During the Ice Age, glaciers scoured the contours of the valley, leaving the great limestone escarpments of Whitbarrow and Scout Scar on either side of the plain. The action of the ice floes left much of the valley below high tide level and, as they retreated, the mosses grew providing the legacy of peat, which has been used by the people of the valley for countless generations.
It was the Norsemen who gave Lyth its name; "hlith" means sloping hillside. "Thwaite", also an old Scandinavian word, means a clearing in a forest or a piece of land, which has been enclosed. This was blended with "Cross", which may reflect the earlier Christian connections with the Irish or Angle missionaries of the sixth or seventh century. Other places in the valley also owe their names to the early Norse settlers; Howe comes from the word "haugr", meaning a hill or barrow and Whitbarrow was named the "white hill" after the shade of the limestone pavement.
There is, however, no evidence that the earlier invaders of our island, the Romans, ever set foot in the valley.
Before the drainage system was built, in the early 19th century, the tidal flow of the Kent estuary and the rivers of the valley frequently overflowed their banks, flooding the lower lands. Homes were built above the five-metre contour, to avoid being flooded. The peat mosses sustained a rich and varied flora and fauna. William Pearson of Borderside, writing in the 19th century, commented that, on the Lyth Mosses one could find every species of plant and animal known in the North of England.
In the 14th and 15th centuries land in the valley was given by the Crown to several noble families in repayment for favours. These were known as the Marquis, Richmond and Lumley fees after their recipients, although none of these people are known to have lived in the valley. By the 16th century the Bellingham family owned most of the land, along with the Crown, which still retained an interest. The folk who lived and worked in the valley fought for their rights and retained their customary tenure, resisting attempts to change their legal status from tenant-right to tenant-at-will. This gave them greater independence, with title to land and even the right to let it. They also had rights to fell and use timber and to improve and extend their land.
Westmorland tried to keep a low profile during the Civil War, but the divisions affecting the rest of the country still had their impact on the village; Anthony Knipe was a Parliamentarian, whilst Rowland Harrison was a Royalist. Families moving into the area in the 17th century included the Holmes, Philipsons, Atkinsons, Briggs, Harrisons, Hodgsons, Knipes, Pearsons and Stricklands. In an 1818 poll for Knights of the Shire, to represent the County of Westmorland, there is a list of people having residence and freehold in Crosthwaite and Lyth. The names of these families can be found in Appendix A. The Argles family arrived in the 19th century when George Argles, from Kent, married Jane Atkinson of Spout House.
In the 18th century the population of the country doubled. As a result, there was an urgent need to produce more food and this could only be achieved by enclosure of land for more intensive agriculture. This was instituted, under the terms of the Heversham Award, in 1815 and a massive drainage programme followed, to reclaim the boggy peat mosses in the valley. In quite a short period of time some of the peat mosses were turned into fertile agricultural land. The peaty, acidic soil required extensive liming and marling before crops could be sown. Most of the land was used for growing cereal and root crops, whilst orchards of apples and damsons were planted on the lower slopes of the hills.
However, the coming of the canal to Kendal brought cheap produce from further south, making this type of farming no longer profitable. The land was then put to pasture and has been so for over a century, with only small areas given over to crops.
The canal and the arrival of the railway in 1857 also brought cheap coal to the area, thus killing off the market for peat, although farmers still dug peat for their own use. The changes in agriculture at the end of the 19th century, which resulted from this transport revolution, had almost as much effect on the Lyth economy and landscape as enclosure and drainage had done in the early part of that century. With the movement to town and factory the population fell and those who remained suffered much hardship.
Farming, at the present time, is undergoing another revolution. Each year there are fewer working farms and more of the farmhouses become homes to people not involved in farming. The future is not ours to know but we hope that the valley will retain its unique blend of agricultural endeavour and serenity that we enjoy today.
The Heversham Award came about in 1815 as a result of the Enclosures Acts. Although the land in the valley was divided up amongst the big landowners, three parcels of land were given to the people of Crosthwaite and Lyth. The Landowners of Crosthwaite and Lyth administer this land. The award was, in addition, a blueprint for the roads and drainage network in Crosthwaite and Lyth. The Award stated that some roads had to be 30 feet and others 40 feet wide. These roads were to be constructed, to assist in the making and maintenance of the drainage ditches. Some of the new roads, called "gates", were let off to local farmers for grazing their animals. This process is covered in more detail in the section on "Grazing on the Moss Roads". The size, both in width and depth, of the drainage channels, the location of bridges and tunnels are all mentioned in the Award.
The roads required materials for construction and repair, so several sites were earmarked as quarries. One of these quarries is known as "Pinfold", so it was probably used for the penning of stray animals.
[Click here to read more about the Heversham Award]
As a result of the Enclosures Acts most of the land in the valley went to the big landowners. However, under the terms of the 1815 Heversham Award three parcels of land were made over to the people of Crosthwaite and Lyth. These were the Township Allotment (158.3 hectares), the Township Plantation (47.7 hectares) and the White Scar Quarry (6.75 hectares), all on Whitbarrow Scar.
It was recommended that a committee be set up, to look after the land. The annual general meeting could be attended by everyone in the parish but the voting power rested with the landowners, who had the right to appoint a chairman. Tenant farmers did not have voting rights.
Income from the land went back into the parish, in the form of rate relief. Since the start of the poll tax in the 1970s, the money has been managed by the committee under its Chairman, Tony Schofield. Recently the Landowners of Crosthwaite and Lyth have obtained charitable status and the money has been used to support community projects. The village school has benefited, as has the Recreation Committee. Land was bought for the Committee, who then drained, levelled and fenced it to provide tennis courts, a bowling green, a children's playground and a small football pitch.
It was opened in 1995 and they pay a peppercorn rent.
Over the years, income has been derived from the letting out of land for grazing, selling timber and quarrying. Colin Park has played an important role in the management of the woods. Since the 1930s stone from the quarry made a small income. When contractors started building the new A590 road, a large amount of shilla (small pieces of limestone) was sold to them. Money from this sale was invested and provides an on-going income for the Landowners' charity. The Landowners also derive income from renting Whitbarrow Cottage.
Nowadays, the land is managed to conserve a unique biological and geological site. Along with the land on the Scar, owned by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, the Landowners' land has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) by the European Commission, which recognises that the limestone pavement, scree slopes, ancient semi-natural and deciduous woodland are all of great importance. The habitats supported by this area include rare and scarce plants and uncommon invertebrates, particularly butterflies and moths. In pursuit of their aim to manage their land with high regard for the significance of these habitats, the Committee has recently added a small area of woodland, near the quarry, for use as a nature reserve.
In the summer of 1999, the Landowners of Crosthwaite and Lyth gathered to receive the prestigious SSSI award. The award was given to only 27 out of a total of 32,000 sites. It was in recognition of outstanding efforts made to manage the limestone, grassland, scrub and woodland on the Scar.
Whitbarrow Scar looms above the Lyth Valley, on its western side. It was named the "white hill" by the early Norse settlers; white, because of the limestone pavements, scree and outcrops, which give the scar a character and habitat all of its own.
The summit of Whitbarrow Scar, named Lord's Seat, rises to 700 feet (215m), where a cairn, built by Colin Park and Michael Bowerbank in 1969, commemorates the acquiring of 250 acres for the Lake District Naturalist Trust. Originally called the Flodder Allotment, the land was given to the Trust by the Argles family, and named the Canon Hervey Nature Reserve, after the Trust's founder. This became the Cumbria Trust for Nature Conservation and more recently, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.
Other areas of the Scar, the Township Plantation, the Township Allotment and the White Scar Quarry are owned by the Landowners of Crosthwaite and Lyth. The section of the Scar, known as Farrer's Allotment, used to be leased to the Forestry Commission. Recently the Commission has been able to buy the freehold of the land, with funding from the European Commission, through Whitbarrow's status as a Special Area of Conservation. The Forestry Commission has also purchased an area of grassland from the Argles family. They will now be able to encourage more public access to these sections of the Scar.
Standing on the exposed ridge at the summit, there is a 360 degree panorama, taking in Morecambe Bay and the Kent Estuary to the south, the Lyth Valley and distant Howgills to the east, the peaks of Langdale and the mountains of the Central Lake District to the north and the Winster Valley and Witherslack to the west.
The limestone sediments were laid down in the warm waters of the equator 350 million years ago. Limestone is composed of fragments of tiny sea creatures, hardened over time to form the porous limestone rock we see today. The Scar has one of the best examples of limestone pavement left in the country. Glaciers in the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, exposed the surface of the rock in a scouring action. Weathering has since broken the surface into flat topped blocks. These are called clints, separated by deep fissures called grikes.
As well as the exposed areas of limestone pavement and limestone scree slopes, the Scar has broadleaved and coniferous woodland and calcareous grassland. All these areas support an outstanding quantity of common and rare plants, trees, animals, butterflies, moths and birds. English Nature recognised this diversity, when it gave the area its status of Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Whitbarrow is unique, in that it is home to both plants, which grow no further south and others, which grow no further north. The area is blessed with a warm, moist climate, coming from the winds over Morecambe Bay, supporting special habitats associated with limestone, grassland and woodland. The Township Allotment is dominated by blue moor grass, which has steely blue flowers in spring. It is only found in northern limestone areas and some parts of Scotland. The Allotment also has a varied herb flora, including limestone bedstraw, common rock rose, salad burnet, bird's foot trefoil, common dog violet and hairy violet.
These last two are especially important to certain kinds of butterfly. In springtime, glades of cowslips and several varieties of orchid can be seen. Many rare plants grow on the limestone pavement areas, rigid buckler fern, limestone fern, wall rue and dark red helleborine. The more common hart's-tongue fern and maidenhair fern grow in the fissures of the rock.
Ash is the dominant tree in the woodland, also hazel, sessile oak, yew, sycamore, birch, holly and juniper bushes. The Lancashire white beam is a tree found close to Morecambe Bay, distinguished only by the fewer veins on the leaves. There are small areas of new conifers. The nationally scarce shrub, daphne mezereum, grows here. Lichens cover the limestone rocks and a wide variety of fungi grow in the woodland.
Woodland management aims to carry out coppicing, felling, thinning and planting; to control and manage scrub areas; to cut bracken manually in areas which have become dense and are shading out ground cover plants and maintaining walls, fences and tracks.
These habitats benefit from the mild climate and from the history of management of the area. As a result, there is a wonderful array of common and rare butterflies and moths. There are four species which are threatened nationally which breed on the Scar. The plants associated with these species provide food, at the caterpillar stage and nectar for the butterflies.
The high brown fritillary and pearlbordered fritillary, in their caterpillar stage, love the violets, growing in ground which has been coppiced in the last year or two.
The northern brown argus breeds on rock roses and drinks nectar from wild thyme, while the duke of burgundy caterpillar favours cowslips. Brimstones breed on buckthorn and their nectar source is knapweed. The grayling, common blue and small heath butterflies stick to the more exposed areas of grassland, where small trees are planted amongst bracken. Other fritillaries breeding on Whitbarrow are the dark green and silverwashed.
The latter is at its most northerly point in Britain, on Whitbarrow. Also to be found are peacocks, painted ladies and dingy skippers. Numerous varieties of moth, damsel flies, cardinal beetles, devil's coach horse and green tiger beetles are some of the invertebrates living on the Scar.
Buzzards soar in the skies over the Scar, ravens and peregrine falcons nest in the Quarry. Other birds which make their home here are skylarks, meadow and tree pipits, cuckoos, willow warblers, wheatears, green and great spotted woodpeckers (the former attracted by the ant-hills), nuthatches, black caps, waxwings, greenfinches, bullfinches, the tiny goldcrest and every imaginable member of the tit family! Roe and red deer hide in the woodland, as do badgers, wood mice, a few rabbits, grey and red squirrels. The red squirrels are very few in number. They love the hazel nuts. Also to be found are adders, slow worms and common lizards.
Evidence of old mine adits can be found at Bell Rake, in the Canon Hervey Reserve and above the High Farmhouse. Surveys, conducted as early as 1600, suggested the presence of lead and copper ore but it is probable that the entrance holes, that can be seen today, were dug in the past as exploratory holes.
Whitbarrow Scar is a special place and long may it so remain!
When the ice melted, following the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, it left the valley the shape it is today, one and a half miles wide and seven miles long. There were two rivers, the River Gilpin, with its source on Crook Fell, above the Wild Boar, flowing down the west side of the valley, and the Underbarrow Pool, which consists of two tributaries, one starting on Crook Fell, above Beckside and the other, near to Ratherheath.
These two meet just north of Gregg Hall, in Underbarrow, and flow down the east side of the valley. The Gilpin and the Underbarrow Pool meet, just north of Gilpin Bank Farm and flow to the Kent Estuary, at Low Levens, as one river.
The rivers meandered about and were tidal, thus depositing both silt and sand. Between them were large deposits of peat. To enable the peat to be dug and to extend the grazing of the valley, there had to be some form of drainage in the valley. Springs from the hills at each side of the valley, Brigsteer and Whitbarrow, had to be prevented from spreading onto the land, so "catchwaters" were formed. The first mention of these was in the record books in 1692, when it was reported that they were in poor shape. The Flodder catchwater started at the entrance to Flodder Hall and extended to Johnscales, picking up vast quantities of water at Flodder, Rusmickle, and Grassgarth. It was then joined by the Rawson's catchwater, which collected water from the blow wells.
These were reputed to have no bottom! Both then joined the River Gilpin. The Levens/Brigsteer catchwater started at Tullythwaite farm, connecting with the Underbarrow Pool, south of Low Plain Farm.
When it was found that the best peat could be won from lower levels, it became necessary for a lower drainage system to be devised, which was to be channelled under the higher level system, by means of a sough (a small wooden tunnel, twelve inches square).
In the 18th century, a grid of drainage channels was developed, emptying into two main channels, one on the east of the peat moss and one on the west. This system proved to be unique. It was adequate for peat removal and summer grazing, but in the winter periods, most of the land was waterlogged.
The first big improvement came with the Heversham Award in 1815, which outlined and named the drainage ditches, stating their width and depth. Most were to be accompanied by a green road to allow for access for maintenance purposes.
In 1843 Mr Joseph Glynn set out to survey the area. As a result of this, there were vast changes to the system, including the addition of an extra arch to the bridge, over the River Gilpin, which had been built in 1820.
The river was straightened and new tunnels were dug under the high level system.
The Levens and Lyth main ditches were linked after an agreement was reached between the Foulshaw Estate and Crosthwaite and Lyth. A rate was levied on owners or tenants in the valley, on a per acre calculation, to pay for the changes, which was collected by local Drainage Boards. The total cost of the work was £15,000. With the improved outlets, fields could be drained, to sustain a longer grazing and cropping season. The first drains had been of the Speke type, which was a trench with a square channel at the bottom, covered with turf or slate. In the early 19th century, clay land tiles were introduced.
Lyth Valley mosses
- construction of new drainage channel
Original drainage spans
New drainage spans
After the Second World War large grants became available for the upgrading of the ditches, the riverbanks and for land drainage. Most of the work on the main drains was carried out originally by the Lancashire River Board but has now been replaced by the Environment Agency.
By far the biggest improvement to the drainage of the valley was instituted in 1981, with the construction of a tunnel under the Gilpin and a new bridge over the A590. This incorporated sluice doors to prevent the tide from coming up the river. The installation of pumps at the Toll Bar, Thorfor Bridge and Gilpin Bridge overcame the existing tidal interruption and allowed for a continuous 24 hour outfall.
There have been several big floods over the years; notably in 1938, when the banks collapsed on the Helsington Pool and in the 1950s, when crops were washed away. There was further serious flooding in 1967.
Private contractors carried out the work on the drainage system, at first by hand. The people involved were the Lookers, Ormerods, Chadwicks and Dobsons. During the Second World War POWs and others were employed for many months of the year. In the 1960s Lookers started to use a digging device attached to a tractor, designed and developed by Alan Dobson of Cartmel Fold and John Myers of Durham Bridge. This machine was manufactured by Barsyke of Backbarrow. Next came hydraulic diggers and then massive ditch trenching machines, used by John Thacker of Levens. These machines could lay either clay pipes or plastic ones at a far greater speed than before.
Sadly, the Government removed grants for drainage, so that, today, very few, if any, new schemes are carried out.
There is only maintenance of old ones. If the Environment Agency ever abandoned the maintenance of the pumping stations and drainage ditches, the valley could once again become a swamp, with new peat forming.