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Westmorland was one of the smaller counties, about 40 miles from Stainmore in the east to Bowfell in the west. The greater part was fell country and the market towns—Appleby, Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale, and Kirkby Stephen—were small. The southern part was drained by the rivers Lune and Kent running into Morecambe Bay, the northern by the Eden, draining into Solway Firth. Down the middle of the county ran the Tebay gorge, made by the Lune, and followed in 1846 by the railway and in 1971 by the M6 motorway. The administrative arrangements reflected the topography of the shire. It was divided into two baronies, north and south, each in turn divided into two wards. The barony of Kendal was in the diocese of York, and then of Chester: the barony of Westmorland was in the diocese of Carlisle. Not until 1856 were they both placed under Carlisle. The population was thinly spread. In 1811, the county had only 45,000 inhabitants, 7,000 in Kendal, 2,200 in Appleby, and just over 1,000 in Kirkby Lonsdale and Kirkby Stephen.

The name Westmorland seems to mean the country west of the moors—i.e. the Pennines. It formed part of Brigantes territory, was occupied by the Romans, colonized by Anglo-Saxons pushing out the Britons, and became a rather loosely attached part of the kingdom of Northumbria. From the early 10th cent. there was considerable Norse settlement, from Ireland and the Isle of Man, leaving evidence in words like fell, ghyll, tarn, and how. There was also penetration south by Scottish and Pictish settlers. Athelstan established political control in 927, negotiating with the kings of Scotland and the Picts at Eamont bridge, just south of Penrith. But Westmorland remained very much a border area, not integrated into the kingdom of England, and too remote and poor to receive much attention.

At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, the Kendal barony was treated as part of Lancashire, while the northern parts of the area were not included at all. Much of the district remained under Scottish control until William Rufus in 1092 seized Carlisle and built a frontier castle there. Its establishment as a recognized county may have been as late as the 13th cent. but by 1290 it was represented in Edward I's parliaments by two knights of the shire.

The natives of Westmorland relied heavily upon sheep-farming in the south, cattle-rearing in the north, with a useful cloth industry in Kendal. Appleby, the county town, suffered greatly from Scottish raids, since it was athwart an easy line of advance across Stainmore towards Durham and York. It was sacked in 1173 and again in 1388. Camden in 1586 commented that there was ‘nothing remarkable about it besides its antiquity and situation … it is of so little resort, and the buildings so mean, that if antiquity did not make it the chief town of the county, and the Assizes were not kept in the castle, where is the publick gaol for malefactors, it would be but very little above a village.’

Defoe, writing in the 1720s before the Romantic movement, found Westmorland ‘eminent only for being the wildest, most barren and frightful of any thing that I have passed over in England, or even in Wales’. But by the mid-18th cent. travellers were discovering the charms of the Lake District and, with Ullswater, Helvellyn, Grasmere, and Windermere, Westmorland became better known. Its status as a national treasure owed much to the Lakeland poets in the early 19th cent. By mid-century railways were probing into the region—to Windermere in 1847, Coniston 1859, Keswick 1864, and Lakeside at Newby Bridge by 1869. Purists shuddered. R. S. Ferguson wrote in 1894 that ‘nowadays railways and cheap trips have opened the district to everyone. The Liverpool man and the Manchester man have claimed it as their own, and studded the banks of Windermere with villas fearfully and wonderfully made … steam gondolas plough the waters once dear to Wordsworth.’ In the 1990s, tourism is still the salvation and despair of the region. But, with the passing of years, gondolas on Windermere, Coniston, and Ullswater and steam trains to Lakeside have come to symbolize a bygone age of tranquillity.

By the local government reorganization of 1972, the county was merged with Cumberland and north-west Lancashire to form Cumbria.

J. A. Cannon

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