Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Marks of a Medieval Farming Landscape, Walney

Walney is a beautiful and picturesque island sitting just off the coast of Barrow. Today it is bustling with houses, caravan sites and the like but back in the Medieval period many parts of the island were covered in rich and fertile fields!
During the period Furness Abbey owned much of the land on Walney and they would take tithes from the various fields, tended by locals. In the present day you can find evidence of the extensive Medieval farming in the form of, well, fields! Not just normal fields though, many of the grassy plains are covered in the archeological feature known as ridge and furrow. These are the scars from a form of ploughing that was popular throughout the Middle Ages. In that time though there were no fences marking out the edges of fields, an open field system was used instead.  Manors, in this case Furness Abbey, would have owned large amounts of land and this land was split into strips. Peasant family's were then given different strips of land of which they could tend. Oddly though each family's different strips were not often next to one another. They could be interspersed with other family's strips, making it a little difficult to work them quickly. The lot of a Medieval peasant was not an easy one, working extremely hard day in day out for not much return. The defining feature of these strips was that they did not have boundary fences and this is where the 'open field' name comes from.

Walney golf course has many ridge and furrow features running across it and they are easy to see from the road side, near to Walney secondary school. The picture above shows the features clearly.

Even more evidence of farming can be found cut though the base clay on certain areas of the Walney coastline. Features like the one pictured right are quite common. These features are drainage ditches dug into the clay. Rich fertile soil would have sat above this clay where crops could be grown, but if water sept through the soil and hit the base clay it couldn't go anywhere thus making the land soggy and useless. To prevent this happening the peasant farmers would dig down through the soil and into the base clay to create long ditches along their field strips. These ditches were then filled with gravel or, in some cases, large stones were placed along their edge with cap stones sitting across the top of them. Once filled the ditches would be covered over again with soil. With these now in place any water would drain through the soil and into the ditches where it could slowly drain away through the gravel and seep off to other areas. These ditches were quite ingenious and would have been truly vital for farming on Medieval Walney. Especially as there was often a lot more rain fall in the period than we have today as well as some very harsh winters.

Elsewhere on the Walney's coastline there is another, final, remnant of farming gone by; a field boundary (pictured left). This boundary consists of a large mound and ditch. This feature would have marked the boundary of one large field, the smaller strips siphoned off with in. A large ditch was most likely dug along the edges of the fields to, as the smaller ditches, help with drainage. This ditch though would have no doubt been visible on the original earth surface.

There will be many of these features, both drainage ditches and boundaries, hidden beneath the ground and under vegetation all across Walney. The ones shown here are only visible now due to coastal erosion. The sea has slowly, and in recent times rapidly, eaten away at the soft earth to reveal the peat and clay below. Go back even a hundred years and some of these features would still be covered by soil and grass. Although erosion is ever changing our coastlines and causing no end of trouble, it does bring to light some of the wonderful heritage hidden beneath the ground!

The marks of a Medieval farming landscape across Walney are vast and fascinating. Imagine the peasant families of old going out everyday to tend their strips of land, battling the winds and harsh weather, moving oxen to pull a plough through the earth, slipping and sliding on the mud. It must have been an extremely hard life, all to grow crops for the Abbey and not to receive much back for your own plate. Although it must have been hard, the farmers were well versed in what they had to do and no doubt made it look relatively easy. Thanks to them though we have these wonderful remnants to discover across the countryside and if it wasn't for them the area may be a lot different today.

Come back on May 13th for the next blog post.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

An Ancient Cross and Christian Monument, Urswick Church

Slightly hidden behind a tree-lined graveyard in Urswick stands the Church of St. Mary and St. Michael, an ancient and wonderful little church. On a site with a history dating back to, at least, the Viking age the church has a lot to discover within its stone built walls.

One of the first interesting little features to be found at this church is outside about half way up the tower. The bottom part of this tower is believed to be pre-Norman and was possibly some form of pele tower to provide protection to the locals. A sandstone lintel runs around the tower marking the top the original keep. But sitting on and above this line, to the left of the western end of the tower, is a rather weathered sandstone sculpture. This sculpture is of the Mother Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion. The sculpture is thought to have been from Furness Abbey and placed in the tower here after the dissolution of the monasteries. The top section of the tower was built in the Tudor period so it would certainly fit.

Within the church itself can be seen another, much earlier, piece of carved sandstone. This piece is known as the Tunwini Cross and dates back to the period of British history known as the Anglo-Saxon period. The stone was a fragment of what would have been a larger cross. The slab was found in 1911 when work was undertaken at the church to expand a window. The cross section was built into the wall below the lintel of the window. On discovery an expert in Northern English Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian crosses was called to the church. Having studied the cross he determined that the cross was Anglian with hints of Celtic design and dated to about 850-870 AD. He also deduced that the ruins carved into one side (as seen below right) read "This cross Tunwini erected in memory of Torhtred a monument to his Lord. Pray for the soul."

Later studies have suggested that the current ruins adorning the cross have been carved on top of an earlier runic inscription. It is thought that the original runes, and thus the cross, was produced to commemorate a meeting between the 7th Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodora, and Tarsus, prior of a monastery named Elen. It is also theorised that the two figures carved below the text are these two men. This would date the cross to the later 7th to early 8th century, one of the earliest runic inscription discovered in Britain.

The finding of the cross was during one of many alterations the church has undergone over the centuries. The original church would have most likely been where the current nave is and been lower with a roof probably made of reeds. The stone church present today was up to its current height by 1598 and, as mentioned earlier, the tower was modified and extended in Tudor times. 

The chancel of the church was added much earlier in the Norman period and has many interesting features including several lovely stained glass windows, but one of these windows is particularly interesting. A long thin window, made up of various pieces of broken glass, has fragments of stained glass originally from Furness Abbey. It cannot be determined exactly which pieces are from the Abbey but the circular piece with a greyhound inside it (see left) is a very likely candidate. It is also probable that the yellow, white and black pieces are from the Abbey too, as they match up in style with other fragments of glass dotted around the area known to be from Furness Abbey. To the top of the window is an Abbots hat along with a crozier extending up behind it, this section is also believed to be from the Abbey. It is very tricky to say exactly where each piece of glass comes from where as they have all been interspersed with later and modern glass. This does make for quite a fun activity though; trying to work out what bits you think could be from the Abbey or not. I certainly spent a fair bit of time trying to work it out!

Looking around the inside and outside of the church you can find many different features from a squint, a cut through the chancel wall so that anyone sitting in the pews behind can see through to the alter, to various wooden and stone carvings. Including two very early looking carved heads that sit outside the east window (see right). While I was at the church a man who helps look after the church said something that seemed to ring true. He said that a man once came to the church and had commented that 'you can feel the history emanating from the walls', or something to similar effect. I can certainly see what he means, when you walk in you can really sense the age of the building and you know it has seen a vast amount in its time. Having been here since at least Anglo-Saxon times it will have certainly seen a fair amount, with the surrounding village changing and expanding to an array of different visitors. The site itself might even date back to an earlier time. A fragment of a Viking cross, with knot design, has been found in the church grounds in the past which does give evidence to Viking settlement in the near vicinity, if not early Viking religious activity! Unfortunately this cross fragment is not on display in the church but there is an image of it, along with an artists impression of what the rest of the cross may have looked like.

Urswick Church really has a lot of hidden heritage to offer, both inside and out. The church is often open for the public to visit, except when services are taking place, so it is well worth a visit. It is easy to reach by foot, just off the main road through Urswick. There is also a small car park for visitors should you wish to visit by car. This site is an ancient one and the church itself is one of the older in Furness so why not have a look?

Come back on 29th April for the next Furness Hidden Heritage blog post looking at some interesting features on Walney.

The Churches of Furness Series does what it says on the tin, it takes a look at the many and varied churches of the Furness area of South Cumbria. From churches with Norman origins to Victorian houses of worship there certainly is an array of religious buildings to discover

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Victorian Emergency Services Series - Ulverston

Today we take Emergency Services like hospitals, the police and the fire brigade for granted. They are engrained in our modern world, if we need them they are there and we can always rely on them. Back in the Victorian Era though things were very different. In this post we conclude our series on Victorian Emergency Services by looking at Ulverston.

Town Jails and Police Station

The Town Gaol
One of the earliest law enforcement sites in Ulverston is, and was, tucked down a side ally now known as Smithy Close, just off of King Street. This building was used as the Town Gaol (jail) where people found under the influence were placed to sober up. At the time this building was used anyone found committing a more serious crime would have been sent to Lancaster for trial.

By 1836 Ulverston had a new custom build Town Jail, often referred to as the 'Black Hole' by locals, to fulfill the need for a police station. This lock up was situated on The Gill, not that you would know today, a toilet block now sits where the jail used to be. The jail was a square building standing alone in the middle of the Gill. It held three cells, at about 6 feet by 3 feet, where wrong doers would be imprisoned. Above the cells were living space and bedrooms, this is most likely where a Police Officer would have lived. It can't have been the most pleasant place to live but needs must when you are a Victorian Policeman.

Several years later and land was bought on Neville Street to build a new, larger, Police station. The new station  opened in 1888 having been designed by local Architect James W Grundy. Grundy was also responsible for some proposed developments to the Town Jail, planning to add a new living area. The new Police Station was much bigger than anything the town had had before, standing taller and looking much grander. Inside the building, just through the main door, there was a Superintendents Office to the left with a Clerks Office to the right. Beyond this was a passage leading to 4 large cells, awaiting the detention  of criminals from Ulverston streets. As well as these rooms there was also a Constables Parade Room, where constables would be briefed before going on duty, two bedrooms upstairs with living quarters in separate buildings to the rear. This Station had everything a growing Victorian Police Force would need to carry out its work. Before this the town, much like Barrow and Dalton, was making do with small lock ups and one manned stations. As towns grew and the population of Furness rose, more stations of this size were needed to handle the rise in crime.

The Police Station is still in use by the Ulverston constabulary and is one of the only Victorian built stations in Furness that is still in use today. How much longer it will remain in use is uncertain at this time but one hopes that this building has a long life ahead of it.

Ulverston Cottage Hospital

In 1873 a brand new Cottage Hospital opened on Newton Street, near the Swan Inn. The hospital was built to mainly cater for casualty patients. It did later, in 1906, take on surgical cases and develop a maternity department. The hospital was funded by voluntary contributions, as was the norm in Victorian England, and fundraising were undertaken through annual parades that took place in the town centre. The hospital building was designed, like the later Police Station, by James W Grundy, in 1871. The building contained two wards able to hold three beds, a convalescent ward and a special ward. It also had a small surgery, nurse's room and operation room. Upstairs there was a room for children's cots, presumably to hold any sick children brought to the establishment, along with two bedrooms. Everything was tailored for the healing and care of the ill and wounded, from the purpose built wards to the large exterior garden. Of course along with healing, unfortunately, also comes death. A reminder of this stood to the rear of the hospital in a separate out-building. This building was the mortuary chamber. Here anyone who passed away in the hospital would be brought for autopsy.

Today the only evidence left of this hospital is a wall and fence on Newton Street, which the hospital would have stood behind. The hospital building itself has, sadly, been replaced by housing.

The hospital served the town until 1971 when it was demolished. A new hospital soon opened in Stanley Street with in an old workhouse building. This building was also demolished at a later date to make way for a new purpose built hospital, which still stands on the site today.

Fire Station

Sitting on The Ellers is a small building currently being used by the St. Johns ambulance, but back in 1886 this building was just opening as Ulverston's first, purpose built, Fire Station! Armed with an old manual engine the Fire Brigade would set out to tackle the fires of Ulverston town. Some years after the Brigade purchased a brand new Greenwich Gem fire engine. The engine went through several testings, one memorable one being witnessed by Councillors and locals alike. This test included the engines water jet blasting 360 gallons of water a minute at the walls of the Workhouse on Stanley Street. This must have been quite a display for the onlookers, possibly something they had never seen before. A small boiler at the rear of the machine powered the engines water jet. The Fire Station on The Ellers continued to serve the town for many many years, under going several alterations and extensions in the 1900s, until eventually closing in 1974 when a new station was built just next door.


The Victorian period really saw the birth of modern emergency services. The expansion of the police force and fire brigades brought to the fore well run services ready to cope with whatever was thrown at them. Criminals could be apprehended sooner, fires could be fought quicker and more efficiently. The building of hospitals to aid the public saw an advance in medical care and treatment; medicines would become more and more accessible. People injured in accidents would be treated quicker and in a safer environment, which led to less deaths and longer lives. These hospitals also paved the way for the welfare state and eventually the NHS we know today. Without the Victorian advances in emergency services Britain could be a very different place today! 

Site of the Town Jail, now a toilet block.