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Medieval trade routes in Westmorland

Thursday 9 July, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

As we discussed in our earlier blog post, Packhorses and their routes, trade goods were carried the length and breadth of Britain on the backs of packhorses in trains of up to twenty beasts at a time each with a load of between one and two hundredweight. The sturdy ‘Jaggers’ or Galloway ponies could negotiate narrow fellside paths and so were ideal for moving essential goods through the hills of northern England from the medieval era and probably earlier, right up to the coming of the Turnpike roads in the eighteenth century.

Medieval packhorse and donkey from Hortus Deliciarum.
Medieval packhorse and donkey, from Hortus Deliciarum. From

Written evidence for the routes these packhorses used in Westmorland during the medieval era is limited. The earliest example we know of is the road between Kendal and Shap which is mentioned in several medieval charters. Two relate to grants of land to Shap Abbey. The first is early thirteenth century and describes part of the boundary as lying next to the ‘magna strata que venit de Kendale.’ The ‘great street which comes from Kendal’ in other words. The second charter dates to 1257 and again outlines the boundary of a piece of land granted to Shap Abbey:

“….going from the stream of Surmire above Surmire, which is the boundary of the said monks, as far as the wall beyond the corner of the dyke of Surmyre towards the the south, and so straight on, to the wall below the great road which comes from the vill of Heppe [Shap] and is called the Stayngate.”

… a rivulo de Surmire desuper Surmire que est divisa dictorum canonicorum usque ad murum ultra angulum fossati de Surmyre versus Aquilonem et sic directe usque ad murum infra magnam viam que venit de villa de Heppe et dicitur le Stayngate.”
F W Ragg (1909) ‘Two Documents relating to Shap Abbey’ TCWAAS vol 9 p271

It’s very interesting that this road is called ‘Stayngate’ as this term was usually used to describe old Roman roads whose stony, hard surfaces marked them as different to the normal muddy medieval routes. Clearly the great road mentioned does not follow the course of the Roman route down the Lune Gorge but instead passes over the high ground between Shap and Kendal, the route later followed by the eighteenth century turnpike and described in our blog post Turnpike roads: Kendal to Shap and now roughly followed by the modern A6.

Early thirteenth century grants of land to Byland Abbey next to Shap’s estates also refer to it as ‘the great road to Kendal’ (F R Wragg (1914) TCWAAS 14 p7). It’s no surprise that a road to Kendal should be seen as so important at that time. Trade of all kinds began to flourish in Cumbria through the course of the thirteenth century and Kendal became the centre for the collection and onward distribution of woollen textiles for the whole area. It was granted its market charter before 1200, only the third in the (modern) county behind Carlisle and Appleby to get one.

Medieval pack mule, unknown source. 
From Crusader Horses: Destriers, Palfreys and Pack-Horses
Medieval pack mule, unknown source.
From Crusader Horses: Destriers, Palfreys and Pack-Horses

The close proximity of monastic estates is another clue to the road’s importance. The wool from sheep grazed on upland estates became a lucrative business for the monks of abbeys such as Byland and Shap. It may well have been the abbeys that maintained the ‘Staynegate’ in such good repair. We know from medieval legal documents, that it was often an abbot, presumably with an interest in local trade, that had proper bridges at river crossing points built. W G Collingwood mentions two early monastic examples in his 1928 article ‘Packhorse bridges’ (TCWAAS 28 p120-129). One was over the river Colne (1185) and the other over the Calder (1177). In 1310 the Colne bridge was reported as being broken but as the abbot of Fountains had erected it only “of his special goodness” he couldn’t legally be made to repair it (ibid p120).

Fascinating evidence for the Kendal wool trade and its monastic links comes from the chance find of a lead wool weight at the head of Bretherdale eight miles north-east of Kendal. The finder, J E Satchell, published a carefully researched article about it in 1989 (TCWAAS 89). It turns out that the wool weight can be dated to between 1359 and 1389 and it came from the manor of Wakefield. It would have been used by a wool buyer to check the weights of bales of raw wool. Satchell demonstrates that there were links between Kendal and Wakefield wool merchants from 1312 and that trade between the two towns was firmly established by the middle of the fourteenth century. The Cistercian monks of Byland Abbey may well have had a hand in this trade. They had land in the area that included Bretherdale from the mid-twelfth century and also estates near Wakefield. Cistercian monks were renowned for their skills in sheep farming and unlike other monastic orders, they sold wool in a variety of grades. Wakefield was a centre for the production of fine wool cloth, particularly worsted and Satchell suggests that Byland’s best quality wool might well have attracted buyers from Wakefield.

The packhorse trains carrying wool from Kendal to Wakefield just south-east of Leeds would have followed routes south to Kirkby Lonsdale and then through the Aire Gap probably along higher level paths above the line now taken by the A65.

Bretherdale wool weight now in the Science Museum, London
Bretherdale wool weight now in the Science Museum, London

The links between Kendal and Wakefield continued well into the sixteenth century with inventories attached to the wills of Kendal merchants showing they were selling cloth or even had shops in Wakefield. Satchell concludes:

“It is entirely credible that an agent of the manor of Wakefield on a wool buying trip in this area should lose one of his wool weights in Bretherdale.” ibid p139

While wool may have formed a very important part of the trade through Westmorland in medieval times, packhorses carried a wide variety of other goods on their backs. Perhaps the next in importance would have been salt produced on the Cumberland coast. Without salt people couldn’t preserve stocks of those vital sources of protein – cheese and meat. Stores of salted meat, and pickled cheeses and even vegetables, were essential through the long cold winter months and could mean the difference between life and death for a subsistence farmer. The importance of this early salt trade is evidenced in place names. In the project area we have two ‘Salterwaths’. The name ‘wath’ comes from the old Norse word for ford so these important river crossing points for ‘salters’ with packhorses carrying salt have very early origins.

One Salterwath lies at the head of Birk Beck on the crossing point of packhorse routes which we have already identified as being early in our blog post Early trade routes through Shap. Just north of the current crossing point lies a small stone pack-horse style bridge of unknown date

Small bridge over Birk Beck at Salterwath, unknown date. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Small bridge over Birk Beck at Salterwath, unknown date. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn

The other is Salterwath Bridge close to the site of the Roman fort at Low Borrowbridge south of Tebay. The bridge must have replaced an earlier ford across the river Lune. This implies that the old Roman route through the Lune Gorge while not the main route north-south, was still being used by long distance packhorse trains. We’ll come back to that later.

Salterwath Bridge over the river Lune. From British Listed Buildings
Salterwath Bridge over the river Lune. From British Listed Buildings

As we’ve seen, Kendal achieved its royal market charter around 1200, not long after the principal administrative centres of Carlisle and Appleby got theirs. As the thirteenth century progressed, many more towns in the region achieved market charters, including Orton; Brough; Kirkby Lonsdale; Penrith and Kirkby Stephen. There were many reasons to found a town, often defensive or strategic, but if a town wasn’t on or close to a trade route it seldom flourished. Brough is a case in point as Paul Hindle points out in his book ‘Roads and Tracks of the Lake District’ (1998):

“Indeed, a place need not have been far from a road to fail as a town…at Brough …the original town with its castle and church on the site of the old Roman fort failed to prosper, and a new town grew on the medieval diversion of the road from Appleby to Stainmore, half a kilometre to the north [Market Brough].” ibid p51

Penrith is another interesting example. It was clearly an important ‘place’ in prehistoric times given the siting of the huge Mayburgh henge just south of the modern town. The Romans built a fort at nearby Brougham and bridged the river Eamont there and a medieval castle was constructed close to the fort.

The Roman fort was known as ‘Brocavum‘ and lay on a continuation of the Stainmore road between Carlisle and the Great North Road (modern A1). However it appears that both an earlier Roman route and the main Norman/early medieval route from Carlisle, the via regia or ‘King’s Highway’ avoided Penrith altogether and instead followed routes further to the east. Both early Roman and early medieval routes crossed the river Eamont at the ancient ford at Udford before eventually joining the Stainmore road (modern A66). It’s only when Brocavum fort is built that the Roman road is rerouted towards Penrith and presumably a bridge built because the Eamont is too deep to ford at that point. See the Roman Roads Research website for further details.

It’s unclear why the earliest Roman route avoided Penrith but in the early medieval era the likely reason is that the old Roman bridge crossing the river Eamont at Brougham/Brocavum had been lost. Not until Brougham Castle is built in the early thirteenth century does it seem likely that the crossing point was reinstated with a bridge. Penrith gained its market charter in 1220 and the line of the modern A6/Roman road north to Carlisle was revived and Penrith became an important strategic and trading centre from then on. Read P A Wilson’s article ‘Brougham Castle and early communications in the Eden Valley’ (TCWAAS 76 pp67-76) for the full story. We may assume that the route south from Penrith to Kendal via Shap (modern A6) must have been established at the same time but we need to do further research on that.

The fourteenth century brings us the first medieval route-maps of the area, most notably the early fourteenth century ‘Gough’ map of England and Wales. Many of the routes shown on it still followed the course of Roman roads, for example the Stainmore/A66 route. The medieval route south of Penrith is shown heading to Kendal via Shap (modern A6) but with a branch from Shap heading off down through the Lune Gorge and joining the line of the old Roman road there. This implies that local traffic at least was still using the low level Lune Gorge/old Roman route.

The southern end of the Lune Gorge/old Roman route (now called Howgill Lane) is actually mentioned in a thirteenth century Cockersand Abbey charter where it is referred to as ‘le waingate’ implying it was still well-enough surfaced to allow wheeled carts or ‘wains’ to travel along it. Gough’s map follows it on past Sedbergh to Kirkby Lonsdale but it’s not clear which exact path it took to get there.

Medieval maps and a handful of itineraries showing the travels of kings and bishops roughly follow the main roads we now know as the A6 and A66 through the project area, though bishops made detours to visit abbeys and monastic granges. We have to look to other evidence for what must have been a great network of more local trade routes joining the many towns; villages and monastic estates we know were in existence after the Norman Conquest.

Oxford Archaeology North (OAN) conducted a landscape survey of the Lune Gorge in advance of the laying of a gas pipeline. Their work was published in 1995 and called ‘Transect Through Time: The Archaeological Landscape of the Shell North Western Ethylene Pipeline’ by Janet Lambert; Rachel M. Newman & Adrian Oliver. They uncovered fascinating archaeological evidence for packhorse routes over Tebay Fell. As the trains of horses made their way up and down the steep valley sides, they tended to progress in zig zags which put less strain on their legs. Over time and with water erosion these zig zags became hollow ways some of which are still clearly visible on the side of Uldale Head above Carlingill in the Lune Gorge. As one track grew too muddy and deep another was formed nearby and these ‘braided’ routes can still be clearly seen. Over the boggy fell top the packhorse trains would disperse and pick their own way over the firmest ground leaving few marks on the landscape, but as they descended on the other side, for instance into Tebay, more curving hollow ways can still be seen.

The OAN team identified two main routes across Tebay Fell. They come up the Lune on ‘le waingate’ (Howgill Lane/Fairmile) or over from Kendal via Grayrigg Hause and across the Lune to Carlingill, then up Uldale onto the fell top.

“The routes diverge on Hare Shaw, the western branch continuing past Gelstone to join the main driftway [local cattle track] from Tebay at Overcluegill. Multiple hollow-ways are carved deep into the steep, wet slopes as far as High Gate (now Mount Pleasant) on the turnpike road. The last stretch of the driftway to Old Tebay is now obscured by the roundabout linking the motorway and the modern road to Kirkby Stephen (A685) … The main pack route, however, continued north past Cooper House and down the less steep, but even wetter driftway to Gaisgill. Here it turned eastwards and crossed the Lune, continuing by way of Smardale Bridge and Waitby to Kirkby Stephen, and thence eastwards over Stainmore to Barnard Castle.” ibid p67

Hollow-ways leading down into Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Hollow-ways leading down into High Gate (Mount Pleasant), Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Hollow-ways above into Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Hollow-ways above Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Hollow-way beside modern track above Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Hollow-way beside modern track above Tebay. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn

It’s worth having a look at the side-by-side mapping and aerial photography on the National Library of Scotland’s website, the hollow-ways above Carlingill are shown really clearly as can be seen in the screenshot below.

Screen shot from National Library of Scotland website showing hollow ways on Uldale Head
Screen shot from National Library of Scotland website showing hollow-ways on Uldale Head

So far we can’t date these packhorse routes; they may be medieval or they may be later.

The evidence of so-called packhorse bridges such as the one at Smardale mentioned above is another clue to where packhorse routes once ran. Fast flowing streams, even quite shallow ones, would have proved too treacherous for a heavily-laden packhorse to cross safely. However, the classic single-span stone-arched bridges like the one at Smardale are not medieval. The oldest are likely to date to the later-seventeenth century. A medieval packhorse bridge would have typically consisted of stone piers with a wooden gangway laid across. Very little remains of this type of bridge obviously, though W G Collingwood in his 1928 article on ‘Packhorse-bridges’ (TCWAAS 28 pp120-129) refers to a piece of masonry from the pier of a 1584 bridge at Rawthey Bridge on the A683 in the southern part of Ravenstonedale.

Eighteenth century packhorse train crossing a stone bridge, unknown source. From
Eighteenth century packhorse train crossing a stone bridge, unknown source. From

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Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


2 Replies to “Medieval trade routes in Westmorland”

  1. Karen Wells says:

    Just found your blog. Fascinating. Thank you

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