Little Langdale: Seven Intakes Medieval Settlement


The tumbled stone wall enclosing the settlement

Very little of England, even in inhuman places, has escaped being altered by man in some subtle way or other. The landscape as we know it today is almost entirely the product of the last 1500 years which began with the earliest Anglo-Saxon villages in the middle of the 5th century. With landscapes of such historic depth and physical variety, any attempt to study the development of the English landscape can be thought of as a series of compositions of varying magnitude – like a piece of music. Only when we know all the themes and harmonies can we begin to appreciate its full beauty, or discover in it new subtleties every time we visit. A programme of symphonies, magnificent views, an architectural mass of sound – in discovering the essence of simpler and smaller landscapes may we understand and appreciate the logic that lies behind the beautiful whole. The Anglo-Saxon settlement was spread between about 450 and 1066. During this time England became a land of villages with compact villages, of varying size, found in all counties and accompanied originally by the open-field system. The 20th century historian Sir Frank Stenton (1943) notes that there was “no single type of settlement” and “innumerable isolated farmsteads bearing Anglo-Saxon names remain as memorials of the process.” A great number of new villages were founded from the late 9th century onwards following the Scandinavian conquest. In the 10th century numerous Norwegians who settled in the north-western counties of England left characteristic traces of their presence in the place names of this region, such as the thwaites of Cumberland and Westmorland. By the time of the Norman Conquest most of the English villages had made their appearance and by 1086, little towns were planted in a landscape that was predominantly green country.


A scattering of hamlets and single farmsteads in remote clearings were found in the west and north of England in particular. Small fields of irregular shape were characteristic of the more difficult regions of England and much of the country was still densely wooded. Oak trees were found in their tens of thousands in medieval England and from rising ground, England must have seemed “one great forest before the 15th century, an almost unbroken sea of treetops with a thin blue spiral of smoke rising here and there at long intervals” (Hoskins, 2013). In the centuries following the Norman Conquest, it was not difficult to find considerable tracts of uninhabited country as huge parts of the landscape were set aside as royal game preserves and subject to a special law, the forest law. The Norman kings introduced their own forest laws into settled and cultivated country which often involved the destruction of a number of villages and many farms. The making of New Forest by William the Conqueror is just one example. The existence of royal game preserves on such a huge scale discouraged new settlement and would have made existing farming difficult. The private parks of the 13th century represent the origins of the country house parks as we know them today. Knowsley is first mentioned in 1292 and similarly, Hatfield Park has its history rooted in the 13th century woodland of Hertfordshire. From the 12th century onwards, the Cistercian houses were responsible for numerous changes in the landscape. Usually settling in a wilderness brought into cultivation, the Cistercians also destroyed settled villages and farms to create an artificial wilderness. Many monastic granges were created for arable farming and their extensive sheep farming, large-scale drainage of marsh and clearance of woodland is less evident on the moorlands. The little pastoral farms created from moorland was largely the work of peasant households resulting in either a single farmstead or a small cluster of three or four – a hamlet. High moorland was was left to the curlews and the mountain sheep as it was incapable of supporting the life of a medieval family.


Stone foundations of the three roomed longhouse

A great number of new buildings were added to the landscape between 1350 and 1500. The building or rebuilding of a large number of bridges in stone took place in the late 14th and early 15th century as many of the 12th and 13th century bridges were too narrow or too unsafe. Many of these beautiful medieval and ancient structures can still be found in the landscape. The sparkle of freshly cut stone was evident throughout the country during the 15th century and numerous fortified houses were constructed at this time. Unlike other medieval writers, Chaucer (1478) pleasantly refers to the scenic heaths in The Canterbury Tales:

His dwelling was full fair upon an heath

With green trees shadowed was his place,

A sky-blue surcoat good of length he wore,

And by his side a rusty blade he bore;

Wild places were generally taken for granted (Hoskins, 2013) and the 18th century novelist Daniel Defoe depicted the more usual attitude towards wild landscapes describing Bagshot Heath as “a vast tract of land…which is not only poor… horrid and frightful to look on, but good for nothing.” At the beginning of the 16th century, England was a green and quiet agricultural country with more sheep than human beings. Although there was an immense destruction of timber, from iron workers and woodland cleared for corn and cattle, the extent of woodland at the beginning of the century was still considerable. William Cholmeley spoke of “the unsatiable desyre of pasture for sheep and cattel” in 1553 and in 1641 “numberless numbers of goodly oaks” were replaced by sheep and oxen “grazing upon a Carpet Green” (Hoskins, 2013). By 1550 most English people were still living the in dark, squalid dwellings of their medieval ancestors which were generally built of a timber frame with walls of reinforced mud. The rebuilding or enlargement of farmhouses in the countryside began in the 1560’s and continued until the 1620’s. Stone built farmsteads with mullioned windows became a common feature of the landscape with northern dwellings often sheltered by sycamore trees which were introduced into England at the end of the 16th century. The botanist John Gerard notes that the sycamore is “a stranger to England” (1597). The sycamore was widely planted in the upland and exposed parts of England as a windbreak for farmhouses as it withstands sea and mountain winds better than most. The low-browed farmstead of moorland stone and stone slate roof, with burnished sycamores on the windward side, thus became the very characteristic northern scene.

“A stately sycamore, That spreads, in gentle pomp, its honied shade” (Wordsworth, 1814).


Common to all types of country dwellings was the hall, parlour, kitchen, larder, pantry and chambers throughout the first floor. The destruction of timber had taken place with no provision for its replacement so the effect on external designs of houses was considerable. This rapid decline of timber saw the increase in favour of stone or brick, or a mixture of both (Harrison, 1577), and the materials provided by different geological regions of England marks a natural division of rural building. In most of the north of England timber was superseded by various kinds of local stone with cottages consisting of the simplest types of mud, clay lump or turf cabins (Summerson, 1953). The first stone builders were hunters, shepherds and tillers of the soil who made simple shelters with whatever materials were most readily to hand. Over the course of time, stone came to be accepted as the best material for manor houses, public buildings and for bridges. The barns, cottages, small town houses and farmhouses eventually followed this progression and between 1200 and 1900, there was some radical changes in the art of architecture (Clifton-Taylor, 1983). Cumbria had plentiful supplies of stones which could be worked easily with the pink shades of granite predominating the landscape. Along with the igneous rocks of Cumbria, slate was not only used for roofs but also for walls. As sand for mortar was not readily available in the Lake District, most of the old walls were bedded into clay. Varying tremendously according to the nature of the local stone, the boundaries of fields are often stone walls which are specially characteristic of hilly districts. These structures were extremely well built with countless miles of dry walling still found across the landscape.


The tumbled stone wall enclosing Seven Intakes close to the River Brathay

One of the main features of all settlement in England is its mobility. After relatively short periods of time, original sites were abandoned completely or the settlements were shifted a short distance away. Old dwelling places were often incorporated into the fields of descendants of the first occupiers of the site and later generations removed the stones, ploughed the ground, grazed it, built their own settlements on top of it and then ploughed it again, many times. While individual houses, farmsteads, hamlets and even villages had short lives, a feature of settlement that recurs throughout all later periods is “settlement drift” (Taylor, 1983). Where the evidence is much more complete, the phenomenon of settlement drift is apparent and can be explained by changing patterns of communications, the pressures of economic events or as the result of the landowner. This process involves the gradual movement of a site up or down a hill slope, or in a circle. The archaeological evidence for rural settlement in the late Saxon and early medieval period reveals a continuously changing pattern with the landscape still primarily one of dispersed settlement. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a large number of medieval villages were deliberately created, often on older sites but sometimes on new ones and connected with a rising population. The climate became much colder and wetter from the late 13th century which increased the chances of crop failures and by the early 14th century, general economic decline had set in all over the country. The landscape today contains the remains of what may be referred to as temporary colonization. Consisting of herdsmen’s huts and used only in the summer, some of these sites are visible from their earthwork remains. There are numerous shielings, or summer dwellings, in the north of England with many built and used well into the 17th century. Many former shielings had become farmsteads associated with small areas of arable land even by the 11th century in Cumbria (Taylor, 1983).


Many farm buildings, especially barns and cow-houses, were built of clay. Full or jointed crucks usually carried the roof loads but the quality of clay walling was such that roof trusses could be carried on walls independently. In the absence of good quarried stone, cobbles (found in riverbeds or fieldstone areas) were used and may be split like flint to give a flat face to a wall. This technique was used in the Lake District with rounded cobbles only used in walling with the aid of bonding stones which ran along the wall as well as across it. The steep sided valleys of the Lake District has been home to farming that has had to be shared between the bare eroded fells and the sometimes lush valleys. Many expanses of broken land lie in between with rocky outcrops. Some little evidence of timber-frame construction survives hidden in some of the barns of Cumbria but most farm buildings now to be seen are of good building stone – whether slate-stone, limestone or sandstone (Brunskill, 1982). The work of the medieval centuries can generally be distinguished by the irregular pattern left on the landscape – abrupt bends in banks and roads and winding ditches contrast starkly to the long straight lines of later drainage and wide empty spaces between infrequent farmsteads.


View towards Seven Intakes from Fell Foot

Located on flat ground 210m south west of Fell Foot is the dispersed medieval settlement of Seven Intakes. Also referred to as Vicars, this irregularly shaped enclosure includes the remains of at least one, possible two buildings situated just south of the River Brathay. The well defined stone foundations of a three-roomed building measuring approximately 26m long survive with traces of stone cobbled flooring in one of the rooms. The longhouse is a very ancient building type in this country and excavations suggest that the standard medieval family farm may have consisted only of a longhouse and a small barn. The longhouse was a dwelling house reached by way of a cross passage which also provided the sole or a subsidiary means of access to a cow-house and its loft above. The full significance of the cross passage, evidence of which remains at Seven Intakes, is not fully understood however, it is suggested that it may have acted as a feeding passage for cattle (Brunskill, 1982). Longhouses continued to be built in parts of England until the 18th century and many examples survive in Cumbria. The remains of a smaller rectangular building is located a short distance to the north with a stone bank running from the north west corner to the south bank of the river. A tumbled stone wall encloses the settlement on all sides except the north with traces of a smaller enclosure adjacent on rising ground to the south west (Burkett, 1970). The settlement lies in the Cumbria-Solway sub province of the Northern and Western Province – one of three broad Provinces created on the basis of each area’s distinctive mixture of nucleated and dispersed settlements. Established after the Norman Conquest, this area is characterized by dispersed hamlets and farmsteads. The archaeological remains of such settlements are considered to be one of the most important sources for understanding rural life in the five or more centuries following the Norman Conquest. The deep valleys of the Lake District provided well defined agricultural areas and great variation in local terrains. Seven Intakes is a good example of a medieval settlement and is situated in one of the most spectacular settings near the Langdale Pikes.


Little Langdale Valley from Fell Foot

“Next comes Great Langdale, a Vale which should on no account be missed by him who has a true enjoyment of grand separate Forms composing a sublime Unity, austere but reconciled and rendered attractive to the affections by the deep serenity that is spread over every thing” William Wordsworth (1810).

Seven Intakes Medieval Settlement is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.


View from Seven Intakes to the east