‘Walking Roots’: mixed medieval fortunes

Throughout the medieval period the people of the Upper Eden valley were harrassed and sometimes overrun by invaders from Scotland. Brough Castle was a prized target as it guarded the strategic pass over Stainmore. It was ransacked by the Scots in 1173 as part of the ‘Great Revolt’ against Henry II. Having been recovered by the English later the same year it was rebuilt largely in stone, a striking confirmation of its importance in the control of the area and the trans-Pennine route. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn it was attacked again, both in 1313 and 1319.

The continual threat from living in disputed territory must have weighed heavily on the population. There’s an old story that the enigmatic line of cairns, the ‘Nine Standards’, on the hill overlooking Kirkby Stephen, were built to fool the Scots into believing there was an English army guarding the town. Although, with a great deal of imagination, the cairns could just be taken as a military encampment, the tale almost certainly reflects a state of mind, a deep desire for protection, rather than reality. In fact the Nine Standards may well have been built much earlier, before the Norman conquest, and were retained and reconstructed through the centuries because they provided a clear waymark in an otherwise barren landscape, especially for those crossing the high fells from Durham and the Yorkshire Dales.

Up on Stainmore the uncertainty of the times seems to played into the hands of a few enterprising farmers. The fortunes of the manor at Brough were far from steady, as manorial records show, and running the estate along traditional feudal lines became ever more difficult, especially when plague periodically reduced the supply of workers.
Even so, the villages immediately around the castle and town of Brough ‘nucleated’ in the manner that had swept through whole regions of the English countryside from early medieval times onward. At Kaber, at the foot of Stainmore, houses are gathered around a traditional village green. Until just a few years ago the characteristic ‘ridge and furrow’ field system, with its long humps with curves at each end caused by communal ploughing, could be seen in the fields at the very edge of the village. Now, sadly, ploughing by heavy modern tractors has almost entirely flattened the best examples out.

Further up the hill, Stainmore, by contrast, remained a dispersed community, with only the occasional huddle of cottages. More and more of the farmsteads on the upper slopes were rented from the manor by individual farmers and their families. Most appear to have continued in the business of cattle breeding. Judging by the rent being paid, some were consolidating their holdings and increasing their relative wealth and status. For the manor, the rent was no doubt welcome as a steady source of income but with it the feudal order was swiftly being eroded.

By the later part of the medieval period, infrastructure for the tracks from Stainmore to Kirkby Stephen and Brough had improved, reflecting a need for livestock and people to travel more easily and safely. A bridge over the Belah at Oxenthwaite was gifted to the people of Stainmore by Sir Cuthbert Buckle in 1576, who had been born on Stainmore and had risen to become Lord Mayor of London. This bridge alone must have made a huge difference to journeys to and from the parish; although the Belah is a modest river, barely more than a stream, in spate it would have been seriously dangerous to ford at this point.

Buckle’s Bridge may have initiated a crucial shift of focus for the residents of Stainmore, from the market town of Brough to that of Kirkby Stephen – the first time that Brough found itself bypassed. Although Kirkby Stephen is marginally further away from most of the farmsteads on Stainmore, the ability to reach both with equal ease must have been a significant change, especially for those wishing to trade in cattle or sheep. Until this moment all the key routes from the scattered farmsteads lead down to Brough, avoiding any major river crossing until just outside the town (as indeed the Roman road had done centuries before).

Kirkby Stephen had one other claim to supremacy over its near rival. Brough church was substantial enough but it was a mere ‘daughter church’ to St. Stephen’s in Kirkby Stephen. The medieval church, as well as amassing considerable wealth, also sought to exert control over the souls of all its parishioners, never more so than in death. The bodies of the deceased had to be brought to the mother church for burial.

In remote areas like ours ‘coffin’ or ‘corpse roads’ could lead for miles over treacherous terrain, adding to the agony of the bereaved. From Stainmore we look out, in the far distance at the foot of the Lake District fells, on a well known corpse route leading from Mardale, the now drowned village in Haweswater reservoir, to the mother church in Shap. This desolate path goes over a particularly bleak and sodden piece of upland; rather than being borne in a coffin the body was probably wrapped and carried over the saddle of a fell pony.

The routes taken by such sad parties from Stainmore are no longer known for sure, except for the very last stretch into Kirkby Stephen which is still known as a coffin road. This short section, leading to a bridge over the River Eden, would have brought together funeral groups from quite a wide area, not just Stainmore but also the lower lying villages of Winton, Kaber and Hartley. At times a funeral procession here must have been quite a common sight.

TrackHighEwebankBefore the building of Buckle’s Bridge and maybe even afterwards, a person’s final journey from Stainmore may well have been through our tiny hamlet of High Ewebank. From High Ewebank it’s possible to drop down to the Belah and ford the beck as high up as possible, making a crossing in the worst of downpours just about feasible. From the ford the party would have made their way along a track to the hamlet of Heggerscales and thence to Winton and finally the church at Kirkby Stephen.

As longer distance transport picked up through the coming decades this very track was to become a key packhorse route, running from Kirkby Stephen to High Ewebank and onwards east to the towns across the Durham border and west to the burgeoning mining areas of the Yorkshire Dales. High Ewebank was about to experience its heyday, as a flourishing ‘service area’ at the high altitude meeting point of a set of busy packhorse trails.


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