side of the shed is the team of ‘rivers’ and working behind them are the ‘dressers’. With his riving chisel the river measures the thickness of his slab across the grain: he then knows into how many slates he can split or rive it. With his chisel and single handed hammer, he splits the rocks into slabs about 2” thick. The river then takes one of the 2” slabs and, steadying it against the outside of his left knee and his upturned left foot, he splits it in two with a riving chisel which he strikes with a riving ‘mell’. The mell is a wooden mallet resembling a truncheon. It is about 15” to 18” long and is hooped with narrow iron hoops. The slates are then stacked on a ledge within arm’s reach of the river.

The dresser sits on the ground to work with a leg on each side of his dresser’s brake, a long steel blade stuck into the floor of the shed. Holding the riven slate in his left hand the dresser rests it on the brake so that the portion to be cut off projects beyond the right edge of the brake. Then, with his dresser’s knife or ‘whittle’ as he calls it, cuts off the unwanted portions from each side, and finally cuts off two corners to give the familiar shape to yet another roofing slate. Having dressed a quantity of slates, he sorts them into three grades according to the quality or texture of the slate. Finally a ‘piercer’ may be called upon to pierce the holes for the slater’s nails.

During the week of our visit, the quarry was riving and dressing slates to the order of St Paul’s Church, Alnwick. Orders reach the quarry from as far afield as London and Glasgow, and, about 12 months ago, slates were despatched to Bermuda. Local needs for housing schemes such as, for example, for the Forestry Commission, Police and Miners’ houses, are taking up most of the present output, though the quarry depends chiefly on orders for large public buildings where the slates are, to quote Mr Baines, “required to last”.

Slates are delivered by road or rail. The company has two waggons of their own, a Bedford 6-ton and a Ford 5-ton. All machinery in the quarry is electric, the power being generated by two turbo-generators installed in the quarry by Rushton-Homsbry in 1926. Two pumps driven by 25h.p. electric motors deliver 500 gallons per minute through pipes laid through a level into the Langdale Beck. 

Mr Baines, the Manager, a quarryman with 44 years’ service at Elterwater, said that all the employees were on piece rates and/or bonus. The Blacksmith was overheard to say to some of our party that “It’s a grand firm to work for”. The men work a 46½ hour week and have two breaks for meals on weekdays, breakfast from 9.30-9.45 and for dinner 12.15 to 1. There is no work’s canteen, but the firm supplies tea with milk and sugar for those who are not able to get home for meals. 

Most of the men wear clogs, for even ordinary heavy work boots will not long stand up to the wet. The men had various means for protecting their clothing and persons: the rivers, for example, wore an old boot or clog upper over their left boot or clog. Possibly some similar consideration had caused the driver of the diesel locomotive to wear an old tail coat.


John Rigg killed at Moss Rigg Quarry

The Mines Inspectors Report into the death of John Rigg aged 23 at Moss Rigg Quarry.

 Deceased and James Capstick were drilling a hole in the quarry face at a point 35 yards above the quarry floor. Their stage consisted of three planks, 5 feet long, 12 inches broad, and 2 inches thick. These planks were supported by two iron bars termed “nogs,” 3 feet 4 inches and 3 feet 8 inches long respectively and 1 inch in diameter. The nogs were inserted and wedged in a hole 6 inches deep, which had been drilled specially for the purpose by deceased and Capstick, who subsequently fixed the stage. They had been drilling about an hour when the staging gave way. One of the men had a miraculous escape; in falling he mechanically clutched at a rope which was hanging close to him, and eventually he was able to slide to the bottom uninjured. The other man received terrible injuries and died as he was being removed home. Investigation showed that the rock in which one of the nogs was inserted had given way. Accidents of this type are rare in this district, as the rock is usually of a strong and solid character. Ropes are provided for the men to use when working on the quarry face, and two ropes were actually hanging within reach, but they had neglected to attach themselves.

 In 1932 The Whitehaven News reported on the inquest into the deaths of two workers at Hodge Close Quarry, Joseph Dixon of Tilberthwaite and Robert Jackson of Coniston.

John Jackson, Wraysdale Cottages, Coniston, described how the accident occurred. The two men were splitting rock near the quarry face, when there was a sudden “rush” and a large rock fell, pinning Dixon under it. Jackson ran away, but was caught by another piece of rock. Dixon was killed instantly, and Jackson, who sustained a compound fracture of the right leg, died soon after admission to the Coniston Cottage Hospital. Two shots had been fired that afternoon. The place was normal both before and after the shot firing. There was a heavy rain storm after the shot was fired. The rock had been thoroughly inspected.

John Rawes, foreman, said there had been nothing visible about the rock to raise suspicion. After the accident a ‘slipe’ was discovered behind the fallen rock. As a practical quarryman he came to the conclusion that the fall was due to rain running fast down behind the ‘slipe’ and bursting the face at the broken end, which could not be detected before.

There were surprisingly few accidents in the Langdale quarries, but the lack of first aid provision meant that injuries were often fatal, “if they were injured they were killed” (May Bowness AOHG).


Langdale remains one of the key areas in the Lakes for Herdwick sheep farming. The farms themselves date back to the 16th and 17th centuries many of which overlie earlier farmsteads. However the number of separate farmsteads in Langdale was already decreasing by 1800 through a process of amalgamation. Near to Fell Foot, Little Langdale are the ruins of three farmsteads, How, Viccars and Nook deserted by the late 18thcentury. In the 20th century, ownership of the majority of Langdale farms by the National Trust has led to further amalgamation and dividing up of fell rights. When they acquired Side House Farm in 1963 and put the sheep and the fell rights to Middle Fell, Vic Gregg, of Low Millbeck pointed out the need and increasing rarity of ‘starter’ farms, “There’s some good farming families started at Side House over the years, but The Trust wouldn’t have it. They were determined and you couldn’t get ’em to think any different”.  

The early 20th century was not a prosperous time for hill farming. Irene Barton who was born in 1904 in Little Langdale recalls how all the farmers had to grow their own produce “Beetroot, potatoes, we’d fields at one time up at Birk How, and there were rows and rows of lovely carrots, everything was home grown”. Mrs Beatie Park, who came to Little Langdale with her farming family as a child in 1926 remembered ploughing during the Second World War as “terrible, all the land round here is almost all stones. It really was very difficult. But we did grow a few potatoes and a bit of green crop”.

The greatest impact on hill farming has been the financial support given by the government. Up to the war there were cases of tenants leaving farms in financial difficulties. The Low Hallgarth tenant gave up his tenancy in February 1941 unable to give full notice due to problems getting supplies from local dealers and having to sell stock. A few years later the tenant of nearby High Oxenfell also had to give notice to quit due to ‘various circumstances, caused by the severe winter of 1946/47’.

The Hill Farming Act was passed in 1946 and the Agriculture Act of the following year. These combined to give greater support to hill farming, through grants and subsidies, with the most immediate effect being grants available for modernisation during the early 1950s. High Birk How had been described as ‘likely to go derelict as an agricultural holding’, but had a comprehensive programme of building and plumbing work. Other farms in the valley were also modernised and it was noted that Fell Foot, when sold in 1957 had ‘already been in a Hill Farming Scheme’. The 1950s also saw the installation of electricity in the farms, first by the use of generators such as at Busk in 1955 and later by the ‘mains’ throughout the valley in 1964.

Today, Andrew Birkett who farms at Birk How, Little Langdale admits that there was over stocking in the past. “I have only about 35% of the sheep my granddad had… but we have gone far enough to redress the balance. If there were even fewer sheep it wouldn’t be worth farming”.  Andrew argues that because Herdwicks are unique to the Lakeland fells, it is important to keep a reasonable gene pool going. But he also concedes that times are changing, “Only half the valley is lived in now, the rest used as second homes and holiday houses. Incomes are low and property prices very high, making it hard for working families”.



Vic Gregg recalls farming at Low Millbeck

Viv Gregg recalls farming at Low Millbeck

We only ploughed during the war, and that was with the horse plough. We got terrific crops of corn off Barn field, Leys and Mickle Ing. We planted in rotation yearly, corn followed by turnips and potatoes, then corn undersown with grass. Each time you ploughed the stones kept coming up, so as soon as the war finished we gave up ploughing. 

Up on the way to Stickle Tarn, following the green track there is the Little Intake, quite a large enclosure which spans the beck.  The Youdells kept horses and geese in there. It was almost certainly used for collecting sheep before bringing them down for lambing or when transferring the ewes and lambs from the valley to the fells. The ewes would sometimes suffer ‘drop’ when you put them on poorer grass so it was a help to keep them there until they were better adjusted to the fells again. Now we inject them with calcium.

Nearby, up on the fells to the east are three small enclosures, like beehives, corbelled inwards, for trapping foxes. You would throw a dead lamb inside. A fox would jump in and would be unable to get out; they have not been used in my time. There are many little pens dotted about all over the place, if some of the ewes were slow when you were gathering them, you would put them in there for the night and you knew where to find them the next day, or if a lamb needed extra milk, you would put it in there with the ewe. Above White Ghyll there is a wall to stop the cattle coming down;   there have not been cattle up there since we came.

To get up onto the fells from Millbeck we would use the outgang above the farm. Sometimes we would turn right above the fell wall to take the sheep up onto White Ghyll, or up the pony track to the left of Dungeon Ghyll, or the route up by Pike Howe; this was only a sheep track when we came here at first. The washfold for Millbeck was just above High Tommy, we haven’t used it for washing our sheep, but in the old days they would have several men in the Ghyll ducking them. 

Lambs were taken from their mothers in the last week of September or the first week in October. Sheep sales started after this; the Ambleside Sheep Fair was on the nearest Fridays to October 13th and 29th. At this time we would drive the hogs to over-winter from Low Millbeck via Skelwith getting as far as Hawkshead or Sawrey by night time and stay there on the first night and then go on to Grizedale or Haverthwaite or Dale Park. It was slow going; lambs born on the fells are not the fastest things on four legs! Other shepherds would come from Langdale, Eskdale and Seathwaite on the Duddon. The shearlings we would take to Holm Fell and Brow Fell for a couple of months. By the end of the winter there would be 2-3000 sheep between Hawkshead Hill and Force Forge all ready and waiting to come back, but all needed to be sorted. Mitchells had some land near the Drunken Duck where we kept them overnight, then next day we would sort out the Eskdale and Seathwaite sheep and they would go off together, then the Little Langdale ones would go off with the Fell Foot flock, and then the Great Langdale sheep, Baysbrown, Millbeck, Wall End and Stool End would set off together, sorting out each flock as you reached the right farm.

The hogs would come home on the first fine day after 5th April. On the way back they were so fit and well fed they could go over anything! The Eskdale flock were taken via Fell Foot where they stayed the night, or you might get as far as Black Hall (Cockley Beck), and then on to Brotherilkeld in Eskdale, their own farm, where they were cleaned up, dipped and marked. Occasionally you could get right through to Eskdale in one day. Next day some were back at Fell Foot, they wanted to be back on the good grass, they didn’t think much of being back on the fells. All this has stopped now, the Forestry Commission bought the land and planted it, also the people over there started keeping sheep when they found there was money in it. Now the sheep are taken to Lincolnshire to overwinter at £12 per head. For the sales we would walk the ewes and wethers to either Ambleside or Broughton.


May Bowness was born in 1901 in Little Langdale. Her father was killed in the quarries leaving her mother with seven young children to support, “No pension, no money, nothing, all she could do was sit and make shirts at a shilling… Life was very very raw in the valleys and of course poor people suffered.” Early death was not uncommon, diphtheria killed seven children at Great Langdale School in 1913 and tuberculosis was always present. As a child May recalled being sent to see a boy who had died of consumption “I remember we all had to go and see Alfie in his coffin”. 

John Holmes who worked as an undertaker in Chapel Stile before the Second World War explained that until the 1920s the tradition of ‘funeral bidding’ was still continued. The youngest undertakers apprentice was provided with a bicycle and sent to give notice of the funeral to every house in the area; starting in Chapel Stile, going up to Dungeon Ghyll, over Blea Tarn, around Little Langdale, around Park Fell, around Skelwith and Loughrigg. Another custom he recalled was the distribution of funeral biscuits to the mourners.

One of the traditions that persisted in Langdale into the 20th century was the gathering of Easter leaves or ledges for Easter Ledge Pudding. This savoury pudding made using the young leaves of the Bistort plant was served at Easter and during Lent and considered to be a tonic and blood purifier after the poor diet of the winter. In Little Langdale a favourite place to collect Easter ledges was behind Wilson Place Farm. Both May Bowness and Irene Barton recall eating them as children before the First World War. “Everyone ate them if they thought anything of their health. That means everybody but the doctor”.

Dances were always popular and in the early days young people would walk to Coniston and Ambleside and even as far as Eskdale and Wasdale to attend dances, “you walked everywhere because there was no other transport”. Dances were also held in the local schools, the music generally supplied by a fiddle ‘no fancy band’ to which polkas, quadrilles, and barn dances were performed, “everybody put their heart and soul into it. They only had it twice a year so we really looked forward to it”. 

Before the Second World War Langdale had an annual Gala held on Whit Friday. People would assemble in Elterwater and walk to Chapel Stile, led by the Langdale Brass Band, for a service in the church followed by dinner in the White Lion. Everyone would then make their way to the Gala Field at Baysbrown for the sports which included fell-racing and wrestling. At night there was a dance in the Drill Hall at Elterwater. The Gala was revived in 1978, as a family and community fun day, and continues to the present. 

In a letter to his brother from the Western Front in 1918, Ted Birkett writes, “Roll on when the old hunting days come again and Sunday nights to walk the girls out, better than walking mules up amongst the shell holes”. Throughout the 20th century the Langdales were hunted by the Coniston Foxhounds and the Eskdale and Ennerdale Pack. After the hunt it was the custom for everyone to meet at the public house for a few drinks and renditions of traditional hunting songs. This is what is known as the ‘arvel’ from a Norse word meaning a feast or party. 



In 1904 a new school was built in Little Langdale with funds raised partly by local subscription and donations of slate and stone from the quarries. May Bowness who started at the school aged 3 in the same year recalled that many of the children walked a great distance to attend, “from Holme Ground, Tilberthwaite High Park, Fell Foot, Blea Tarn, Dale End”. Mrs Park who attended during the First World War mentions amongst her classmates six children from the Parker family at Tilberthwaite “I don’t think they ever missed a day at school any of them. They walked to school and back every day”, a round trip of 6 miles. Jim Hodgson also at Little Langdale remembers that the teacher would make a “girt pan of cocoa to have at dinner times so we used to have a hot drink”.

However village schooling was not always as idyllic and reassuring as one might expect. One pupil of Little Langdale School during its final years found it quite the opposite. Bill Birkett, whose father Jim was foreman at Moss Rigg quarry admits to a miserable time there. The highlights were its informality, being able to go for walks and sledging in the winter. But sadly he encountered little in the way of encouragement or kindness there. The school could take 60 children and the average attendance was 46. By the time it closed in 1965 pupil numbers had dropped to only nine.

In 1900 the school in Chapel Stile which also served Great Langdale and Elterwater had an average attendance of 120. Dorothy Barrow, whose father was appointed headmaster in 1914 explains that the largest number of her fellow pupils came from the Gunpowder Works. At this time the school had three teachers and each of the three classrooms had coal fires with oil lamps lit in the winter. She recalled that the girls wore pinafores “sometimes clean sometimes not” and the boys all wore short trousers, “… and always smelt rather badly… both sexes wore clogs”. One of her fellow pupils Harper Baines, reflected that the headmaster was strict, “…although I only remember once when a lot of them went hunting and he lined them up and caned them”.

For small children living at the head of Great Langdale it was a very long walk to school. Dorothy’s father petitioned the Education Offices in Kendal to make arrangements for them to have transport.  One of the farmers, Zeke Myers, from the top of the dale, was given the contract for two journeys a day by horse and trap. Dorothy’s father was horrified to learn that Mr Myers interpreted ‘two journeys’ as down to the school in the morning with the children and back up the valley again himself, so the children had to walk home!

In 1963 Little Langdale School was the focus for the campaign to bring electricity to the valley. A procession valley residents marched through the streets of Kendal carrying oil lamps, candles and banners with slogans declaring their children had a right to electricity in their school. Two years later, electricity had arrived but by then the school had closed with only nine children on the register. The school at Chapel Stile in Great Langdale continues as Langdale Church of England School. At present it has 35 pupils, with a capacity of 56, and 7 teachers.  



Between 1898 and 1912 demand for housing, chiefly from workers in the slate quarries, resulted in the construction of seventeen new homes in Little Langdale. These included the terraces built by the Buttermere Slate Company at New Houses and Fitz Steps. However, by the late 1930s the ‘quarrymen’s’ cottages’ were increasingly being rented as holiday retreats. This intensified during the Second World War with groups of ‘private evacuees’ renting any available accommodation.

The backlash came at the end of the war with much discussion in the local press regarding men returning from the forces faced with nowhere to live. The artist Delmar Banner of The Bield joined in the debate claiming to be able to see seven buildings from his house, “five of these are left empty most of the year by people who are innocently unaware of the hardship they cause…” 

In 1947 Greenbank was sold by the quarry company to the occupants, but since the mid-1980s it has gradually been bought up for holiday accommodation. In the early 1950s the whole of the terrace at Fitz Steps was purchased by the Lake District Country Cottage Society and has remained occupied by local people in accordance with the Society’s aims. In 1951 the North West Evening Post report that a Langdale man was building a house in his spare time and ‘everyone in Little Langdale is interested in the completion of Mr Albert Bowness’s house- the first to be built in the valley for years’.

Cumbria Rural Housing Trust undertook a survey in 1998 which highlighted the lack of affordable housing in Chapel Stile. In 2000 seven new homes were built, to supplement the existing social housing provision. This consisted of six properties at Walthwaite, eight at The Glebe and six flats for the elderly at Meadowside. It was described as ‘a drop in the ocean’ by one local resident particularly since council houses had been sold on the open market through the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The survey concluded that issues including the increase in holiday and second-home ownership had a major impact on Chapel Stile and its sustainability. Affordable housing provision therefore needed to be maintained. 

Lake District National Park Authority in a review of housing policy concluded that when the proportion of second homes within a rural community reaches 40% of all housing stock it seriously undermines the sustainability of rural communities. In 2014 children from the Chapel Stile Primary School carried out an audit, as an exercise in calculating percentages, to see how many homes in their village were actually lived in. They concluded that 70% were not regularly occupied. In Elterwater this figure is in excess of 80%.

The local shop and post office in Elterwater have closed in recent years. Local residents cannot compete with the purchasing power of those buying second homes and only a tiny minority of the parents with children at Chapel Stile School own their homes. In recent years Impact Housing Association completed an affordable housing scheme of twelve houses and three flats in Grasmere village. It was oversubscribed by 600%. 

The figures speak for themselves.



I cannot ignore the fact that the rights of those who can barely afford a first home are being eroded by excessive and increasing second home ownership. I will start by clarifying what we mean by the term “second home”. When we use that term, we do not mean holiday lets, which are a significant part of the all-year-round tourism economy. A second home is a property owned by someone whose main home is elsewhere and who lives in that second home pretty rarely, maybe for a few weeks or weekends a year. 

There is no getting away from the fact that high numbers of second homes rob communities of a permanent population and the consequent demand for local services. They rob those communities of life and vitality, and they can rob them of the resources they need to be sustainable. .. When second home ownership gets to a critical level, the absence of a permanent population begins to have tangible consequences. Several of our schools today have fewer than 30 pupils… every time a house in the village is sold to a second home owner; they see their future becoming a little bleaker. With not enough kids going to local schools, not enough people visiting the local shops and not enough people using the local bus service, it all means that those services end up becoming non-viable and that beautiful places can become empty places, with communities struggling to survive. Despite the loneliness agenda, the Government has so far done nothing to address the fact that second home ownership is leaving vulnerable people in the shells of once-thriving communities. Those are homes that should be lived in, not just maintained. 

I am determined to give our communities the best chance to defeat the threat of second home ownership and there is a clear set of actions that the Government could take to breathe life back into our communities – three actions in particular. First, they could close the business rates loophole that incentivises even greater levels of absentee second home ownership. At the moment, some second home owners are avoiding local taxation altogether. They claim their second homes are let for holiday accommodation. As a result, they can bring the homes within the business rates system, instead of paying council tax on them. However, because their “business” will have an income of less than £12,000 a year, it will qualify for small business rate relief, and therefore no council tax or business rates will be paid at all, so no contribution whatsoever will be made to local services. This, frankly, is a scam, and one that hurts communities.

Secondly, the Government could give local authorities the power to levy higher council tax on second homes… Closing the business rates loophole and allowing local authorities to increase council tax on second homes would have some impact in dissuading people from buying second homes in those towns and villages that are most under threat. I suspect that someone who can afford at least £500,000 for a second home will not be put off by another £2,000 or £3,000 a year in council tax, but the key purpose of these moves would be to secure additional funds, to be used to provide compensatory subsidies to schools, post offices and bus routes suffering from the lack of a permanent population, and to pump-prime new affordable housing developments for local families, to give those communities a fighting chance of reviving and surviving.

Thirdly, the Government should act on planning law. Second homes should be made a separate category of planning use…To turn a first home into a second home should require planning permission from the local council or the national park, and I would expect planners to say a flat no to such applications in one of the many communities already under the greatest threat and pressure from excessive second home ownership. By taking this action, the Government could enable an immediate cap on second home ownership and would, over time, allow second homes to move back into being permanent family homes, rebuilding, reviving and renewing our communities.

Tim Farron MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale 

Parliamentary debate on second-homes.

19th December 2018 (Hansard vol.651) (edited)


The winding roads of the two valleys were originally made of stone chippings and ‘sammel’ or gravel, until the early 1920s when tar-spraying came into use. Boulders, either quarried in the neighbourhood or collected off the land after being turned out during ploughing, were carted by the local farmers to the various locations for the stone-breaker to set to work on. Tom Buntin recalls:

Walking along the road in almost any part of the Lake District you could come across a large heap of stones. You would hear the ring of the stone-breaker’s hammer long before you reached the place. When you drew near you found an old man seated on a sack, his legs stretched out before him and his trousers hitched up and tied with a piece of string below the knee – ‘Yorks’ we called them. He wore a pair of goggles to prevent chips of stone or flint from flying into his eyes. The stone-breaker was quite an interesting man to watch and talk to. He would tell you that although the work was hard, he would rather be out in the open ‘brekking staans’ than doing nowt at all! When he had broken up a heap of stones they were measured and he would be paid by the cubic yard.

The stones were layered to a depth of about 5 or 6 inches on the surface of the road and then covered with gravel and watered in. The watering-cart held about 200 gallons and it had shafts to be yoked to the horse. Then a heavy steam-roller was used. The driver used to bring his sleeping cabin drawn behind the roller. He had to get up early to get his fire going to get up steam… As children we used to enjoy watching the steam-roller going backwards and forwards, and talking to the driver.

The new road to Dungeon Ghyll, built due to old road frequently flooding, cost of £7,500 and was completed in 1925. It started just below Robinson Place and followed the old Raw Lane as far as Raw Head. The first section from just behind Raw Head cut through the fields to join the old road just below the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The County Council brought along a crusher, which was driven by a traction engine to break the stones for the road metal. The labour force consisted largely of men laid off or on short time at the gunpowder works.  

At the same time three new bridges were built, one at Millbeck over Mill Ghyll, the next at Rossett replacing the packhorse bridge, and the other at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel near Middlefell Place. Before the Second World War each section of road had a ‘lengthsman’ responsible for keeping it clean. Tommy Birkett was the last lengthsman in Little Langdale, with a stretch from Colwith to Fell Foot. Great Langdale was the province of Will Birkett of Stonebank, a man who used to break stones in his spare time, then by Thomas Youdell, and finally by Charlie Laight. 

Thomas Youdell knew every grill, little hole in the wall by the roadside, and every drain up the valley. On wet days, with his oilskin trousers and overcoat he would cycle the full length of the valley and clean out each one – every hole would be cleared of leaves. You never had water standing on the roads in those days!”

(Tom Buntin, Life in Langdale 1993)


By the 1930s Langdale, and more particularly Great Langdale, was being opened up to visitors, with the development of hotels, and new guest houses. In 1945 farmer Hugh Parker had his first inkling of what was to come. Clipping sheep under the watchful eye of Johnny Youdale of Middlefell Farm, he happened to glance up, astonished to see someone strolling by very different from the usual climbers in their nailed boots. Here instead was a handsome man in a trilby and topcoat and the most glamorous woman he had ever laid eyes on. He was not to know it, but this was Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson filming a scene in ‘Brief Encounter’. “There’s some smart folk just gone by”, he marvelled. “Thee get on wi’ clipping”, replied Johnny.

Langdale relied on rock climbing as its main draw. To meet the growing demand for tourist accommodation the Old and New Dungeon Ghyll farmhouses were converted into hotels and in Chapel Stile, with the closure of the Gunpowder Works in 1930 a local landowner, recognising the potential of the location, bought and developed the site as a holiday resort. By the late 1930s, accommodation consisted of a small hotel, several furnished cottages, dormitories and a guest house. In 1981 it was bought by a group of local businessmen who established the Langdale Partnership and a complex of 80 Scandinavian-type lodges were constructed as ‘timeshare’ apartments. 

By the mid-20th century it also became common for local people to take in paying guests to supplement family incomes. The Birketts at Dale View, Little Langdale divided their house during the summer months, living in one half themselves and letting out the other to visitors. These included many climbers who returned year after year, leading to friendships with the Birkett family that continued throughout their lives.

The Holiday Fellowship established a mountain centre at Wall End Farm, Great Langdale in 1926, while Elterwater Hall first opened as a youth hostel in 1939. The headquarters and the largest climbing hut of the Achille Ratti Climbing Club was established at Bishop’s Scale, and in 1944 the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, the oldest and largest rock climbing and mountaineering club in the north of England leased and then purchased Raw Head Farm from Mr Bullman of the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. It became so well used that often members had to sleep in bracken on the floor of the adjacent barn. 

As was the case in other parts of the Lakes, Langdale during the early 20th century became vulnerable to the threat of development from forestation, private ownership and, indeed, the increasing demands of tourism. George Macaulay Trevelyan, the most influential and widely read historian of his generation first began holidaying in Great Langdale in 1905. For the next 50 years he became its chief protector. He recognised that in order to protect the working farms in the valley, as well as the open countryside, the threat from development needed to be challenged. He bought Old Dungeon Ghyll, Stool End and Wall End farms covering  400 acres of the valley and later added Low Millbeck and Harry Place farms , all of which he donated then to the National Trust.

In Little Langdale Beatrix Potter was on the same mission, acquiring Busk, Dale End, Penny Hill, Low Oxenfell farms, the Elterwater Closes, and Great Intake also donating them to the National Trust. In this way Langdale has played a key part in the development of the conservation movement in the Lake District.