Matterdale's Farming History

by Veronica Gore

Banner image © Anne Clarke

Matterdale was late to enter the modern world


Matterdale is a hidden away sort of place, off the beaten track, lying between the main road from Penrith to Keswick and the northern shore of Ullswater. It is served by only one main road and otherwise has a network of small lanes which have remained in the same pattern since the Enclosures of 1832 and 1882.


Its hidden-away situation meant that Matterdale was late to enter the modern world. It may surprise you to learn that the valley was only connected to mains water in around 1934 and before that water was supplied by wells, and from the dam on the Aira Beck in Dockray. Mains electricity only arrived on 29 May 1961, and before that lighting was by candles or paraffin lamps. Telephones arrived in 1936, but were only available at the Post Office during opening hours, 9 am to 6 pm, Monday to Saturday. Now it still has pockets where there is no mobile phone coverage, and, although fibre broadband has arrived in the valley at Dockray, other outlying areas still have poor internet coverage.

Matterdale Farming in the early 1800s


At the beginning of the 19C the valley would have been entirely agricultural with a mix of: Yeomen or Statesmen, who were tenant farmers (1); small numbers of Cottagers who were very poor in comparison and worked small plots, eking out a living in subsistence farming; agricultural labourers; and small traders who supported agriculture, e.g. smiths, mole catchers, coopers.


There were no through routes through the valley, and the road system was poor.


Prior to the Enclosure Acts of Watermillock (1832) and Matterdale (1882) (2) most of Matterdale was common land, apart from the Deer Parks (3) of Glencoyne and Gowbarrow owned by the Howards of Greystoke. Common land was land that was unenclosed and used by the inhabitants for grazing their cattle and sheep, growing potatoes, oats, and other crops, and digging peat etc. The common land was owned by the Howard family of Greystoke Castle.

Herdwick tup © Jane Firth

Some of the inhabitants, the Yeoman Farmers, had historically been granted “customary tenancies” by the Howards in exchange for military service against the Scots. Unlike much of the rest of England, this enabled the customary tenants to have security of possession and inheritance. In return, customary tenants paid rents and Manorial dues to the Howards and tithes to the Rector of Greystoke who then maintained the church in Matterdale, and provided clergy to conduct services.


The Yeoman farmers carried out piecemeal enclosure and seem to have carried out improvements to their land, evidenced by the existence of stone drains in Glencoyne Park and in Matterdale. Many of these owner-occupied farms were small, and were mostly worked by family members and agricultural workers or live-in farm servants. The customary tenants also had access to extensive common lands, which could be used for grazing, peat cutting, firewood etc.


The Enclosure Acts of 1832 and 1882 enabled the customary tenants to consolidate their properties, and the process of enclosure and improvement of the land speeded up. The Yeomen farmers developed and increased their holdings over time.


However, this process increased the poverty of the agricultural workers and the small number of cottagers. The cottagers lost their common rights so had to rent from the Yeomen farmers. The Lords of Greystoke continued to own a sixteenth part of the land enclosed, and to collect some manorial dues and tithes. This did not stop completely in Matterdale until 1951.

Fig.1 Land Ownership at Dowthwaitehead 1844

O = farmed by landowner. R = Rented out, farmed by tenant (5)

Managing the Commons


Matterdale Common like other high fell areas around Ullswater became regulated common. Commoners were allotted “stints” or grazing rights on the common land, and each stint allowed them to graze a specific number of sheep or cows between 6 May to 1 November each year. This practice still continues today. (4)

You can see from Fig 1 (5) the ownership pattern of the land between Dowthwaitehead and Crookwath, in 1844, and a similar pattern was found in the rest of Matterdale where 480 acres was worked by owners and 1,250 acres was let out to tenants.

Fig.2 Field System and Land Usage at Dowthwaitehead 1844

A = Arable, M = Meadow and improved grass, P = Pasture (5)

Enclosure Acts enable improvements


With the enclosures the farmers were increasingly able to improve the land, particularly by improving drainage to increase the amount of arable land. Previously the valley bottoms would, as they are now, have been wet and boggy, some higher land a bit better, but then rough pasturage and fells.


Drainage increased the land on which arable crops could be grown. Wheat, barley and oats fetched a good price as a result of the Corn Law Acts of 1815-1846 and years of poor European harvests. Of these, barley, and to a greater extent oats, were important in Matterdale as food for the population and also as animal fodder. Root crops, such as turnips and potatoes, were also grown in greater quantities and, as a result, more stock could be overwintered. Barns were improved for storing animal food and for over-wintering stock.

The high cereal prices and the improvement in farming particularly benefitted the Yeomen farmers, who increased their holdings of land and improved their houses. Figure 2 (5) shows the differential use of the land near Dowthwaitehead between arable, meadow and improved grass and pasture. There was a similar pattern in Matterdale where 600 acres were classified as arable and 1,130 acres as meadow and pasture. The cottagers suffered as a result of the high price of flour and bread, but they also grew food in their small gardens.

As the railways come, stock levels rise

The opening of the railway from Penrith through to Keswick and Cockermouth in 1864 contributed to the increase in sheep and cattle in the area which also benefitted the Yeomen farmers. Livestock prices held up well, and the sheep market at Troutbeck, where there was a station, increased in size as stock could be more easily moved from the area. Although during the 19C there was greater variety of farming, the mainstay was always, as now, sheep farming. The sheep breed most farmed were Herdwicks, a hardy breed, hefted to the fells, and ideally suited to the harsh upland weather. (6)

Herdwick lambs © Jane Firth

Little change in the early 1900s


During the early part of the 20th Century farming practices changed little. It is likely there was an increase in the growing of oats during the First World War to produce more food crops as again farmers were guaranteed a price of cereal, but it is also likely this would not have been maintained subsequently. (7,8) During the Second World War there was a push to increase the amount of land that was ploughed to grow potatoes, turnips, kale and oats to feed the population and animals. Use of machines was very limited. Even in the 1940s, horses were the main source of power in the valley. Widespread use of tractors only happened later.

Mary Jackson's photos, with thanks to Jane Newport

After the Second World War, concern about the need for importing large amounts of food during the war from overseas (20 million tons per year), what we might now call ‘food insecurity’, deeply concerned the government and there was a further push, and financial incentives, to increase the amount of productive land through drainage, straightening becks (streams) to speed up water flowing off the land.


While this occurred in Matterdale the climate and the limited quality of the land did mean it was not extensive, and there still remained for some years the old patterns of farming with small farms of small irregular fields growing a range of crops: hay, oats, turnips, divided by hedges and walls, and a cottage garden for the house. There would also have been a range of livestock. Mostly sheep and also cattle, horses, and a couple of pigs.


Agriculture also continued to support a range of other occupations, indeed some of the farms were so small the farmers needed other occupations to earn a living: mole catchers, ferreters, labourer, hedge layers, wallers. Farming was hard, labour intensive and skilled work. (7 & 8)

Mechanisation and fertilisers arrive


Things changed significantly even in Matterdale, with the advent of increasing mechanisation and fertilisers. These changes made the farmers work easier, but led to the replacement of skilled labour by machines, the reduction of farming jobs and related occupations, the reduction of the number of farms in the valley, the straightening of fields and grubbing out of hedges.


Horses were no longer required for ploughing or cutting hay, and as they went so did the fields of oats which fed them. Winter fodder of turnips for sheep was replaced by feed made from imported American lupins or maize, so turnip fields were no longer required.

Old Tractor, courtesy of Pixaby

Farmers had always rotated crops through different fields to ensure soil health as different crops each took and put back different nutrients into the soil. Additionally they had also spread muck from the barns where the cattle had been overwintered onto the fields to fertilise them. The advent of fertilisers after 1945 meant that both these methods of ensuring the health of the soil were no longer thought to be necessary. Fertilisers were a kind of miracle for farmers. It increased their yields, increased the number of cuts they could make each season and they began growing high performance rye grass and making silage which didn’t need sunshine to dry out, and could be made in one day even if it was raining (important in wet Matterdale!). It made more nutritional food for cows and sheep.


Spraying pesticides replaced the labour intensive work of scything thistles and nettles and stopped them reseeding. Fields were enlarged, to be more efficient and to enable access to machinery and tractors. The hedges that remained were no longer layered in the old fashioned way and became straggly or intermittent lines of trees, and were no longer stock proof. So fences supplemented and then replaced them. (9)

Arable crops are no longer grown in Matterdale, and most of the farming is sheep farming. Sheep farming increased, thanks to the imported sheep feed and also the incentives from the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union which initially provided subsidies per head of sheep. This led to an overgrazing of the common land of the fells and the close cropping of fields. Farming was made more productive and the landscape more efficient, but much was lost too.

Fig. 3. Farms in Matterdale in1940 and 2000

Star outline = Farms in 1940. Black star = Farms continuing through to 2000 (5)

Farms lost, landscapes change


In 1940 there were over 30 farms in Matterdale many of which had been there for 150 years. (see Fig 3).Only 7 now remain. In 1940s Dockray it is estimated that 44 people out of a resident population of 88 were dependent on farming. By 2000 there was a resident population of 44 with only 4 dependent on farming. (5)


The range of livestock also decreased: the pigs, turkeys, horses, and most of the cattle disappeared, leaving predominantly sheep. And the crops went too - no more oats, barley, wheat or turnips.


What we didn’t know to begin with, but is abundantly clear now, is that we also lost a lot of nature. The soil lost earth worms which are vital to its health, the streams lost salmon and trout and otters, the hedgerows lost insects (moths, dragon flies, bees) and birds (chaffinches, thrushes, warblers). The meadows lost not only a range of wild flowers and grasses (clover, pignut, vetches, bugle), but also voles, hares, curlews and lapwings, because the modern farming methods damaged the habitats they need to survive.

On the fells the increased numbers of sheep damaged heaths and bogs, and ate the new growth of wild flowers, trees and scrubland, leading to a decrease in birds, insects and other wild life. We also now know that these changes contributed to the increased risk of flooding and run off, as the land was no longer so able to absorb rainfall, and the straightened becks no longer slowed down the flow.


“in place of an old patch-work landscape full of working people, diverse farm animals and crops with lots of farm and wildlife, a blander, barer, simpler, denatured and unpeopled landscape had emerged."

James Rebanks "English Pastoral" page 142

A brighter future


This is not the end of the story of farming in Matterdale and not all the modern ways are bad. The rhythm of the shepherds year (10, 11), is much the same as it has ever been, and muck from the barns where cattle are overwintered is still spread on fields.


There is a new movement afoot with Regenerative Farming and Nature-Friendly Farming, which aims to take the best of the traditional ways and the modern ways, using science and lore, to develop farming and increase biodiversity - birds, insects, wild life, flowers and grasses. Stewardship introduced by the government and the proposed Environmental Land Management both offer financial incentives for maintaining the environment and increasing biodiversity. These are exciting developments.


by Veronica Gore

Danny Teasdale

Resources and References

  1. See Emma Bray’s article on Yeomen Farmers .

  2. The Enclosure Acts of the 18C ‘inclosed’ (old, no longer used spelling) open fields and common lands creating legal property rights to land previously held in common.

  3. Deer Parks were established by wealthy landowners to provide hunting as an entertainment for guests, and to provide a supply of venison.

  4. See article on common land and stints.

  5. Keith Clark (2001), ‘Social and Economic Changes in Matterdale between 1800-2000’. Matterdale Historical and Archaeological Society Year Book 7, pp 25-45

  6. See article on Herdwicks

  7. Anne Wooddisse (2010), ‘ John Wilkinson - a life in farming. Matterdale Historical and Archaeological Society Year Book 16 pp35-37

  8. James Rebanks (2020. ‘ English Pastoral - An Inheritance. Penguin Books

  9. See article on Hedge laying.

  10. James Rebanks. (2015), ‘The Shepherds Life’ Penguin Books


Other Topics that may interest you

James Rebanks

Countrystride Podcast in which James Rebanks talks to Mark Richards about his latest book, English Pastoral

Interview with Danny Teasdale

Director, Ullswater Catchment Management talks about nature-friendly farming and the changes in farming practice he has seen during his lifetime

Yeoman Farmers

by Emma Bray


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