County in north west England, noted, primarily for including the entirety of The Lake District within it. This is not to say that there aren't bits of Cumbria not included in the Lakes, but on the whole these are places to be generally considered much less interesting than the far more worthy National Park, which has become a shrine to the goddess of children's fiction, Beatrix Potter. Practically every town in the whole county will be able to provide attractive novelty figurines, glass wear, clothing, cutlery, luggage, beverages and food all themed around her charming and delightful characters: Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggywinkle, and Jemima Puddleduck to name but a few, all of whom have helped make literature richer and more textured, and have increased the average revenue of the area immeasurably.


Cumbria is a county, situated in the north west of England. It is bounded by the Irish Sea and borders Dumfries and Galloway (a Scottish administrative region), Northumberland, County Durham, North Yorkshire and Lancashire. Its six boroughs (Allerdale; Barrow; Carlisle; Copeland; Eden; and South Lakeland) are each administered by separate borough councils.

Cumbrian history


Evidence of Cumbria’s prehistoric settlement can be found in numerous archaeological artefacts around the county. Many of these are stone circles, suggesting tribal or druidic activities. The best known of the stone circles is that of Long Meg and her Daughters, near Little Salkeld, Penrith. This circle dates from around 1500 BC, and is the largest stone circle in England.1 Another notable Bronze Age feature is King Arthur’s Round Table, a circular excavation also near Penrith. Theories, myths and legends abound as to the purpose of this site. They include it being a giant’s dining table, a series of stone circles (although there are now no remaining standing stones, the last two having been removed for make way for the road to Ullswater), or a duelling ring for Camelot’s champions.2


Cumbria was one of the most northerly outposts in the Roman Empire. During the subjugation of the British Isles, two Roman legions advanced along the west of the Pennines and arrived in Cumbria around 71 A.D. They are believed to have moved separately, rendezvousing near Brougham, a settlement in the centre of the modern county.3 Roman presence in Cumbria continued through the next three centuries, suppressing the central Cumbrian hill tribes and forming part of the defence from the Brigantes, Votadini, Picts and Caledonii to the north.4 Today, there are still many visible reminders of this period. The fort at the top of Hardknott Pass is the best preserved complete fort in the area. It formed part of the line of defences and observation points which extended along Hadrian’s Wall and then south, stretching as far as the port at Ravenglass. Here, there was a large fortification protecting a naval base, used to resupply the garrisons in the area. All that remains of the second century fort is its bathhouse, which is comparatively well preserved.

The Dark Ages

It is worth noting that historical records tend to be sketchy about exact events during the Dark Ages – hence the name. Most accounts of northern England refer to the kingdom of Rheged, ruled by King Urien. Despite his place as an Arthurian mythological figure, Urien’s kingdom is thought to have covered the whole of Cumbria, as well as parts of Lancashire north of the River Ribble and parts of Galloway. During this period, Urien’s Celtic links to Wales led to the Cumbrians becoming known as the Cymry, or compatriots. This is the derivation of the county’s name. When Urien was killed by Morcant, an ally jealous of his victories, Rheged collapsed and Cumbria was enveloped first by the kingdom of Strathclyde, then by Viking settlers.5 Vikings were among the first to clear the native forest to establish new settlements. Evidence of Viking settlement can be seen in place names around Cumbria, many of which are Norse-influenced – for example, Calder Bridge from the Norse root kaldr meaning cold, or Gosforth from the conjunction of gös meaning goose and ford meaning a river’s crossing point.6 Gosforth is also notable as the site of the oldest Christian Viking cross in Britain, thought to be from the ninth century. It stands in the graveyard of the parish church.7 In addition to these points, a 2001 UCL survey of British genetics found “clear evidence of Norwegian influence” around Penrith.8

Border Reivers

In 945, Edmund I invaded Cumbria in the aim of driving out the Norse King Dunmail. The wars between England and Scotland following this attack meant that there was continued conflict in Cumbria, and the border region in general. This persisted until the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh, which removed English troops from Scotland. Although there had been a cessation of national hostilities, clans or groups of families on both sides of the border area continued to raid and plunder one another. These groups were known as the Border Reivers, sometimes known as Riding Clans or Surnames.9 It is debatable whether they had been a cause or an effect of the England-Scotland wars, but their violence was first documented around 1200, reaching a peak in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many Reiver surnames are still prevalent throughout Cumbria. A few examples of these names are Nixon, Robson, Armstrong, Ridley and Irvine.10 Reiver activity was reduced by the 1603 Union of the Crowns, although sporadic raids, thefts and murders continued, eventually curtailed further by James I of England and VI of Scotland’s repression. The Reivers’ activities were so prevalent for so long that their name is the derivation of the word ‘bereaved’. Their modes of dress and conduct also gave rise to the term ‘blackmail’.11

Industrial Revolution and trade

The Industrial Revolution coincided with the discovery of west Cumbria’s haematite deposits and coalfield. The demand for coal from all over the country led to the growth of Whitehaven as a port. This was a result of poor transport links between Cumbria and the rest of Britain – it was quicker to transport coal to London and the south-east by sea than to take it inland. Whitehaven is also notable as the first planned industrial town, built in a Manhattan-esque grid pattern. Its position on the west coast allowed easy trade with the (then) American colonies, and this expanded to cover rum, sugar, limes and tobacco. By 1740, only London imported more tobacco than Whitehaven.12 Evidence of the prominence of these trades can be seen in the naming of the piers in Whitehaven harbour – they are known as the Lime Tongue and the Sugar Tongue. In 1778, Whitehaven was the scene of the only ever American attack on the British mainland when founder of the United States Navy John Paul Jones (earlier a merchant seaman based in the port) led the Ranger into the harbour.13

However, the port of Whitehaven and the west Cumbrian economy in general seriously declined, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Coal pits closed as seams became exhausted or uneconomic to exploit. Lord Lonsdale refused to support a new iron works in Whitehaven as iron prices fell, following exploitation of new imperial sources. The beginning of the national rail network meant fast and reliable transport became possible between separate parts of Britain. Whitehaven harbour’s tidal nature meant it could not receive successively larger trading ships. This, combined with the development of Liverpool’s navigable Mersey harbour, all but ended trade at Whitehaven. As both the main economic activities and the port itself declined, so ship-building became less viable, and in 1889 the last Whitehaven shipyard closed.14

The Lake District

Cumbria is now best known for containing the Lake District, England’s largest, and the world’s first, National Park. This is owned and operated by the National Trust. From their website:

“The Lake District National Park Authority was established by Parliament in 1951 to protect the area's outstanding beauty and promote its quiet enjoyment by the public. As a local authority we also take into account the needs of the 40,000 or so people who live inside the National Park boundary. The Lake District National Park Authority is a local government body which has two purposes: To conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Park. Also to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the National Park by the public.”

Tourism is the main economic activity of the South Lakes. Much of this plays on the estate and home of Beatrix Potter, who donated to the National Trust 4000 acres bought with the proceeds of her Peter Rabbit books. Hawkshead makes great capital of the fact that poet laureate William Wordsworth was educated in the town’s boarding school. The school now proudly displays a desk graffitied by a young William.

There is currently debate over use of one of the Authority’s most popular lakes, Windermere. Windermere is the largest lake in the Lake District with a length of ten and a half kilometres. Its general location in the south-east of the Lake District means it is more accessible to visitors travelling from the south, and increased pressure on the lake reflects this. Windermere has five times the Lakes’ average of water craft, and a relatively high proportion of these are powered speedboats. Their increased use has led to the imposition of a 10 mph speed limit on the lake, prompting outcry from owners’ groups and sporting organisations. However, the Authority has cited the “quiet enjoyment” referred to in its remit, and a subsequent public enquiry has supported their decision.15

Economic prospects

Away from the tourist-dominated Lake District, the main employer in Cumbria is British Nuclear Fuels Limited Sellafield.16 This sprawling complex incorporates a former energy generating atomic power station at Calder Hall, the THORP reprocessing plant and the MOX mixed-oxide fuels facility, which has yet to open. Many west Cumbrians are employed by BNFL, more are employed by contractors to the site, and even more still are employed serving Sellafield workers as they spend their wages. Sellafield has a less than shining reputation over cleanliness, emissions, disclosure or security, to mention but a few points, but without it, there would be even more deprivation in the area. Hill sheep farming is the other main economic activity, but times are exceedingly hard for Cumbrian farmers, having suffered from Chernobyl emissions in the 1980s, the BSE epidemic in the early 1990s, then the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. Despite European subsidies, depressed prices for produce have led to depressed farmers, and many are retiring altogether.17 Cumbria in general has high levels of poverty, with 21% of households receiving income support in 1996.18

This notwithstanding, there is light on the economic horizon for west Cumbria in particular. This is based largely on cleaning up the various labyrinthine messes at Sellafield, as the new £48bn Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is to be based in the local area.19 Aside from this, there is a large, Millennium-funded regeneration project centred on cleaning up Whitehaven harbour and encouraging new businesses around it.20

  7. Author's knowledge
  14. Ibid., author's knowledge
  15. Author's knowledge
  17. Author's knowledge

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