A village where the locals attacked a common land intrusion by their landowner, following a path where the “big house” servants walked to church, and tea importers with a sideline in opium dealing. The history you encounter on a five-mile walk in the countryside of Westmorland.
We set out from the village of Crosby Ravensworth, walking to Flass House. This path, running along the banks of the pretty River Lyvennet, was used by the servants of Flass each sunday as they made their way to church in Crosby Ravensworth. To facilitate their passage, the owners of Flass built two beautiful step stiles in the drystone walls. They’re still there today, and I hope they remain safe from the zealots who want every stile destroyed in favour of gates.
A pretty path, the river a delight and the autumn colours quite beautiful. A heron stood as still as a sculpture in the water, looking for fish. It took off after a while, flapping like something out of prehistoric times, its weird cry echoing across the landscape. I’ve always liked herons. There’s something so wonderful about these riparian denizens.
As we walked, I thought a lot about the servants of Flass, obliged to go to church in their few hours of leisure. Programmes like Downton Abbey give the impression that being a servant was great fun. It wasn’t. It was darned hard work, with little time for yourself and appalling pay. I’m old enough to remember lots of old people who’d been in service – it was a huge chunk of the British population until World War Two. I can’t recall one who looked back fondly on their days of servitude, or felt particularly charitable towards their so-called “masters”.
The Dent family, who owned Flass, made their money from tea and opium importing – though we should note that opium was perfectly legal in those days. Hence all the opium dens around the country (I put one in my novel Deadly Quest – those of us who write Victorian crime stories love the idea), and, of course, poets like Wordsworth and writers like de Quincy spent most of the time high on the stuff and its derivative, laudanum.
Interestingly, given its history, a more recent occupier of Flass was raided and jailed for running a cannabis factory from the premises – sort of appropriate in a way.
The path goes through a tunnel just before you reach the high back wall of Flass, carrying a track into the owner’s pheasant preserves. The path beyond was beautiful in the autumn light, like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, or something out of a ghost story by MR James.
Flass House, built in 1851, is currently empty and being renovated. We thought the house was an ugly pile, a long way from its Italianate or Palladian influences. But you can see the back gate in the surrounding wall through which the servants would emerge every sunday for their walk to church.
A few hundred yards on brought us into the pretty village of Maulds Meaburn, one of only three left in England where sheep still graze on the village green. This was once the village “waste”, land common to all. It was the scene of a modest rebellion way back in 1585 (October 22nd, to be precise), when the villagers fought off an attempt by their landlord to build on their waste.
The landowner, Christopher Lowther, built a little court-house in the middle of the green, an intrusion into the villagers’ ancient rights. The village wives abused the workmen Lowther had hired and Lowther himself. They threw stones at them, but the building went on. On the night of 28th October, a number of Lowther’s tenants, led by one James Fletcher, armed with pitchforks, axes, long-piked sticks, swords, dagger and other “unlawful engines”, attacked the building and razed it to the ground.
It all led to a court case in York, where the villagers argued that, according to the indentures, the lord couldn’t build on the waste without the villagers consent. That if they ignored the intrusion, he might further encroach on their common ground. They said that Lowther refused to listen.
Taking on a landowner in 1586 was seldom a good idea. Lowther won compensation of £8, and the attacking villagers were fined between 40 shillings and £3 as a punishment. Still Lowther wasn’t satisfied, bringing the matter to trial again. He managed to obtain a decree to have a piece of the ground to build his court house.
The Lowthers had incredible power over the populace (some might argue the family still do!) His tenants in Maulds Meaburn were obliged to carry sixty loads of coal, paying themselves in advance, from the pits on Stainmore, and having to haul it the many miles to Lowther Hall. This too led eventually to a legal dispute. The ruling still came down on Lowther’s side, though the tenants were granted the right to take the coal only as far as Meaburn Hall, instead of Lowther.
Today, the green is peaceful, the river idyllic and the cottages picturesque. There can’t be a village in the land that isn’t able to tell similar bitter stories.
To get a view over the whole valley, we followed the footpaths and lanes up to Brackenslack, then paths back down to Maulds Meaburn, before walking back past Flass to Crosby Ravensworth, now walking in the direction the servants would have taken on their way to church.
In the churchyard, we examined the graves of some members of the tea and opium dealing Dent family. The two villages have really changed very little since they lived here, and their servants walked the old ways of the Lyvennet valley.
A few blogs ago, I reported that Beacon Hill in Penrith was under threat from plans by the Lowther family to build on this grand high place. I’m pleased to report that public protest has persuaded the Lowther estate to withdraw their plans – at least for the high points of the Beacon.