COMMONERS' RIGHTS ON BIRKRIGG

Commoners’ rights have played a central role in the use of Birkrigg over many centuries. Birkrigg is land Common to the parishes of Aldingham and Urswick, and the rights which tenants were enjoying from the Baron Harrington of Aldingham when the Crown seized the Manor in 1554 have remained in force to this day. Tenants paid dues to, and bore arms for, their Lord. Over time the dues ceased to be collected but the rights remained. Those tenants and landowners with commoners’ rights have been able to tap into the many resources that Birkrigg offers. Birkrigg has always been a place of work.

The most obvious of those rights is that of pasturage for sheep, this right often being tied to, and sold with, certain farms within the two parishes. Sadly, many small farms have ceased to exist and become private residences, so only one or two farms now take up this right and the Common is very much under-grazed today.

In Victorian times the right to graze sheep was heavily used by at least twenty Commoners, some of whom abused the right by allowing sheep not kept within the Parishes during the winter to graze on the Common in summer and it became necessary to employ a shepherd to regulate their numbers and prevent over-grazing.

If one looks at the most westward of the limestone bands, where the rock overhangs the ground, it is possible to see the long term effect of sheep using the Common for hundreds of years – the underside of the rock is smooth and polished where the sheep have sought shelter from the weather .......

In the 17th and 18th century an important resource available to commoners was the limestone of the Common. This limestone formed in layers, which now show as bands, between 280 and 320 million years ago, when the area was near the equator and covered by tropical seas.

On the east side of the Common, the upper layer has formed a dip slope with extensive patches of limestone pavement, which are now protected by a Limestone Pavement Order.

Commoners had the right to take limestone for burning to make lime for use as a soil conditioner and for building. There are the remains of three very old lime kilns, which are marked on the map (see menu above). These must have been a shared resource, but had probably ceased operation by the early 1800s and are now filled in for safety reasons. The most prominent stands as a large mound with its own entrance track, at the top of the road over to Sunbrick from the Ulverston-Scales road (below left). Until 1864 this road was merely a rough track, then an appeal locally raised £100 in donations for work to make it suitable for carriages, so that those with a disability could enjoy the "fine fresh air and beautiful prospects". Another kiln is found at the middle quarry on the north-west slope (below right) and a third near the Sunbrick Farms.


Although bracken would now be considered a nuisance, in former times it was an important resource and commoners’ rights (“brackens”) again went with the property, and still exist today, for its removal. Bracken was principally used as winter bedding for animals, although it could also be composted. Unfortunately, bracken now covers around ninety percent of the Common, harming wildlife (only the Bluebell seems able to compete with it), blocking many of the paths during July and August and obscuring the ancient monuments.

Even the gorse had its uses and was harvested. In 1849 the Carlisle Journal reported that John Atkinson of Much Urswick, “an octogenarian who has seen 87 summers” mowed with a scythe a cartload of whins (gorse) on Birkrigg Common in half a day. Gorse is said to be very nutritious and an excellent winter feed for livestock, horses being particularly fond of it when it has been crushed slightly. It can also be used as a fuel, as it is rich in oil, burns with great heat and leaves an ash which makes good fertiliser; it was probably used to heat the lime kilns. Unfortunately, when left uncut, the gorse scatters seed and spreads until the patches of gorse join together to form an impenetrable mass. It is spreading into the few remaining key areas of grassland, putting them at risk. On the north and north-west slopes, it has already blocked paths and entered the next stage of progression, the formation of scrub. Substantial sycamore, willow and hawthorn trees have developed and in a few years this area of the Common will look more like woodland. Perhaps the use of gorse as a nutritious animal feed could be revived, to help prevent the Common from deteriorating further.

At one time, the Common would have been more extensive and included Sea Wood; tenants would have been allowed to gather dead wood for fuel and to coppice hazel. Ash from the wood would have been a particularly useful resource as it is a very dense wood but bends easily, making it suitable for tool handles and the rims of wooden wheels.

The Common would have been reduced to its present size by enclosure.

PREVIOUS | NEXT

 

 

x