A 17th Century farmhouse has a lot of history attached to it and we have begun to delve into Fornside’s history. The lovely ladies of our WI have been kind enough to give, sell and lend us a variety of out-of-print books about the local area, which in addition to memories kindly shared, have added to what we have discovered online and through an archaeological heritage study. Here is a whistle-stop-tour of Fornside through the ages.
In examining Fornside’s history, we must mention its proximity to the Neolithic Castlerigg Stone Circle, thought to have been built around 3000BC and therefore one of the earliest in the country. One can only assume that the then-wooded vale was at least frequented, if not from time to time inhabited, by these peoples as they moved away from hunter-gathering and began to settle down and develop agriculture.
A few thousand years later, the Romans came. A 3D aerial laser-scan found evidence of a Roman road through Fornside, linking Ambleside to Penrith. The road lay roughly along the line of fences and dry stone walls that run roughly between the railway carriage to the south, all the way through Beckthorns’ line of trees to the north.
What’s in a name?
Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th Centuries gave the Vale many of its unique place names, as well as influencing the local dialect (to this day!). Houses in the parish were grouped into ‘townships’, each represented by a chapel warden chosen by its community. It was common to refer to the township people lived in, rather than their individual dwelling. The Township of Fornside comprised Beckthorns, Bram Cragg, various buildings at Fornside Farm, Fornside House, Goat (Cote, Coat) Syke, Low Bridge End Farm and Sosgill. The location of most of these (or their ruins) are evident on an Ordnance Survey Map, with the exception of Cote Syke which, we think, was one amongst many buildings in what is now the field opposite Fornside House.
References to Fornside can be found as early as 1303, then spelt Fornsett. The name almost certainly comes from ‘Forne’s saetr’; Forne being a Scandinavian settler (9th or 10th century) and saetr meaning ‘hill pasture’ or ‘summer pasture’ … another source spells this ‘Forni’s saeter’ and connects it with the Forni who was made Earl of Greystoke around 1135. Nearby Caldbeck Mine’s accounts record it in the 1560s as Forenseit, and records of a peat supplier include a Robert Watson of Fornside around the same time. His son Garwin’s baptism in 1567 takes the earliest Fornsyde record in Crosthwaite parish register, and over the next few years it records the baptisms, deaths and marriages of various family members, with the spelling changing through Fornsyd and Fornsyde to Fornside. (The parish of St. John’s-in-the-Vale was not considered a parish in its own right until 1863. Before then the Vale was part of Crosthwaite Parish in Keswick … to where the dead had to be carried compulsorily until 1767, hence the naming of the ‘coffin road’.)
The buildings of Fornside, 17th Century to modern day
The core of Fornside Farmhouse was built in the 17th Century and was essentially two rooms with a ‘baffle’, unusually, on the fell-side of the house which probably functioned as an entrance hall. It is likely that the ancient oak door, now in the arched porchway on the vale side of the house, hung there originally. There were back-to-back fireplaces between the rooms, and an inglenook with fire-window and spice-cupboard, which are still partly in tact.
In the 18th Century it is thought that two rooms to the south were added. Here, the 1770s map of Cumberland drawn by Thomas Donald at the request of Mr Jeffery, Geographer to the King, shows ‘Fornside Head’.
Around the turn of the 19th Century, the ‘dairy’, a large cool storage room was built outside the baffle entrance and the ancient oak door was moved to a new entrance at the front of the house (in the arched porchway). The attached the barns (now cottages) were built to the south of the farmhouse. These would have been used mainly for wintering cattle and processing milk, although Herdwick Fold’s large window (wagon doorway ) indicates that processing grain was also carried out here. At this point the almost-spiral staircase was built at the back of the house, allowing upstairs to be properly used. The 1840 Tythe Map shows various dwellings at Fornside, then owned by Joseph Slack and occupied by William Jackson. Rigg Barn was built around this time, as an open hay store with space for animals below. A new cowbarn was built ‘of local stone and Borrowdale slate’; we think that perhaps the small piece of dry-stone wall by the yard is a remnant of this.
We understand that the railway carriage arrived in the late 1930s on a log wagon with horses, presumably it came from the Penrith – Threlkeld – Keswick – Cockermouth line. In 1953 Fornside had its first flushing loo and dedicated bathroom! Not long after this, electricity finally made it to Fornside, and its tenants JP and Lily Jackson became the proud owners of a solid fuel Aga. In the 1960s they built the small cowshed that remains opposite the farmhouse to meet the new dairy cleaner standards. The large green cow barns, now removed, were built in 1976 for winter housing and feeding of a large dairy herd with a modern milking parlour and bulk storage. The yard area was concreted around that time. (Many of our regular guests remember our predecessors Pam and Robert using these to house some 3000 hens.)
The barns adjoining Fornside Farm were converted into three cottages in the mid-1980s;
We think it was about this time that the farmhouse was significantly renovated. The lean-to kitchen was replaced with a then-modern kitchen with a large loft. Sadly, some original features of the old farmhouse, such as parts of the fireplaces and most of the flagstone floors, were removed.
At the end of the 1990s, Pam and Robert Hall took ownership of Fornside, which by then consisted the current 54 acres and no longer included Fornside Cottage and Fornside House. They converted Rigg Barn into a fourth holiday cottage.
Our priority when we arrived in 2018 was to refurbish the four cottages and replace the very old oil and gas boilers with a modern eco-friendly system (read more here). Having given a new lease of life to the cottages, we turned our attention to the farmhouse. We were mindful during this renovation to be sympathetic to its heritage; rewiring, replumbing and replacing the heating were non-negotiables, but we did these with consideration, and we restored and preserved many beautiful features. We lowered the roof of the 1980s kitchen extension when we enlarged it with the ‘structureless’ glazed corner and roof lights. This juxtaposition was designed to complement and celebrate the historic architecture, and the open glassy design connects us to the farmland and fells beyond, even when we are indoors.
Farming has been the predominant, but not only vocation for the owners and occupiers of Fornside.
The 1871 Census records Dinah Robinson’s family as Lead Miners living at Fornside Head (her family and descendents have lived at High Bridge End since 1902). Mining was a key industry in the area, and Fornside Copper Mine (the entrance to which you can find in the fell right behind Fornside) was one of these. It was mined of four levels from 1564 to 1862. They extracted copper and lead and possibly quartz.
In 1911, Arthur Chaplin, bookseller and newsagent, bought Fornside which then comprised Beckthorns, Fornside and Low Bridge End; Mr Chaplin and family lived in Beckthorns, and Fornside was rented to tenant farmers. Some of Mr Chaplin’s descendants continue to live at Low Bridge End.
Fornside Cottage was used for many years as an itinerant worker’s cottage, such workers probably being miners, shearers, shepherds and peat-farmers. It was the wives of the peat cutters who grooved the deep paths that you might have trodden on your way up the fell to Calfhow Pike, descending with their sleds heavily laden with peat. Quite a perilous job!
For thirty years, JP Jackson (see more on him below) and his four younger brothers performed at Hunt Balls and Farmers Balls and other occasions in ‘The Jackson Brothers Dance Band’ (which was locally very well-known and provided a very welcome further source of income. Although probably not the sort of income that the American five Jackson brothers yielded!
As well as the holiday cottage business, Fornside did for a short time in the 1980s operate as a B&B.
Pam Hall was a founder member of ‘The Wool Clip’, an award-winning local cooperative of artisans who seek to promote the use of British wools.
Memories from the 1940s and 1950s at Fornside:
Mr Livingstone, a tenant at Fornside House, recalls skiing to Threlkeld during the cold 1940s winters, to catch the train to Cockermouth where he worked. He also recalls a tornado in 1945, during which all the haystacks in the bottom field were whirled away.
John Pears (JP) and his wife Lily had tenancy of Fornside Farm from 1939 to 1973. Fornside then included 187 acres, including land on High Rigg and allotment land, as well as 194 fell sheep of which 140 were Herdwick ewes; in the 1940s Swaledales became favoured as more profitable animals.
In those days, Fornside Farm also was used for cattle (JP was a prize-winning Shorthorn breeder), growing oatmeal, corn, potatoes and turnips, in addition to the traditional sheep farming. JP took much pride in improving and maintaining dry-stone walling and fencing at Fornside as well as winning a few sheepdog trials. JP oversaw huge changes in farming methods during his time at Fornside; the war had a huge impact and farming was slowly becoming less labour intensive. Here are a few examples of life on the farm from those times:
- Like Mr Livingstone, JP remembers very cold winters. They often had to prod snowdrifts to find buried sheep and no delivery vehicle could get through. In those days households kept themselves generally well stocked during winter, but after over a week of being cut off from the world in January 1940, JP walked through the snow to Keswick as everyone in the Fornside hamlet had run out of yeast. As it turns out, they were also out of yeast in Threlkeld.
- Due to rationing, farmers weren’t allowed to slaughter without a permit, which involved weighing the animal first to determine what they were allowed to keep and what they must sell.
- Farmers were compelled to plough land that had never been ploughed before
- All farmers had to take part in Home Guard operations as well as tending to their own farming requirements except during lambing and hay times. Local duties here included guarding the water supply that Thirlmere provided.
- Wartime child evacuees, mainly from Newcastle, were taken in at most farms locally.
- Grass was cut with a two-horse machine
- Milking was done by hand until 1946 when JP invested in a milking machine and a cooler
- The first tractor at Fornside Farm arrived in 1951; two years later, the last ever working horse at Fornside was ‘retired’.
- Shearing of sheep was still done with shears in the 1950s
The following photographs were taken during this period. Lily and JP’s daughter Bunty tells us how boisterous the geese were – some things don’t change!
We, the Butler family, are proud to be the most recent custodians of Fornside. Whilst modernising and enjoying running Fornside Farm, we are mindful of the importance of protecting and preserving its heritage, economic viability and environmental credentials. Fornside’s history is rich because people have treasured it, as we do. If you’re a newsletter subscriber or regular cottage guest here, you’ll be kept abreast of developments!
These books and the report were highly informative:
Rediscovering Our Past – A History of the Houses in the Parish of St. John’s-in-the-Vale, Castlerigg and Wythburn
– thanks to Geoff Darrall for permission to use material from this book
Notes from ‘Farmer John The life of a Cumbrian Hill Farmer’ by John Pears Jackson, edited by Pat and Geoffrey Darrall
– thanks to JP’s children John, Bill and Bunty, and Geoff Darrall, for allowing us to reproduce prints and material from this book (and offering corrections to the draft of this blog).
Thirlmere Mines and The Drowning of The Valley by Ian Tyler
Fornside Farm Heritage Assessment, 2018, Greenlane Archology (commissioned to inform our design and planning process for the farmhouse renovation)
As noted in the body of the blog, the websites of The National Trust, English Heritage, and David Ratledge’s Lidor images and roman roads website. The image of the Donald Map is credit to Cumbria Image Bank although we found it through Lakes Guides who also have permission to use it. Thanks also to Visit Keswick for allowing us to use their stunning Castlerigg Stone Circle image (which is far superior to any of our photographic efforts). Pam and Robert Hall kindly left us some of the photographs used.
Kindly ask before reproducing; we don’t hold copyright to many of these images but can probably point you towards those who do.