Traditional Buildings

by June Hill + Dr Alan Smith

Banner Image: Side Farm, threshing barn © LDNPA

Cumbria Vernacular Buildings Group ( was founded in 2013 to promote the enjoyment and understanding of Cumbria's traditional buildings, among its members and the wider public.

Vernacular Buildings

Vernacular buildings are those which were constructed from available local materials (animal and vegetable, as well as mineral), by local people, to fulfil local needs. They used traditional methods of construction giving a distinctive 'sense of place' to the landscape.

Only high status buildings survive from the middle ages – the fine country houses, defensive towers, castles and ancient churches, as people with the means to do so, soon adopted fashionable ideas and materials, ceasing to be 'vernacular'.

Yanwath Hall, possible the best example of a tower house in Cumbria. © Mike Turner

Local Stone

Local stone has always been the obvious building material. Stone is plentiful in the Ullswater area, but at the same time, presented challenges to work with. There is little variety – the whole area is underlain by hard rocks of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group. These provide flat slaty material from the layers of volcanic ash, as well as chunky, dark, solid lavas. The ash (tuff) is the distinctive 'Lakeland Green Slate'.

Early vernacular buildings show the rough textures of locally gathered volcanic materials, laid unbroken and un-coursed. River cobbles are to be seen in many early walls. Buildings are often rendered over with rough cast cement and painted.

View of Hartsop, a hamlet rich in vernacular buildings © Mike Turner

The green slates are at their finest in the Victorian 'polite' architecture of the villas and hotels in places like Glenridding and Patterdale. Ashlared stone is a rarity and restricted to the larger and more prestigious buildings. 'Imported' Permo-Triassic red sandstone from the Eden Valley is seen in the more detailed features.

All Saints Church, Watermillock, (1884), epitomises many of these features. Built of red hematite stained volcanic tuff, quarried only 1200 metres away at Gowbarrow Hall, with Penrith sandstone quoins, window surrounds, door frames and buttresses. The graveyard is a rich selection of more decorative imported stones, notable red Shap Granite.

Watermillock Church © Janet Wedgwood

Old Farmhouses

Our old farmhouses are the earliest 'vernacular' buildings which show how working people earned their living and housed themselves. Many of them date from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were part of what has become known as the Great Rebuild, a time of a distinct raising of living standards in domestic architecture which affected Cumbria later than the south of England. Houses were rebuilt or adapted from their medieval predecessors, with substantial up-grading, resulting in -

  • larger windows when Border raiding no longer necessitated defence;

  • installation of chimneys, which moved fireplaces from the centre of living spaces, to the gable, with the smoke directed upwards and out through a smoke hood, instead of interiors where smoke found its way out through the roof. Smoke was brought under control, enabling first floor rooms to be constructed, either in the former roof space or under a raised roof.

  • Roofs made of stone, usually slate or flagstones, instead of thatch.

Above: Glencoyne Farm, displaying many Lake District features - round chimneys, crow steps and house and barn in a linear arrangement © Mike Turner
Below: Cove Farm and Smithy, Watermillock, late 17th century with early 18th century changes. Dated barn adjoins house © LDNPA

Our Built Heritage

Around the Ullswater valley, from its headwaters at Kirkstone Pass to Eamont Bridge, the built heritage shows, in farmhouses and outbuildings, barns, cottages, field walls and bridges, how traditional craftsmanship, materials and ideas have been used to create the buildings we see today. It culminates in the hotels and guesthouses of the 'Vernacular Revival', (late nineteenth/early twentieth century), when the beauty and features of past buildings became something to emulate.

Barn at The Howe, Hartsop hamlet, used to house livestock and their fodder © Mike Turner
Pair of houses at Townhead, Sandwick Bay, with 8-pane sash windows © LDNPA
Seat Farm barn, dated 1731 with an eliptical arch over the cart entrance © LDNPA

By June Hill, Chairman Cumbria Vernacular Buildings Group (CVBG) and Dr Alan Smith, Geologist.

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