The 'Barren and Frightful' Lake District

2 September 2013

Those old Lake District poets liked to exaggeration a bit, but how dare they call our beautiful national park a ‘barren and frightful’ place... unless of course it was.
image and text Unfortunately, four hundred years ago, it was. If you weren’t keen on having your house burnt down every six months, Cumbria wouldn’t have been your first choice back then.

It was a volatile place.

The reason was: Location, Location, Location. One thing’s for sure, in the 15th century, Kirsty and Phil (the photo wasn't just random) would be able to get you a great country retreat with a lovely outside space overlooking a lake for next to nothing. As long as you could put up with the ‘cold callers’.
Cold callers in those days weren’t trying to get you to swap electricity providers, they turned up on horses with pikes and blazing torches and the deal was they got everything you owned and the pike wasn’t embedded into your skull or, alternatively, they got everything you owned and the pike was embedded into your skull.

A simple and very persuasive offer, much less complicated than all these different energy tariffs we have to remember now.

So, why was it so rough?

Let’s go back a thousand odd years to King Dunmail. Dunmail was the King of Cumbria around 945. Then the Cumbrian lands stretched all the way up to Glasgow, so Dunmail was an important guy. King Edmund I, grandson of Alfred the Great (so he had a lot to live up to) decided he had to get his act together and do something with his life so he moved in on Cumbria. Sadly, he defeated Dunmail and then gave the Cumbrian lands to his buddy Malcolm I of Scotland.

William the Conqueror then relocated from Normandy and wanted as much land as possible for himself, greedy guts. So in 1092, his successor William II captured Carlisle for England and in the process started some serious border instability. Thanks very much Bill.

This was a time when Cumbrian folk didn’t know whether they were Scottish or English and probably didn’t even care. There was a bit of toing and froing.

- King David I of Scotland took back Cumberland and Westmoreland.

1157 - It was back in English hands.

1290 - There was a bit of a kerfuffle about the successor to the Scottish throne and Edward I got involved eventually winding up the whole of Scotland including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. This wasn’t good for us Cumbrians because three hundred years of raids and counter raids began.

With all this cross border killing and plundering going on, what’s the worst thing you can think of doing? Start killing yourselves would be high on the list. The inhabitants of Cumbria decided to do just this. Because the whole region was left to its own devices, clans formed within Cumbria and The Borders and these clans started attacking each other and stealing each other’s things.

These were the Border Reivers – favourite hobbies: looting, violence and, best of all, feuding with other clans. They weren’t bothered about fighting for England or Scotland; all they were interested in was fighting for their clan.

Cumbria and The Borders were the UK’s equivalent of the Wild West for three hundred years.

This mayhem went on until 1603 when James the VI of Scotland became James I of England and the country was united. The Reiver clans were hunted down and killed - yippee.

But that’s not the end of it, in 1642 the English Civil War broke out and Cumbria sided with the King. Scottish Parliamentarians weren’t happy and hammered Carlisle with cannons for eight months until it surrendered. It was then retaken by Royalists and then taken back by Parliament. By this point my head is hurting from all the explosions and, even worse, the whole city was flattened and of no use to anyone until the war ended.

That’s about the worst of it, Carlisle in bits and most of Cumbria looted and abused. I could mention Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 who attacked Carlisle but I won't, because by then Carlisle had nothing left, so the city surrendered without a fight.

Carlisle is the last city in England to have been besieged in war.

Notice I said 'last', which means all the violence is over, unless you've been down Botchergate on a Saturday night recently.

So, The Lake District hasn't always been gorgeous. But it is now. No armies trampling all over it, no clans looting and killing each other and no villains with pikes and burning torches.

And no poets.

Thanks for reading.

Ian Young

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