Ancient Lakeland stones tell story of the Norse invaders: A survey of stone walls casts new light on Cumbrian history, writes Oliver Gillie

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THE DRY stone walls that criss- cross the Lakeland valleys are part of an ancient story that is being deciphered in a painstaking survey. Examination of the walls has revealed that each valley has a 'ring garth' built by early settlers, possibly Norsemen, in the 10th or 11th centuries.

The ring garth, built to stop animals grazing on cultivated land, provides the key to understanding how the pattern of walls and fields developed. Also called the ring fence or head dyke, the ring garth is the only continuous stone wall in the Lakeland valleys. No other wall crosses it.

The ring garth follows the break in the slope of the valley and so separates the fertile bottom land from coarse grazing on the fellside. It was first found in Great Langdale by Arnold Webster and Bill Bevan when they were undertaking a survey of National Trust property. The survey team has since identified ring garths at Watendlath, Rosthwaite and Grange in Borrowdale, at Wasdale Head, Little Langdale, and Loughrigg, and in Patterdale and Yewdale.

The survey team was able to identify the ring garth because other walls always abutted on to it, indicating it must have been built first. Often the ring garth was built from larger rounded boulders taken from the stream bed, whereas later walls were made from rougher stone hewn from nearby quarries or removed from the fields.

Mr Webster said: 'The ring garth has collapsed in many places but we have been able to trace its position in Great Langdale and Borrowdale . . . Originally it was 5ft high and in places it is still that height but in other parts it is now only represented by a footing of boulders.'

The central valleys of the Lake District were not surveyed for the Domesday Book (written in 1086) because they were not conquered by the Normans until about 1092. The first documentary evidence for land use in Great Langdale came in 1216 when William de Lancaster, Baron of Kendal, granted the 'land of Basebrun' to Conishead Priory. The place name Basebrun is probably derived from an ancient Norse phrase meaning Bruni's cowshed, suggesting earlier settlement by Scandinavians who came to the area from Ireland.

The National Trust survey that discovered the ring garth was begun so that the trust could make better decisions in managing its 133,000 acres of land in the Lake District. From comparing such detailed information with information from archives it has been possible to date many of the dry stone walls.

'We have been able to provide farmers and managers with information which helps them to decide on a policy,' said Susan Denyer, who leads the trust's survey team. 'There are so many walls that need to be repaired we can now give priority to the oldest, historically important ones.' Some walls were built in medieval times to enclose small fields abutting the outside of the ring garth, or to divide up the land within the ring garth between various farms. Other walls were built up the fellside to enclose land and prevent woods being destroyed by grazing.

(Photograph omitted)

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