Grisedale

by Tim Clarke

Banner Image: Grisedale © Anne Clarke

A casual, but observant walker, climbing up from Glenridding village, past Lanty’s tarn – and its very special ice house hidden near the dam sluice, will emerge on the northern side of the spectacular Grisedale valley.

There is evidence that Grisedale valley - ‘the valley where young pigs were grazed’- has been inhabited, more or less uninterrupted, since late Prehistoric times, (circa 2000-1000BC) with direct evidence of such settlements in nearby Glencoyne Park.

Ice house near © Tim Clarke

From a vantage point looking south east towards Grisedale beck in the valley bottom, the walker will see the kennels of the Ullswater Foxhounds, established in 1873. The Dobson family, who farmed the valley for 500 years, lived at Grassthwaite How, a group of 5 houses, 4 of which are now owned by the Ullswater Foxhounds. The mythical Huntsman Joe Bowman, who was Master of the Hounds for 41 years, used to live at number 1.

Kennels of the Ullswater Foxhounds © Tim Clarke

The valley had been bestowed on the Dobsons for services rendered in protecting the Abbeys in Westmorland from the ravages of the Scottish Raiders. Lancelot was a common family Christian name, and Lanty’s tarn is named after a Dobson. The family ultimately left Patterdale and moved to Bolton, Lancashire in 1789.

From the same vantage point the walker will see a high boundary wall stretching right around the whole valley. It is known as a 'ring garth', separating the pastures on the valley floor from the fells above. This was probably constructed some time during the medieval period (1100-1600), then upgraded after the Marshall family purchased the valley and properties in 1824. In some places there are 50 stones on top of each other!

Part of the ring garth wall © Tim Clarke

From the same vantage point, on your left- hand side, you will see an outcrop of rocks, now clothed in Scots Pine. An access gate has an old notice attached to it, named Castle Plantation. It seems that the site may have been a hill fort dating back to the late prehistoric period, whose likely function was to oversee the movement of people and animals in and out of the valley. It is now in ruins and has apparently never been properly investigated.

Castle Plantation © Tim Clarke
Sign on the gate of Castle Plantation © Tim Clarke

If you turn now south west and walk up the valley towards Grisedale tarn at the head of the valley, sandwiched at the base of Fairfield and Dollywagon Pike, more of the mysteries of the valley will be revealed.

Across the valley, you will see the Thornhow barn, built in 1889. On the semi-vertical slopes of Birks you can see the ancient zig-zag marks tracing an old packhorse route, probably used as well to bring peat cut from the fell tops down on sledges to the valley bottom. Look carefully at the undulations of the soil, showing ancient ploughing contours and earthworks. These are particularly visible on the other side of Grisedale beck, opposite Braestaeds farm which currently raises Swaledale sheep and some cattle. On the other side of the beck, opposite Braesteads is Elmhow. Both farmsteads are thought to date back to the 1600s.

Thornhow Barn ©Tim Clarke
Date on Thornhow barn © Tim Clarke
Terraces © Greenlane Archaeology Ltd, courtesy of Madeleine Scott

Whilst the occupants of Braestaeds have probably always been farmers, those at Elmhow, opposite, across the Grisedale beck, seem to have had a variety of trades - farming and shepherding, working in the Eagle Crag lead mine, and even mat making.

Just before reaching Braesteads farm look carefully at the ruins of farm buildings that date back to medieval times (1100-1600). A 2013 survey identified 44 significant archaeological remains, including Hogg (sheep) and Smoot (rabbit) holes in the walls. On the OS map, there is a trace of a track that crosses the beck near Elmhow. But today, there is no sign of it – it has been ploughed up and the area reverted to grazing land.

Ruined structure © Greenlane Archaeology Ltd, courtesy of Madeleine Scott
Hogg-hole © Greenlane Archaeology Ltd, courtesy of Madeleine Scott

As you continue to amble up the valley past the Broomhilll plantation – where there are also signs of ancient human settlements - you may make out more zig-zag paths on the slopes of St Sunday Crag, opposite the valley. You will also see remains of abortive attempts to find the galena vein which slowly becomes visible as you approach Eagle Crag on your right -hand side.

Mine tailings at Eagle Crag © Tim Clarke

Beneath your feet, you will have seen that the path itself is quite substantial in places, built up over a hundred years ago to take the weight of lead ore recovered from the Eagle Crag mine which operated from 1784 -1876. Access to the top level (ninth level) of the mine, was via a winding footpath that follows Nethermost cove beck.

The galena vein slices across the valley. Close to a sheepfold located near the beck, you will be amazed to see the worked out galena vein, about a metre wide. Stand in awe between the sides of the vein, think back over a hundred years, and imagine the life of a miner, working in all weathers, toiling with a pick to remove the lead ore.

Galena vein at Eagle Crag © Tim Clarke

If you continue your journey up the valley towards Grisedale tarn, past amazing hanging valleys of Nethermost cove and Ruthwaite cove, pause at the Ruthwaite Lodge climbing hut, rebuilt by the Sheffield University Mountaineering Club in the late 1950s on the site of a mining office that used to supervise the Ruthwaite mining operations in the 1780s. You may notice that the area on the OS map is called Grisedale Forest, where hunting used to take place. Today there’s not a tree in sight.

Group at Ruthwaite Lodge, with thanks to James Sowerby

If you proceed a couple of hundred metres above the hut you will find the entrance of an adit that leads into the old mine. Higher still you will find the hollowed out remains of a galena vein on the surface. In the distance, the crags behind are made up of columns of basalt, similar to what can be seen in the rocks of Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa or the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Ruthwaite mine entrance with basalt rocks behind © Tim Clarke
Ruthwaite mine entrance © Tim Clarke
Remains of galena vein at Ruthwaite © Tim Clarke

Finally, as you push on to the top of the valley, just before reaching Grisedale tarn, you will come across the Brothers' Parting Stone on your left hand side, a very special memorial. It honours an emotional moment in September 1800, when the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had waved goodbye to William’s brother John, a ship’s Captain of the East India Company. They had been fishing in the tarn, then parted their ways, Dorothy and William down Little Tongue gill towards Grasmere and John heading down toward Patterdale. Sadly, it was the last time they would see each other – John died in a shipwreck 4 years later, along with two hundred other sailors.

Brothers' Parting Stone © Tim Clarke

Brother and Friend, if verse of mine

Have power to make they virtues known,

Here let a monumental Stone

Stand-sacred as a Shrine;

And to the few who pass this way,

Traveller or Shepherd, let it say,

Long as these mighty rocks endure,-

Oh do not thou too fondly brood,

Although deserving of all good,

On any earthly hope, however pure!

At first sight Grisedale valley seems austere, beautiful and wild, carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago. Fascinating to reflect in one brief walk, how humans have left their mark in the valley over the last few centuries: on farming, mining and literature


by Tim Clarke


Source: Elm How and Braesteads Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment © Greenlane Archaeology Ltd, November 2013, quoted with permission of Madeleine Scott

Other Topics you may find of interest