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The history of Langdale

Langdale Pikes
Langdale Pikes, Cumbria | © National Trust / Paul Harris

Discover the history of Langdale and the role of George Macaulay Trevelyan in shaping what you see today. Find out how William Wordsworth also contributed to its story, and how it overcame the threat of development and industrialisation in the early 20th century.

At the heart of the Lake District

Langdale takes its name from the Old Norse term for ‘long valley’. Located right at the heart of the Lake District, this classic example of a U-shaped glacial valley was described by John Ruskin as '…the loveliest rock scenery, chased with silver waterfalls, that I ever set foot or heart upon'.

Running east to west from the high central Lake District fells, Langdale boasts Bowfell and Crinkle Crags at its head before meeting with the adjoining Grasmere, Rydal and Ambleside valley to the north of Windermere. One thing it doesn’t have though is a lake, which is unusual for a Lakeland valley of this size.

From the Neolithic era to the 16th century

Human activity in Langdale can be traced to Neolithic times and the production of stone axes, while whole panels of rock art are still visible on a pair of boulders at Copt Howe, near Chapel Stile.

The earliest permanent human settlement was probably in the Bronze Age, and when the Romans arrived in the region, they built a road through Little Langdale from the Galava Ambleside Fort to the one on Hardknott Pass.

Norse settlers of the 10th century still have their influence in many local place names, some of which mingled with Old English. Documented land use in Langdale began in the 11th century and by the 16th century there were ten farms recorded here.

Langdale today is an important valley for the local Herdwick sheep, with around half of it used specifically as high grazing land for this hardy local breed.

Herdwick sheep at Great Langdale, Cumbria
Herdwick sheep at Great Langdale | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

From rock-climbing to Wordsworth

When visitors started to come to the Lake District in significant numbers, Langdale was slow to become a tourist attraction. It didn’t feature in Thomas West’s famous Guide to the Lakes and relied on rock-climbing as its main draw, with many locals acting as guides to those who wanted to clamber up the crags.

William Wordsworth did much to increase the appreciation of this lovely valley, writing about Blea Tarn in his poem The Excursion and Dungeon Ghyll Force in The Idle-Shepherd Boys. He also referred to it in one text as a 'must-visit' valley.

The conservation movement

From a conservation point of view, Langdale has never really been troubled by any major commercial projects or controversial infrastructure, yet it has played a key part in the development of the conservation movement in the Lake District in the 20th century. 

Educational pioneer, George Macaulay Trevelyan, who once had a family holiday home in the valley, is known for his donations of Langdale farms to the National Trust.

Beatrix Potter also donated areas of Langdale, and today the Trust owns and cares for extensive areas of the valley bottom. These include Great Langdale Campsite and the Sticklebarn, which sources much of what it needs from the valley itself and then reinvests every penny into the community.

There is also the National Trust’s High Close Estate and Arboretum: a beautiful 11-acre garden between Elterwater and Grasmere.

A labour of love – George Trevelyan’s Langdale

George Macaulay Trevelyan may well be a name you’ve never heard, but here in Langdale we owe him rather a lot. George and his love for this valley have shaped what you see here today.

Watch George Trevelyan’s Langdale video

Who was George Macaulay Trevelyan?

George was born in 1876 in Stratford-upon-Avon, into a well-connected and affluent family. The family seat of Wallington was in Northumberland but they often came to the Lakes for their summer holidays to walk, climb and spend time together.

George first began holidaying in Langdale in 1905 and the next 50 years would see him fall completely in love with it, inspiring him to become its chief protector. In later life he became one of the most influential and widely read historians of his generation.

He was also a passionate believer in the restorative powers of nature and used his influence and status as one of the leading academics of his time to be an advocate for the public’s right to access green spaces.

What did he do for Langdale?

In the first part of the 20th century this beautiful valley became vulnerable to the threat of development, from forestation for industry, private ownership and the increasing demands of tourism. George recognised these threats and decided to use his influence, academic profile and even his inheritance to actively protect Langdale.

'After a day’s walk, everything has twice its usual value.'

- George M. Trevelyan

George recognised that in order to protect the working farms in the valley, as well as the open countryside, the threat from development needed to be challenged. When he inherited money from his father’s death, he chose to buy Old Dungeon Ghyll, Stool End and Wall End farms which came up for sale: an area which covers 400 acres of the valley. George then went on to purchase Low Millbeck farm and Harry Place farm.

To ensure that these places would never be developed or sold into private ownership, and that the valley floor would continue to be accessible to all, he donated them all to the National Trust.

What now?

Today rangers work hard to continue to look after this valley, working with our tenant farmers, repairing footpaths so visitors can access this magnificent landscape and giving nature a chance to recover by encouraging the return of wildflower meadows, native wildlife and the planting of juniper on the fell sides.

Few of us have five farms to give to the nation like George did, but we can still help to look after the Lake District for the future. By becoming a National Trust member, staying at our campsite, having brunch in Sticklebarn or paying to park in our car park, you are helping us to continue George’s legacy by looking after this valley for everyone, for ever.

A group of walkers enjoying views over the valleys at Great Langdale

Discover more at the Langdales

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

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View of the rock-strewn lake at Stickle tarn with mountains rising above it and reflecting in the water

Things to do in the Langdales 

Head to the Langdales for stunning walking and cycling trails and discover rare trees and shrubs from around the world at High Close Estate and Arboretum.

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.