Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Medieval Farmstead upon a Furness Fell | VIDEO

Heathwaite Fell, sitting to the north of the Furness peninsula, is a vast and wild place but hidden amongst the bracken and the windswept fields is a hidden gem. A medieval farmstead!

This farmstead is the highlight of a dispersed medieval settlement with it's associated field systems spread across the fell.

The farmstead, which is of more than one period of construction, consists of five interlinked enclosures made from stone walls with a domestic area to the north. A couple of these enclosures have land which has been improved for agricultural cultivation with the rest being un-improved and most likely for animal grazing. There are also a few small rectangular structures within the enclosures. Their function is unclear but I do wonder if they may have been sheep pens for isolating and sheering sheep.

To give you a better understanding of the layout of this farmstead and give you a better view of it we took to the air to film this breathtaking video:

Extending out from the farmstead is a selection of field system made up of banks and walled areas. The largest of these fields being around 5.7 hectare in size with all containing the archeological feature known as ridge and furrow, a feature spoken about in a previous post. These features give evidence to the cultivation of this land for the growing of crops. 

Close to the farmstead there are also three kilns. The one pictured below being on its east side. These kilns are made from thick, circular stone walls with large outer banks and deep central hollows. Two of these kilns, interestingly, have been constructed from former Bronze Age clearance cairns. These cairns were created when Bronze Age man cleared land for cultivation. To do this they removed large amounts of stone and rock from the fells and deposited them in large piles known as cairns. In the medieval period some of these were re-purposed as kilns for creating potash.

Potash was made from bracken or wood and was used to make soaps for the woollen trade - an industry that made vast amounts of money for the local abbey. Potash was created by burning wood or indeed bracken, which makes sense here as bracken covers much of the fell, removing the ash to then dissolve it in boiling water. Following this the solution is evaporated in large pots to leave a white residue, the potash (potassium chloride). 

It is also theorised that these kilns may have been used to dry timber for use in smelting lead ore, it feels more likely though that they were used for potash as sheep were almost certainly reared here and no doubt had their wool shorn here.

This fascinating remnant of our medieval past truly is a hidden gem. It's remote location gives stunning views of both the Lake District fells and the Duddon Estuary, it's low lying remains give a tangible connection to the past and the lumps of and bumps of the ridge and furrow give you a sense of the true grit and determination our ancestors had when cultivating the wild land they lived in.

A road runs near to this wonderful site and a short walk will get you right to it. It is well worth a visit and will open your eyes to our medieval past here in Furness and those men and women tirelessly working the land.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Built by Monks, Dalton Castle

Standing proud overlooking Dalton, the ancient capital of Furness, is the small but impressive pele tower known as Dalton Castle.

The monks of Furness Abbey built the castle in the 14th Century as a manorial courthouse for Furness. This is where the abbot exercised his right to hold courts and administer justice, as authorised in the abbey's foundation charter from 1127. The building held the courtroom, rooms for the lordships business, guardrooms, stores and several dungeon rooms.

The building also acted as a defensive structure against the possibility of Scottish attack. The tower has several statues sat upon its roof, statues of archers and armed men. These were to give the impression that the site was protected and had several men at arms. This would then deter any attackers, or at least that was the theory.

The inside of the castle has changed much over the centuries since its completion in the 1300s but it still retains several of its original features. For example the spiral staircase leading up from the garderobe and several dungeons dug in beneath the floor. Unfortunately other original rooms have been lost to time, especially after a radical alteration in 1856 when the upper floors were removed for a single room and new staircase.

The outside has changed a fair amount also. Several building were built onto the front of the castle over time from shops to a solicitors office, later used as the town hall. All these building have long since gone only leaving faint reminders of their presence with sandstone lines across the walls where the buildings may once have attached.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s the castle remained as a court for over 300 years, owned by a variety of different people including the crown and three dukes. Eventually the Duke of Buccleuch gave the castle to the National Trust who still own it today. The building is run by the Friends of Dalton Castle with the direction of the National Trust and is open on Saturday afternoons throughout the summer months. Take a look on the NT website for more info.

This quaint little pele tower is a wonderful piece of history standing on the streets of Dalton. It can be seen from many parts of the town, often dominating the skyline and is well worth a visit. It may be small but it holds a huge amount of history and although not open often it will certainly be worth making the effort to see inside.

Once you have you can always pop down the road to see St. Mary's Church or even further to see the Pinfold which we took a look at in a previous post.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Snapshot Series: The Roxy Cinema, Dalton

This photo was taken in 1997 and shows the then dilapidated remains of the old Roxy Cinema and bingo hall in Dalton. The building was one of the 'Picture Palace' style cinemas, the name visible at the top of the building in the photo above. These 'Picture Palaces' became popular in the 1930s and were built in many towns across the north west.

A cinema had stood on this site since 1912 when two men, Backhouse and Drinkwater, built the Empire on the site of a former brewery. This was Dalton's first cinema and became a popular place to be.

In 1936 however the interior of the building was demolished, leaving the front mostly intact, and rebuilt in a more contemporary and luxurious style. At this point its name was changed to the Roxy and was re-opened to the town on Christmas Day of that year.

In later life the cinema closed its doors and the building became the Roxy Bingo Hall. It stayed as such until it too closed sometime in the late 80s to early 90s, leaving the building to become more and more dilapidated.

Sadly this building with is wonderful, evocative architecture no longer exists. In the late 90's the Co-operative company bought the building and it's land, demolished it and built a brand new supermarket on the site.

It is a real shame that the old cinema had to go. I can remember when it did - I used to love the old building, it was a real snapshot in time and looked so nice (if a little run down). I often wish they had kept the frontage of the cinema and incorporated it into new building but alas this never happened.

Still I am glad that images exist of this wonderful old building so it can be remembered. The image above was taken by my father before demolition took place and I'm so please we have this image of what was one of my favourite buildings in the town.

The site of the Roxy Cinema as it is today with the Co-operative food shop standing in its place.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Snapshot Series: The Conishead Runes

In 1928 a block or red sandstone was discovered at Conishead Priory during an excavation of the medieval priory. This stone was the capital of a pilaster (an architectural element used to give the appearance of a supporting column) which would have once been part of the priory church. There was something different about this stone though, interestingly it had a runic inscription carved into it. Not something you would usually expect from a Medieval monastic site. The runes themselves had been translated as 'Dotbert' or 'Rotbert' (as in Robert) but some have suggested that it may translate as 'Kotbert' meaning Cuthbert, which could be very interesting.

Sadly this fascinating block went missing sometime after its discovery and its whereabouts became unknown. That is until a chance visit to an English Heritage store in 2016 led to its re-discovery!

I, the author of Furness Hidden Heritage, had visited the English Heritage stores in Helmsley to view the artefacts in storage there from Furness Abbey. While being shown around I was intrigued by one particular piece of stone which had a runic inscription upon it. The curators at the store were unsure as to what the inscription said and were under the belief that it was a stone from Furness Abbey. It certainly is in the same red sandstone synonymous with the abbey so it easily fit with all the other artefacts in storage.

Image courtesy of Greenlane Archeology.
I was curious about the stone so took a picture of the inscription for my own records. On leaving the stores I didn't put much more thought into the stone until one day when I was reading up on the priory at Conishead. I had found a report by Greenlane Archaeology, of Ulverston, and in the document there was mention of a unique stone found at Conishead with a runic inscription, a stone that's whereabouts was now unknown. Below the text was a black and white picture of the very same block I had seen in the stores.

My heart jumped and I immediately thought "I know where that is!". Quickly I checked the photograph I had taken of the stone in the stores to confirm my initial thoughts and yes, the runes matched, they were the same stone!

I soon got in contacted with Danny of Greenlane Archaeology to let him know of my discovery. He immediately got in contact with the curators at English Heritage and soon had confirmation that the Conishead Runes indeed sat on a shelf in the Helmsley stores. This marked the re-discovery of this fantastic piece of local history.

The Snapshot Series will be a series of short posts on singular locations, features or artefacts found in the Furness area. Not large enough to warrant a long blog post we will explore these sites in snapshots!