The Westmorland Dales has a rich and varied geological heritage. At its heart are the limestone scarps, crags and dramatic pavements of the Carboniferous Great Scar Limestone, giving the area its distinctive character. To the south the steep-sided Howgill Fells, made of older Silurian slaty rocks, rise up from the floodplain of the upper Lune Valley. Rolling green farmland in the north is underlain by limestone, sandstone and mudstone, part of a younger sequence of Carboniferous rocks known as the Yoredale Group. In the north-east there are small areas of the distinctive red rocks of the Eden Valley, which date from the Permian and Triassic periods. Glacial deposits and landforms, a legacy of the last major glaciation, mantle the area and tell of past ice sheets and meltwater.
Moving on in time from the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic period (from 10,000 BC ) the landscape would have been substantially wooded. The first people would have been hunter gatherers who started to clear the trees through slash and burn, hunting grazing animals in the area.
The first evidence of arable farming is in the Neolithic period (from 4,000 BC), when cereal pollen first becomes present in pollen analysis . Farming develops through the Bronze Age (from 2,600 BC), along with continued episodes of clearance, of both trees and stone into cairnfields. On Little Asby Common there is surviving evidence of widespread organised farming in the form of a co-axial field system (dating from the mid to late Bronze Age) which supported both arable and pastoral farming across this upland region. These type of field systems are rare survivors in north-west England. Gamelands stone circle near Orton is a further example of prehistoric activity in the area, likely to date from the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age.
In our uplands and lowlands there is evidence of settlements dating to the Iron Age and Romano-British period. Castle Folds, surrounded by formidable limestone pavement on Great Asby Scar National Nature Reserve, is an unusually heavily defended example. Later, shielings were found in the upland areas. These typically date from the 7th to 17th centuries, and were for the summer pasturing of livestock. There are a number of manorial halls dating to the period following the Norman Conquest. This is most evident in Mallerstang, where three manorial halls can be found within a few miles of one another, one of which is Pendragon Castle. Defensive structures were important against the raids of the Scots.
Most of the villages in the Westmorland Dales have their origins in the medieval period, with foundations predating the Normans, as testified by the village churches, for example the Church of All Saints in Orton. Evidence of the medieval origins of these villages also survives in enclosure patterns and earthworks, for example as at Maulds Meaburn. Their plan forms are typically two-rows on opposite sides of a beck, often emerging from limestone springs, such as St Helen’s Well, Great Asby. In the centre of the village were the tofts and crofts, behind which are the back lanes, and then the open ploughland for arable.
There have been many different phases of rebuilding, but in this region the ‘Great Rebuilding’ took place in the late 17th and 18th centuries, and this is when many of the tofts were rebuilt in stone, and a variety of farmsteads developed. The most common type being the linear farmstead. These were a natural progression from the older longhouse form, from having one door used by both humans and animals to them having separate parts (and separate doors) for the domestic and agricultural ends.
The enclosure of the landscape took place over many centuries. Piecemeal enclosure took place alongside open ploughlands. The earliest methods of enclosing land are constructed banks, which would have been topped with a live/dead hedge or a fence. Some of the medieval walls were built as part of monastic granges, for instance Asby Grange that was part of Byland Abbey in the North York Moors. The remains of Shap Abbey can be seen north of Shap village, and the partially exposed ruins of a Gilbertine monastic cell or dwelling for a small community of canons from the Gilbertine order in the churchyard of St Oswald’s, Ravenstonedale. After the Dissolution, a number of enclosed parks were built by prominent landowners as deer parks or as their own cattle farms, for example Ravenstonedale Park, built at the behest of Lord Wharton. The landscape was increasingly enclosed during the post-medieval period.
Resistance to the established Church also sprouted after the Civil War and there are many early examples of Non-Conformist Churches and Chapels, for example High Chapel in Ravenstonedale.
Commons are an important part of the Westmorland Dales and the region more generally and their enclosure by tyrannical landlords was often resisted. From about 1750 to 1850 Acts of Parliament enclosed many of the commons, however a significant number of unenclosed commons remain, for example as at Little Asby Common. Although their agricultural futures are uncertain.
As more land was enclosed and the landscape became increasingly dominated by pastoral farming, the number of field barns increased. These are linked to an annual cycle of farming, where cattle were overwintered and hay was stored. Masonry lime kilns start appearing from the 1670s. Some of these lime kilns would be for the production of lime for building works, but many situated in the landscape would be for the improvement of agricultural land. Farmers invested in schools for their children, often called ‘Dame schools’, where a ‘Dame’ took charge of the children’s basic learning and bible reading. There is a good example of a Dame School on Raisbeck green.
Travel through the Westmorland Dales has developed over many millennia. Ancient routeways were trading routes that used natural ways through the landscape, such as the Tebay Gorge – Shap Avenue illustrates the importance of this strategic north-south routeway in the prehistoric period. Roman, Viking and Norman war bands, as well as traders, routinely came through the area. For example, Black Dub monument on Crosby Ravensworth Fell records the lonely spot where Charles II rested his army on the march south from Scotland in 1651. Packhorse routes, often marked by surviving packhorse bridges such as Artlegarth Beck packhorse bridge in Ravenstonedale, carried essential supplies like salt and wool across the area throughout the medieval age. Drovers moved huge numbers of cattle and other livestock to markets and fairs at Brough and further south, and in the 18th century turnpike roads arrived in the area, alongside new roads starting to come in with the Enclosure Acts.
In the 19th century the arrival of the railways changed the landscape and the prospects of local people irrevocably. The village of Tebay was transformed into a bustling railway village on a busy railway junction, marked by the construction of a new church: St James’ Railway Church. Many formerly remote Westmorland villages benefitted from a nearby station, such as Crosby Garrett and Ravenstonedale. Feats of railway engineering in the area included embankments and lofty viaducts, such as Smardalegill viaduct near Newbiggin-on-Lune, with its neighbouring double lime kiln. The construction of the M6 motorway, following the same north-south path through the Lune Gorge as the railway, and before that the Roman Road, brought the Westmorland Dales into the motor age.
In more recent times, the area became part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park following its extension in 2016. The area has been part of Westmorland since 1133, until the creation of Cumbria (along with Cumberland) in 1974. However, from 2023 it is again Westmorland and Furness.
From 2019 to 2024, the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme put a new spotlight on the area. The scheme was primarily funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and through a partnership of organisations 22 projects were delivered. These have increased our understanding of this landscape and enabled more people to appreciate and help conserve its wide-ranging cultural and natural capital assets.