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The history of Ennerdale

A spring view of Ennerdale water with yellow daffodils in the foreground
Daffodils add a splash of colour on a bright spring day in Ennerdale | © Cath Tyrell

Tucked into the central far west of the Lake District, Ennerdale runs east from the high central fells to the rolling hills and moorland of West Cumbria and the Irish Sea coastal plain. Perhaps key to its special feel is that it’s the only major Lake District valley to have no public road along it. Find out more about its rich history dating back to prehistoric times, including its later impact on literature, conservation and rock-climbing.

Prehistoric to medieval times

Although sparsely populated even today, there have been settlers in Ennerdale since prehistoric times, with a concentration of evidence around Stockdale Moor and Town Bank in the form of burial sites and farming settlements.

Cairns and hut circles can be found where the River Calder and Whoap Beck meet, and there are also remains of Romano-British farmsteads at Low Gillerthwaite and Tongue How.

Norse immigrants settled here in the 12th century. During medieval times, much of the land would have been under monastic influence and it was from this period that the mineral potential of the valley was realised, with the mining and smelting of iron ore.

Cloud hangs around the top of Pillar, a craggy fell in Ennerdale, Cumbria
Rugged Pillar overlooks Ennerdale in the Lake District, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Malley

From sheep to rock-climbing

In the 1920s the Forestry Commission purchased Ennerdale and created a blanket of commercial conifer forest. This had an effect on the tradition of farming Herdwick sheep.

Up until then, Ennerdale held a vital place in the Herdwick story, but 2,000 sheep had to be removed from Gillerthwaite and Ennerdale Dale when the valley was forested.

However, there are still 16 farms with fell-grazing livestock in the wider Ennerdale valley.

Inspiration for Wordsworth

From a literary perspective, Ennerdale inspired Wordsworth’s poem The Brothers in 1800, after he and Coleridge visited the valley a year earlier, but perhaps the area’s largest cultural impact has been on the sport of rock climbing.

It was at Pillar Rock in Ennerdale that true rock climbing began. Previously thought unclimbable, local shepherd John Atkinson scaled Pillar in 1824 and kickstarted a passion for this tricky piece of rock that climbers from all over the world share to this day.

A view through dense woodland, showing the trunks of Sitka Spruce trees in the Ennerdale Valley.
Sitka Spruce trees in Ennerdale, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Malley

Conservation up to the present day

Ennerdale has been an active site for the conservation movement.

The fact that the valley has no railway today, is down to strong opposition by Canon Rawnsley and the Lake District Defence Society, who opposed a line for transporting iron-ore from the valley head.

This was an important victory and the society went on to become The Friends of the Lake District. However, some infrastructure did arrive when Ennerdale Water was developed as a water supply for West Cumbria from 1864.

This brought North West Water Authority into conflict with the conservationists.

Today, the Wild Ennerdale Project continues the legacy of looking after the environment with a vision to ‘allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on the natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology’.

Water extraction, farming and forestry have all played their part in shaping the landscape here, but it is more its striking natural features that give Ennerdale its overwhelming character of wildness and tranquillity.

Sunlight is casting rays between the trunks of densely planted trees in dark woodland in Ennerdale, Cumbria

Discover more at Ennerdale

Find out how to get to Ennerdale, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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