Recent Local History visits
Visit to St Mary’s Wreay. April 20th 2015
On a gloriously warm and sunny April day twenty nine U3A members shared cars to travel more than 40 miles to the village of Wreay near Carlisle for a guided tour of St Mary’s church.
We assembled in the churchyard to meet our knowledgeable guide Stephen Matthews. Stephen has written a book on St Mary’s and inside the church he gave us a short lecture on the church’s extraordinary features and told us something of Sarah Losh, (1785- 1853), St Mary’s exceptionally talented benefactor and wealthy daughter of a local landowner. Although there has been a church on the site for 700 years, what we see today is almost completely the inspiration of Sarah. She it was who began the rebuilding in 1840, the new church being consecrated in 1842.
Stephen showed us around the inside and outside, pointing out and explaining. The church is small having no side aisles but it immediately impresses the visitor. Entering, one’s eye is drawn straight to the chancel and the apse windows lit with fossilised fern forms. Shallow steps lead down to the nave and up again to the chancel.
In the church construction Sarah did not employ an architect but used a local mason, William Hindson, as her sculptor. Other local craftsmen worked on the building directly under her instruction, some of the carving was done by Sarah herself and the font cover was carved by her cousin William.
The church design is that of a Roman Basilica and is full of symbolic ornament. However, it follows no one architectural rule and the apse interior, with its columns, is French Romanesque rather than Italian. In the apse, between the columns, (at a later stage), have been painted the words of the Creed. It is almost certain that Sarah would not have designed it so, nor would she have approved the brass memorials on the walls of the Nave. Her design was innovative. The Italian marble altar is placed so that the celebrant would face the congregation, usual today but in 1842 anathema to many!
Sarah’s decoration was highly original, depicting a conflict between life and death and light and darkness; including the pinecone, a classical symbol of eternal life and the chrysalis and butterfly a symbol of death and resurrection. Local alabaster is used extensively. There are oriental motifs, lotus flowers, eagles, dragons and insects. The bog oak pulpit is a hollowed tree stump, and the lecterns are carved as naturalistic trunks of trees, one topped by an eagle the other a pelican.
An arrow is embedded in the north wall as a tribute to a family friend killed in the Afghan war of 1842. Cast iron arrows also form part of the decoration of the beautifully carved oak west door. The stained glass windows are non-figural, made up of fragments from France and gathered by Sarah’s cousin William.
On the outside walls the gargoyles speak of an imagination run riot, and include tortoises, snakes and an alligator.
Beyond the church (and the enigmatically designed Losh family burial enclosure), we were privileged to be allowed inside the Mausoleum, in necessarily small groups, to gaze on the sculpted figure of Sarah’s sister Katherine. (David Dunbar of Carlisle carved this in1850, from a sketch by Sarah). The Mausoleum is a strange construction, built of large blocks of stone of accidental shapes and laid in an irregular manner.
Sarah and her sister Katherine had travelled in Italy and France and had developed a passionate interest in architecture. This culminated in the buildings we see, not just the church but the Mausoleum and a Cemetery Chapel modelled on a Cornish sanctuary, all built as a memorial to Katherine, (who had died in 1835), and also to her parents to whom the version of the Bewcastle Cross in the churchyard is dedicated. (This is sometimes called a copy of Bewcastle but it is not; interested readers might wish to consult Pevsner on this).
There are puzzles surrounding both church and benefactor. Little correspondence has been found and we do not even have a reliable image of Sarah. A Losh family portrait, bearing the family arms, has been gifted to the church and hangs at the west end purporting to be Sarah. However, Stephen and other experts think this unlikely as the subject wears a wedding ring and Sarah is known to have been unmarried. A contemporary described her as calm, dignified and beautiful.
In many ways, Sarah’s building style prefigures Art Noveau, and the Arts and Crafts influence which can be seen elsewhere in much later ecclesiastical rebuilding. Sarah was indeed a visionary and her church is her lasting memorial.
St Mary’s is very well cared for and Wreay village thrives sufficiently to support a Church Primary School.
We lunched at The Plough where we were made very welcome with good food and drink. In a case on the wall of the lower bar are clay pipes traditionally smoked by the Twelve Men of Wreay, a Local Council of ancient origin. Sarah’s father John and other male members of the family were once part of this gathering.
This was a most enjoyable and rewarding visit and we are indebted to Helen Jackson who was first to suggest that we discover more about this truly amazing place.
June 16th 2014 - The Mills of Backbarrow
It was a truly glorious summer day when ten of our members met up with Richard Sanderson for a guided walk around Backbarrow.
The Lakeland Motor Museum and the nearby Holiday Village and Timeshare complex stretch across what was once an ancient settlement. However, we were to discover that many markers of the old industrial past remain.
We met outside the oldest part of the Motor Museum building. This had been the packing room for the Lancashire Ultra Marine Blue Works and the entrance to the top loading bay can still be seen.
In the 16th C. the old village was a farming community, beside the River Leven, growing oats and barley and raising the descendants of sheep introduced by the Romans.
Viking invaders and the monks of Furness, introduced industry to the valley. The River Leven, though only eight miles in length was, and remains, mighty in flow. At Backbarrow the river narrows to 15 feet in width and the land is flat and this enabled the building of mills over the years, for grinding corn and fulling cloth.
The first of Backbarrow’s three Cotton Mills was established in the 1770s. Cotton was brought by ship up the coast line, and then overland by pack horse.
Richard walked us across what was the original packhorse bridge. In the 1820s, when the village was a hive of industry, this was incorporated into a major road, and widened a century later.
The Railway came to Backbarrow in1865. A substantial wall of dressed stone was built on Finsthwaite Road at this time.
From here we looked over to the Hotel and were reminded of the power of the river. Severe flooding in 2009 caused considerable damage.
The Ainsworth family owned all three mills from 1808. They built themselves a large mansion, with a dining room designed to seat 150 people. The mansion was demolished in the 1920s but Richard could show us the drive entrance. He recreated for us the days when these wealthy owners would have been able to look down from their splendid dwelling onto the three busy mills below.
The Coach house for the Mansion remains recognisable and is used by the Holiday Visitors. Richard gives regular talks there. Opposite would have stood the kiln sheds and the, now peaceful, scene would have been thronged with carts and workers.
There was darker side to this. At one time 200 children, from 5-21, were employed at the Mills before the law forbade it. Up Finsthwaite Road the buildings once used as Dormitory, Prentice house, and rudimentary Hospital still remain. They are now attractive residences.
The Methodist Chapel of 1850 still stands and is now converted to holiday cottages. The Chapel took its part in the campaign against the employment of child labour.
Just beyond the Coach House we had seen the Old Police Station, built in the late 19th Century. During that century the population of Backbarrow was to rise to nearly 400 people, mostly employed in the work of the mills.
The largest and last of the Cotton Mills closed in 1885 and was soon taken over for the production of Marine blue, the last owner being the German company Reckitts. The building is now The Whitewater Hotel. Surprisingly, it retains many of the architectural features of the original Cotton Mill, (during conversion the original roof line was restored), and some of the mill machinery is viewable on site. The old machines and line shafts were employed for the new production, no doubt this would be judged unsafe today! The water wheel was removed and an 80hp Turbine (on view) installed in 1900.
The process for Blue production was an intensive business, involving china clay and sulphur among its ingredients. It was a combustible material but essential to many industrial products.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Backbarrow with Richard, who is an old friend to our group. His extensive knowledge of the history of the area enabled us to understand a small village and its many changes over the years.
21 October 2013 - Newby Bridge Mill
On a mild and showery autumn day, seventeen members of our Local History Group gathered in the cosy kitchen of fellow members Brian and May.
Brian and May live in part of the old farmhouse attached to the Corn Mill at Newby Bridge and they were our generous hosts and facilitators.
The ancient buildings have been sympathetically converted into desirable residences. The corn mill, with its upper sack floor, remains; a tribute to the scrutiny and representations of local historians who were determined that it remained intact, and to the cooperation of the developers.
The group were extremely fortunate to have the guidance of three experts on their visit: local historians Richard Sanderson, (Chairman of The Leven Valley History Society and an old friend of our group), and Charles Rowntree who has carefully documented local mills and has photographed every stage of the Newby Bridge conversion. We were also delighted to be joined by David King who manages, (and demonstrates milling at), the restored and working Eskdale corn mill in Boot village.
We first looked at the outside walls and could see where the original farmhouse wall met the adjoining barn. Built during the 16th/17th century and with the farmhouse extended upward in the 18th our experts differed on which had come first, - the mill or the farm; but all agreed that the mill had served the local area for generations and was still working in the 1950s.
Over the wall the River Leven roared past, a constant reminder of the power it has produced for many ancient industries.
Members were free to inspect the mill machinery on both the upper and lower levels. We were shown where the grains were unloaded on the sack floor and the kists below from where the finished grain would be shovelled up and packed for transport.
A great mill wheel stands against the wall; quarried from volcanic rock in France, such wheels were often cut and finished in this country. The great 19th century cast iron scales still stand on the upper floor.
The many skills required in milling were explained to us and Chaucer was a reference more than once. We rediscovered the miller’s importance at the centre of community life and prosperity.
Corn mill is a generic term as little wheat was grown in our area, but there would have much milling of oats and also of some barley and rye. When imported flours became widely available the mill became a merchant mill, concerned mainly with producing animal feed.
Although much is dilapidated and partially dismantled, the outstanding feature of the mill, the lantern pinion with a clasp arm wheel, remains in situ, and it may be a unique example of such gearing still in its original position. Also, the drying floor and the remains of the kilns are still there.
It is to be hoped that means will be found to rebuild the mill and preserve it for the future, even if it is unlikely to ever work again.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable and highly instructive visit and I would like to thank our kind hosts and our attendant experts.
Our group will be revisiting the industrial heritage of the Leven Valley when we take a walk with Richard in Backbarrow next summer.
17 June 2013 - Allan Bank, Grasmere
On a beautiful June day 21 U3A members and four of their guests took the steep hill from Grasmere village up to the National Trust property of Allan Bank, where we were welcomed by the staff with a short introductory talk. The spacious rooms were lit with sunshine.
Allan Bank, built in 1805 and extended and remodelled in the 1830s, is notable for having been one of William Wordsworth’s homes. Having referred to the house as an “abomination” for its spoiling the view of the fells, Wordsworth became Allan Bank’s first tenant. However, Wordsworth and his young family lived at Allan Bank for only three years and the house has welcomed many families since then.
The most important owner in recent times was the, almost legendary, Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. Rawnsley bought the house for his retirement and bequeathed it, and its extensive grounds, to the NT, which took over the house on the death of his widow. Until a serious fire of March 2011 it was tenanted as a family home. The fire damage meant that months of restoration was necessary and the Trust decided to open the house to the public for the first time in 2012.
This is a NT property with a difference. You can sit on the furniture and gaze out on the wonderful views, visible from every room. There are no precious furnishings or antique collections to care for but every room has a theme. The dining room is an Art Room; the main bedroom is a craft room with knitting materials at hand and regular craft demonstrations. Jigsaws and board games and lots of books that can be handled and read, complete the homely atmosphere.
One bedroom has been made into a small library of mountaineering books, a private collection on loan to the Trust. The room has been decorated and curtained and the books, making up the Chorley Hopkinson Library, catalogued. Unfortunately the room was not available to our group that day. It is now open, with some books immediately available for reading and others available on suitable notice and with permission from the Library Trust.
About half of our group completed the afternoon visit by walking up to the remarkable viewing tunnel and taking the woodland walk. The Trust has been working hard during the past two years on making the paths navigable and safe. However some members were moved to suggest possible improvements, particularly at steep steps without handrails, and these ideas have been passed on to the Trust. The kitchen garden, with its wonderful slate edged beds is, like much of the house, a blank canvas. Could these be community allotments we wondered?
Ideas for future use and restoration are welcomed at Allan Bank and there is plenty of scope. Our group had a most enjoyable visit.
20 May 2013 - Ambleside Hoard at the Armitt Museum
In May we visited The Armitt Museum and were most fortunate to enjoy a fascinating lecture from eminent archaeologist Percival Turnbull F.S.A. on the Ambleside Hoard, a collection of bronze implements discovered in Ambleside in 1741. Two of the six originally discovered have been lost, but we were able to view the four remaining, then on display at The Armitt.