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History in the Borrowdale valley

Three people walking up the steps into a large boulder at the Bowder Stone in Cumbria
Exploring the Bowder Stone | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Bowder Stone, the Borrowdale Yews and Castlerigg stone circle have stood largely unchanging, watching the landscape of the Borrowdale valley change around them. Discover the history of these ancient residents of the Lake District.

The history of the Bowder Stone

The 'time machine'

It's easy to look at the landscape of the Lake District and think that it's been unchanged for hundreds of years, but landscape change has actually been dramatic over the past 200 years.

‘Like the "time machine" in H G Wells' novel, the Bowder Stone has stood unchanging for millennia while the landscape has evolved around it.’

- Harvey Wilkinson, National Trust curator

Standing the test of time

The boulder would have nestled deeply in the forests that covered the Lake District after the last ice age – the original 'wildwood' that predated human habitation in the Lakes.

It stood unmoved through the coming of the people who built the Iron Age hillfort on Castle Crag, the Norse who created the many clearings or 'thwaites' along the valley for grazing, and the traditional woodland industries which coppiced and harvested the timber for firewood, building materials and leather tanning.

A Georgian tourist attraction

Two hundred years ago, the Bowder Stone was one of the most prominent landmarks in the valley – a huge boulder that awed visitors with its sheer size and mass that stood out against the sky as the road wound towards it.

Balanced improbably on one edge, it was popular with Georgian tourists for the ‘pleasurable terror’; they enjoyed wild, romantic scenery and the frisson of experiencing danger from a safe distance.

Step right up

The Bowder Stone didn't so much as twitch when eccentric newcomer Joseph Pocklington fixed a ladder to it, dug a hole beneath it so people could shake hands for luck, set a 'druidical stone' standing beside it and built a small 'hermitage' for a caretaker to live in and who charged a fee for use of the ladder.

This usage didn’t impress famous writers like William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and the queen of Gothic fiction herself Ann Radcliffe.

The Bowder Stone as seen by writers through history

Did it fall from the crags above? Was it carried by a glacier? Famous writers and artists have their theories.

Bowder stone, Borrowdale, Cumbria
Bowder stone, Borrowdale | © National Trust Images/Melvin Jefferson

A stranded ship left high and dry after the great flood

‘And yet so balanced, so firm is the rock, You may mount by a ladder quite up to the top, As when some vast ship the blue ocean divides, Her keen arching bow stems the breast of the tides.’ ... ‘And back from her sides the huge billows are thrown:— So sternly triumphing appeared Bowder Stone.’ - John Ruskin, Iteriad, 1830

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To see the theories in the gallery above come to life, artist and film maker John Hamlett was commissioned to create three short animations.

Watch the video.

The Bowder Stone today

Now it stands just as impassively while boulderers cling to its overhang, creating routes with incredible names like 'Picnic Sarcastic'.

The regenerated woodland surrounding it has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because it's one of the last remaining fragments of the Atlantic oak wood habitat.

It sparks a conversation about the landscapes in the Lake District, and what the concept of an evolving masterpiece means for the future of this unique and inspirational place.

View of some of the 38 stones in the Castlerigg Stone Circle with mountains in the background, Derwent Water, Lake District
Castlerigg Stone Circle at Derwent Water, Lake District | © National Trust Images / Paul Harris

The history of Castlerigg stone circle

Surrounded by the fells of Skiddaw and Blencathra to its north and Castlerigg Fell, High Rigg and Clough Head to its south, this ring of 38 stones, set within a ring of mountains, has stood at Castlerigg for about 4,500 years since it was created by Neolithic farming communities.

Archaeological studies suggest that Castlerigg is an early example of a stone circle, as it is not perfectly round; one side is slightly flattened.

The square enclosure within the circle appears to have been added at a later date, suggesting that Castlerigg was used by many generations of people over a long time period.

Early farmers

The early farming communities who built Castlerigg stone circle were engaged in 'transhumance' farming. This means they moved their settlements seasonally, spending winter on low fertile land by the coast and the Eden valley, and moving to the upland grazing on the high central fells each summer.

Castlerigg's location suggests it may have been a meeting place, where communities travelling east from the coast and west from the Eden valley would have met before travelling to the summer pastures and axe factories in the central fells.

The valley bottoms would have been heavily forested in that period, making the ridgelines the easiest way to get around.

Early tourism

Since the early days of Lake District tourism in the 1700s, visitors have been both intrigued and inspired by this ancient monument and its impressive setting.

Although Lakeland scenery appears timeless and unchanging, the stones reminds us that the landscape has in fact been shaped and altered by people for thousands of years.

Early conservation

Castlerigg was so popular with visitors by the 19th century that people had started to chip pieces off the stones as souvenirs. This prompted a movement to save and protect Castlerigg and it was one of the first ancient sites to be bought and given to the National Trust for protection.

It was also one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments ever designated in the UK, giving it special legal protection.

Close up of the swirls on an ancient tree trunk
One of the Lake District's Venerable Borrowdale Yews | © National Trust Images/Simon Fraser

Wordsworth’s Borrowdale Yews

Not far from Seatoller, on the way to Seathwaite, stand some old friends of William Wordsworth: the Borrowdale Yews. They are thought to be more than 1,500 years old.

‘But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved[.]

- William Wordsworth, Yew-Trees, 1803

Not too long after Wordsworth wrote about the ‘fraternal four’, four became three when one was uprooted by a storm in 1866, and various storms over the years have done their best to ravage and scar the remaining trees. Yet the yews remain resilient, slowly contorting and re-growing to live on beyond us all.

North Lakes Woodlands Ranger Maurice Pankhurst and other experts have studied the yews and have been able to determine that not only are they over 1,500 years old, but also that the remaining three trees actually only represent two individuals - two of them are genetically identical.

You can learn more about the Borrowdale Yews in this video.

Castle Crag war memorial mountain

As well as being an Iron Age hillfort and a 19th-century slate quarry, the summit of Castle Crag was also given to the National Trust as a war memorial after the First World War.

It was donated by the family of 2nd Lieutenant John Hamer. Hamer was killed in action in March 1918, and the memorial is dedicated to him and to 'the men of Borrowdale' who lost their lives in the First World War.

The Great Gift

At the end of the First World War, a total of 12 mountain summits were bought by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and given to the National Trust as a war memorial for all those who gave their lives during the conflict. The most famous is Great Gable, but the other summits included in the Great Gift are: Base Brown, Grey Knotts, Green Gable, Seathwaite Fell, Glaramara, Allen Crags, Great End, Broad Crag, Lingmell and Kirk Fell.

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