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A HISTORY OF KESWICK

Keswick: The story of a Lake District town by George Bott (1994)

"Evidence of Keswick's past is unevenly distributed. The sparsely documented period of medieval Keswick, for example, is matched by the large number of accounts written by visitors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though many of these tend to comment on obvious features and give little insight into the more mundane aspects of daily life in the town. The Newlands and Borrowdale mining ventures of Elizabeth I's reign, the Convention, or the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway have all been well researched: the life of John Bankes, Hutton's Museum, or the origins of Crosthwaite Old School and its eighteen sworn men, on the other hand, remain tantalisingly vague.

 

My story, then, has gaps but I hope inaccuracies and misinformation are rare. Gremlins are always at work in the study of history as they are elswhere. I take comfort and inspiration from the wisdom of that eminent historian, Sir Charles Oman:

 

"What is required is zeal, insatiable curiousity, a dogged determination to work at all times and in all places, and then a stern resolve to print the results - even though they may seem incomplete, and though there may be a danger of their being superseded on account of later discoveries."

Although the story of Keswick begins with Castlerigg Stone Circle, it may be justly claimed that its true origins lie in geological time; that the great dynamic forces of earth movements, erosion and ice have shaped the landscape and provided the fundamental location for the first settlement.

 

Geologically, the Keswick area is significant and has long been a happy and profitable hunting ground for those of enthusiasts and experts for whom a million years are but a moment. Certain obvious features may, however, be recognised by the layman.

 

To the north and west of the town, the landscape is composed of Skiddaw Slate, the oldest rocks in the Lake District, formed mainly as muds in the depths of a great sea. The dominant visual pattern is that of smooth slopes with the debris of shattered shale dotted here and there, caused, as Jonathan Otely put it, by 'the shivery and crumbling nature of this rock'.

 

By contrast, south of Keswick is Borrowdale Volcanic country, a rock formed according to J E Marr, a nineteenth century authority, from 'ejectments shot or poured out from volcanoes'. The characteristic landscape of Borrowdale Volcanic is rough and rugged, craggy and precipitous, the typical mountain heart of Lakeland.

 

A visit to Castlehead on the outskirts of the town, apart from providing a grandstand view of some of Lakeland's prime scenery, will crystallise the geological pattern - and, according to some experts, you are standing on the plug of an ancient volcano. The smooth slopes of Skiddaw, Grisedale Pike, Catbells and Causey Pike contrast with the near vertical faces of Walla Crag and Falcon Crag and the broken, bristly masses of Great End and the Scafells in the distance.

Of course, the detailed picture is infinitely more complex, a topic for the professionals: the layman has to be content with generalisations and a simplified explanation of how local scenery acquired its most significant characteristics and variety.

 

Choosing Castlerigg Stone Circle as my starting point and the ill-fated Timeshare venture of the late 1980s and early 1990s as the final curtain means that the whole period of human settlement is included. The presence of man becomes increasingly evident as the dominant thread through the centuries and the basic plan of 'KESWICK: THE STORY OF A LAKE DISTRICT TOWN' is one of successive invasions, each establishing or modifying a culture, exploiting and destroying, shaping and altering the landscape, imposing a range of social and occupational structures.

 

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