Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A Lost Medieval Priory Beneath a Grand Country House, Conishead Priory

Conishead Priory today is a well visited attraction, home to Buddhist monks and an impressive and “…very important Gothic revival country house with few peers in the north west” (English Heritage). But beneath the grand manor house and its well kept lawns are the foundations of a 12th Century Augustinian Priory.

In 1160 Gamel de Pennington, a local lord living at Pennington Castle, founded a hospital here for the poor of the Ulverston area. Monks from the Order of St. Augustine ran the hospital and lived within it. They also founded a school here to help educated local children. Later, in 1188, the hospital was raised to the status of a Priory and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A holy relic kept at the site was said to be a girdle, a type of waist tie, of Mary.

The newly appointed priory soon was given new land and rights which, in turn, brought conflict with the nearby Furness Abbey. Furness was an ever growing power house at the time and would be unhappy with a new priory taking land and tithes from areas they could potentially cultivate. Disputes between Conishead and Furness carried on until 1338 when Edward II gave a royal charter to Conishead, which confirmed all earlier grants of land and rights. This brought to an end all disputes, although one does wonder if the monks at Furness were ever completely happy with the Priories existence!

In the mid 1500’s, as part of the ‘Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries’, Conishead was dissolved. The monks were moved on and the lead from the roofs stripped, melted down and sold. The walls were dismantled as well leaving the site all but empty.

If you visit the site today it is hard to see any evidence of this early priory. No ruined walls are left to give an idea of its size or shape, nor any markings on the ground. But, thankfully, there has been some archaeological excavation at the site. This work found the priory church to be beneath the south lawn of the current manor house and to be in the typical cruciform shape with a 100 foot nave and crossing transepts. The domestic buildings of the priory are believed to be beneath the current manor house, inaccessible for research and confirmation of size and shape.

It is a shame that this religious house of old is no longer in existence or that there is no evidence of it left to see. It must have been a peaceful and beautiful place in it’s time and would have been a wonderful place to visit today if still in some form of existence.

After the priories dissolution the estate was given to a man called Lord Mounteagle who built a country house here from what was left of the Priories stone walls. The estate then went on to pass through various hands until eventually coming into the hands of the Braddylls family. They held Conishead for just under two centuries, living in the country house. In 1821 the house was to undergo a drastic change, a change brought about by Colonel Thomas Braddyll - High Sheriff of Lancashire.

The Colonel hired architect Philip Wyatt to rebuild Conishead to a brand new design. From here the current house was demolished and fifteen years later the brand new Conishead manor house was finished and was, and is, stunning. Wyatt had blended different architectural styles to produce a unique and exciting building. The houses distinctive octagonal towers, which stand at the front of the building, are truly impressive at 100 feet tall and make Conishead stand out amongst the surrounding trees and, indeed, amongst other local stately homes and country houses.

Unfortunately for Colonel Braddyll he was, in 1848, declared bankrupt and he lost his newly built Conishead. The site once again passed through various hands until eventually becoming a hydropathical hotel, soon being known as ‘The Paradise of Furness’. The hotel could hold 240 guests and provided a host of different facilities including a huge library, tennis courts, pleasure boating and salt baths.

Fifty years later and the house changed hands again, this time bought by the Durham Miners Welfare Committee. They turned the site into a convalescent home for Durham coal miners who became ill from there work. During the Second World War the site became a military hospital, the largest in the North, and looked after many thousands of patients over the war years.

Today Buddhist monks own and look after the house, which has become the Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre. The former walled garden of the country house now holds a beautifully decorative Buddhist temple and the site is a hub for spiritual activity in the area.

Visiting the site today you can get a sense of the tranquillity that the original Augustinian monks would have had being here and that the many families, hotel guests, miners and Buddhists have experienced here over the centuries. The site is well worth a visit for a cup of tea and a slice of cake in the café, a wander around the impressive garden and grounds and a look inside the temple. But while there be sure to take a look at the grand stately home and think of the humble beginning of the site as a medieval hospital turned priory.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Remnants of a Lakeland Industry, the Haverthwaite Charcoal Burner's Huts

To the top of Furness and inside the Lake District National Park, just before reaching Windermere, is the quaint village of Haverthwaite, a village best known for its steam railway.

To the south of the village is a large area of woodland known as Haverthwaite Heights. Although now a peaceful, isolated and beautiful area of wildlife this woodland would once have been alive with industry, the industry of charcoal burning.

Charcoal was a product in demand during the Victorian era with many large industries, like steelworks, requiring large amounts of charcoal to burn and produce high heats. Due to this many of the woodlands in the area and across the Lake District would be littered with charcoal burners and the huts they stayed in.

Photo of a charcoal burner's hut  (with charcoal burners)
at Backbarrow a mile or so away.
Charcoal burning takes along time and requires overnight attention so the men who undertook the process would build shelters out of stone and wood often using thatch or turf as a roof. These shelters could then be used as a base while working and somewhere for the men to lay their head down when they had a moment.

The remains of several of such structures can be found dotted across the woodlands on Haverthwaite Heights. These examples were created with a low stone wall as a base which would most likely have then had wooden posts stretching up around the wall to meet in a point creating a tepee structure.This would then be covered with thatch or turf - turf being a better option as it isn't flammable.

Interestingly many of these structures have sizable holes through their walls opposite their entrance. These may well have been for a metal extraction pipe/chimney for a log burner, something to bring a bit of comfort to the otherwise rustic accommodation.

All that now remains of these once well used structures are the low level ruined walls which created the foundation of the wooden structure above. They are a wonder to stumble across and certainly evoke an image in ones mind of days long gone when the men, in their waist coats and flat caps, faces blackened from the charcoal and soot, would emerge from their huts to check their wood burn. Producing masses of charcoal ready to be sold to the steel works or the iron furnaces, working long hours to make ends meet and provide for their families. It certainly can't have been an easy life but I am sure it had many joys.

Several footpaths run through Haverthwaite Heights but I found the best walk was to park up in near by Backbarrow, walk under the railway, through a small tunnel, and head up onto the top of the heights to descend down onto Lanes End, the charcoal burner's huts being found as you make your descent. There is a relatively steep ascent but it is certainly well worth the effort of climbing, not only to find the huts on the way down but for the stunning views from the heights.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Snapshot Series: Little Mill, Dalton

Tucked away in a small wooded area on a footpath between Dalton and Barrow-in-Furness is a hidden remnant of the past, the remains of Little Mill.

Originally built by the monks of Furness Abbey Little Mill would produce flour for the monastery from grain, using a waterwheel to power the mill stones. It was one of many mills the abbey owned and ran across Furness.

A man made mill pond would have been situated above the mill, filled with water diverted out of the near by Poaka Beck. A water shoot would bring water from this pond to the mill and send it cascading over the top of a large wooden waterwheel. This powerful stream of water would turn the wheel which in turn moved all the cogs and mill stones within the mill building, grinding corn into flour. Where exactly the mill pond was situated and where the shoot was placed is unclear but you can still see evidence of where the mill once stood. Several ruinous sandstone walls give an idea of where the mill buildings once were and there is even a mill stone partially buried in the ground near to these walls.

The mill was in use right through to the 19th Century but the building of the nearby railway brought an end to production at the mill. It was lived in for a time but eventually was left to rot and be mostly demolished.

You can find the site of Little Mill along the footpath leading from Goose Green in Dalton to Furness Abbey (part of the old Cistercian Way). You will stumble across the above mill stone, likely a remnant from the mills later activity, sticking out into the path, look towards the trees behind this to discover the mill site.

It is well worth a wander down this lovely old footpath to truly walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and find this hidden part of our local history.

The Snapshot Series is a series of short posts on singular locations, features or artefacts found in the Furness area. Not large enough to warrant a long blog post we will explore these sites in snapshots!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Medieval Farmstead upon a Furness Fell | VIDEO

Heathwaite Fell, sitting to the north of the Furness peninsula, is a vast and wild place but hidden amongst the bracken and the windswept fields is a hidden gem. A medieval farmstead!

This farmstead is the highlight of a dispersed medieval settlement with it's associated field systems spread across the fell.

The farmstead, which is of more than one period of construction, consists of five interlinked enclosures made from stone walls with a domestic area to the north. A couple of these enclosures have land which has been improved for agricultural cultivation with the rest being un-improved and most likely for animal grazing. There are also a few small rectangular structures within the enclosures. Their function is unclear but I do wonder if they may have been sheep pens for isolating and sheering sheep.

To give you a better understanding of the layout of this farmstead and give you a better view of it we took to the air to film this breathtaking video:

Extending out from the farmstead is a selection of field system made up of banks and walled areas. The largest of these fields being around 5.7 hectare in size with all containing the archeological feature known as ridge and furrow, a feature spoken about in a previous post. These features give evidence to the cultivation of this land for the growing of crops. 

Close to the farmstead there are also three kilns. The one pictured below being on its east side. These kilns are made from thick, circular stone walls with large outer banks and deep central hollows. Two of these kilns, interestingly, have been constructed from former Bronze Age clearance cairns. These cairns were created when Bronze Age man cleared land for cultivation. To do this they removed large amounts of stone and rock from the fells and deposited them in large piles known as cairns. In the medieval period some of these were re-purposed as kilns for creating potash.

Potash was made from bracken or wood and was used to make soaps for the woollen trade - an industry that made vast amounts of money for the local abbey. Potash was created by burning wood or indeed bracken, which makes sense here as bracken covers much of the fell, removing the ash to then dissolve it in boiling water. Following this the solution is evaporated in large pots to leave a white residue, the potash (potassium chloride). 

It is also theorised that these kilns may have been used to dry timber for use in smelting lead ore, it feels more likely though that they were used for potash as sheep were almost certainly reared here and no doubt had their wool shorn here.

This fascinating remnant of our medieval past truly is a hidden gem. It's remote location gives stunning views of both the Lake District fells and the Duddon Estuary, it's low lying remains give a tangible connection to the past and the lumps of and bumps of the ridge and furrow give you a sense of the true grit and determination our ancestors had when cultivating the wild land they lived in.

A road runs near to this wonderful site and a short walk will get you right to it. It is well worth a visit and will open your eyes to our medieval past here in Furness and those men and women tirelessly working the land.