RIGHTS ON BIRKRIGG
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Common would have been reduced to its present size by enclosure.