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A Brief History of Dubwath Silver Meadows

(by Mark Tilzey with additions by Mike Turner)

Only some 10-12,000 years ago, this area was under a thick blanket of ice, with little or no vegetation at all in what is now Cumbria. The ice gradually melted and a number of large lakes formed from the meltwater in the deep valley bottoms churned out by the glaciers. In the upper Derwent valley one huge lake formed - what we call Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwentwater formed one continous body of water, including the area of Dubwath Silver Meadows (the area now separating the two lakes was under water). Over the centuries, erosion of the surrounding hillsides and the growth of vegetation in the warmer climate led to the build up of sediments and layers of peat (un-decayed plant material), so that the huge lake gradually became smaller and eventually formed the two lakes we know today.

Much of the land, except for the highest fell tops and the wettest areas, was colonised by woodland - oak, ash, wych elm, hazel, birch, rowan, and bird cherry in the drier areas, alder and willow in the wetter parts. Open areas became scarcer except where large grazing animals - wild ox, moose, red deer - managed to keep the encroaching woodland at bay (with the exception of red deer, these animals are now long extinct in Britain). Humans were also part of this landscape, as hunters and gatherers, but our impacts on it probably did not become really significant until the beginning of farming about 5,000 years ago. Even then, the woodland may have remained fairly intact until colonisation of the Lake District by Norse people (actually from Ireland but descended from Vikings from Norway) some 1200 years ago. These people really started large-scale woodland clearance and the basic pattern of open land and woodland we see today (with the exception of modern, maily coniferous, plantations) had taken shape by the early middle ages (AD 1000 - 1200). The map below shows the land use and ownership during the late 18th century.

The pattern and diversity of habitats at Dubwath Silver Meadows probably dates from this period and reflects the land use practices of that time. The local people of Embleton and Wythop would have used the best land in the valley (well drained and fertile) for growing crops and hay. From spring until harvest time, the village livestock would have been kept out of these fields and put onto the surrounding fells or onto those parts of the valley too wet to grow crops - like Dubwath Silver Meadows. So what is now the reserve would have been grazed in the spring and summer months by villagers' livestock and also used by the local people as a valuable source of fuel (wood and peat), game and other resources such as wild plants for culinary and medicinal use. By using the land in this way, the local people prevented colonisation of the wetland by trees, shrubs and coarser vegetation, allowing diverse plant communities and their associated animal life to develop.

Map by James Clarke 1787

Unfortunately, this traditional use of the land fell into decline probably during the 19th century. This began to allow trees to colonise the open wetland habitats againg, threatening much of the plant and animal wildlife. This remained the situation until quite recently when, fortunately, a new government-funded grant scheme (Environmental Stewardship) was made available to help farmers manage their land in a more wildlife-friendly way. As a result of this scheme, light grazing by traditional breeds of cattle (Belted Galloway or Long-horn cattle) and sheep (Herdwick) has now been re-introduced. These breeds are able to thrive on a diet of wild plants. This pattern of grazing is allowing the diverse plant and animal wildlife of open habitats to flourish once again.

 

Dubwath Silver Meadows is now one of the best sites in Cumbria for people to see the plant and animal wildlife of wetland and other habitats like traditional hay meadow. The site is also valuable in helping to improve the quality of water in Bassenthwaite Lake by acting as a natural flood storage area where silt and damaging nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, can be taken out of the water before it enters the lake.

 


 HistoryExtra Information:

It is interesting to note that the immediate vicinity of Dubwath has been, and still is today, an important pert of the transport infrastructure of Cumbria. The Romans had two major routes nearby, one passed via Keswick on its journey from Ambleside to Cockermouth, over the Whinlatter Pass. The second route took the eastern side of Bassenthwaite Lake, supplying the auxiliary fort at Caermote, near Bothel, finally turning north to Carlisle.

There were of course, local tracks and paths around Dubwath and the surrounding settlements of Wythop and Embleton, suitable only for carts and people on foot. In the 18th century, tracks were improved by the introduction of the Turnpike Act and later on, by the A66 trunk road. This preceded the present dual carriageway of the 1970's which took the line of the former Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith railway. The railway opened in 1865 and passed very close to the wetland site, the former Bassenthwaite Lake station buildings are still visible today, the line was abandoned in 1966; please note the station masters house is occupied and the land is private! The photograph here shows a scene from the 1930's and the wetland area can be seen clearly to the right of the fence line.Looking towards Bassenthwaite Lake Station

There was a level crossing by the house and signal box, taking the line across the old A66, the new road now follows the route of the railway, which for obvious reasons was built on slightly higher ground!

Early travellers used both sides of Bassenthwaite Lake for their journeys to the busy port of Whitehaven. During the "Picturesque" landscape movement of the 1750's, villas were built at Higham and Armathwaite, one is now a further education centre and the latter an exclusive hotel. The nearby Pheasant Inn was formally a farm but in 1778 became a coaching inn, catering for the thirst and rest of weary travellers.

At Castle How, (further on past the Pheasant Inn) is the site of an ancient British Hill-Fort and on Elva Plain (near Higham Hall) are the remains of an ancient stone circle. There are strong links all over this area of Norse settlements, Bassenthwaite translates from "Batsuns thwaite or clearing", and Dubwath is "ford across the mire", which is literally correct! Look at this recent photograph of the wetland under water during the floods of October 2008.

 

 

Floods October 2008

The Heritage Lottery funded initiative called Bassenthwaite Reflections first recognised the Dubwath site as having the potential for bio-diversity and the other qualities needed for the improvement of Bassenthwaite Lakes water quality.


 

 

Website reference list for further reading and information.

(Please note we are not responsible for the content of these websites)

CASTLE HOW HILL FORT: http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=7739

CAERMOTE ROMAN FORT: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/thelakes/html/lgaz/lk00613.htm

ELVA PLAIN STONE CIRCLE: http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/1708/elva_plain.html

ROMAN ROADS IN CUMBRIA: http://www.cumbria-industries.org.uk (click on A-Z, then Roads)

HIGHAM HALL: http://www.highamhall.com

ARMATHWAITE HALL: http://armathwaite-hall.com/lake_district_history.html

THE PHEASANT INN: http://www.the-pheasant.co.uk

COCKERMOUTH, KESWICK & PENRITH RAILWAY: http://www.cumbrianrailwaysassociation.org.uk

BASSENTHWAITE REFLECTIONS: http://www.bassenthwaite-reflections.co.uk

OLD MAPS OF THE LAKES: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/thelakes/html/lakemenu.htm

(Please note all these links worked correctly as of September 2010)