I’m away early from Ulverston station, the footpaths are slippery with ice. Houses are soon left behind as I take a well-worn track down into a small valley and up the other side to Swarthmoor Hall. This C16 house belonged to Judge Fell and his wife who befriended George Fox, founder of the Quaker Movement. Fox bought a property around the corner to be used as a Quaker Meeting House with an associated burial ground. The hall was closed today but I was able to wander into the grounds, it has an impressive set of bay windows on the east side. The Meeting House was also closed and I could only peep through the gate.
Back on the route, a quiet lane, I have time to look around. There is that iconic tower above Ulverston with the southern Lakeland Fells behind and down there is the Glaxo works and the Leven Estuary. Annoyingly the low sun is directly in front of me obscuring lower Furness. Once into fields, I look out for an Iron Age fort on Skelmore Heads to my right, I just about make it out on top of a low limestone escarpment, what a view though. Down below me is a large tarn and the village of Great Urswick. On the way in I chat to a farmer with a cage of ferrets, I haven’t seen one for years yet all my uncles used to have them for catching rodents.
The village consists of lots of interesting cottages surrounding the tarn, a well-hidden gem off the beaten track. I knew of the church but I first came across one of those ‘tin tabernacles’ erected in 1915 and now used by the United Reformed Church.
The Parish Church of St.Mary and St. Micheal was along the way hidden in trees. It is reputedly the oldest church in Furness, maybe 10th Century and predating Furness Abbey. The outside looked old but inside was much changed. When I entered there were two local ladies giving the church a good clean, hoovering and polishing. Work stopped as they gave me a guided tour of the interior. Of note was an ancient C9th cross, wood carvings by Alec Miller in 1910s, a triple-layered pulpit with a sounding board, some interesting stained glass and a C18th painting of The Last Supper by local artist James Cranke who was a tutor to a young Kendal artist George Romney. Onwards, this is going to be a long day, I take old byways to Little Urswick and then climb the limestone escarpment of Urswick Crags I’m interested in the ancient settlement marked on the map and need GPS to locate it. Two areas of stone walls are found, one squarish and the other circular amongst the limestone outcrops.
Once over the crags, I pick up an enclosed track ahead with Black Coombe in the distance. The soil now has changed to the red colour normally associated with Furness and it sticks to your boots. Changing direction to Standing Tarn. The water level is high.
The middle of town is a conservation area but many of the old buildings have been mutilated by commercial development. Things are better from the Market Square upwards with the castle tower and church dominating the scene. Lots of cottages with several courtyards. The Castle Pele Tower was built by the monks of Furness Abbey in 1330 as a place of refuge. The Church of St. Mary was designed on the site of a much earlier church by that well known architectural firm, Paley and Austin, 1885. Built with sandstone with chequerwork decoration. The lane by the church takes me out of Dalton through fields towards my final destination, Furness Abbey. I walk down a road to an entrance gate into Furness Abbey. It is closed but I can walk around it on a public road. A Savignac abbey was established in Tulketh, Preston in 1123 but moved north to this Furness valley and was later absorbed by the Cistercians. To reach here the traveller had to cross the tidal sands of Morecambe Bay and the Leven Estuary. The abbey provided guides for these crossings. Despite the aspirations of the Cistercians to lead a simple and austere life acquisition of wealth, property and trade soon had Furness Abbey second only to Fountains Abbey in riches. At Dissolution the land was given to Thomas Cromwell and later transferred to the Cavendishes of Holker Hall. Now the ruins are in the hands of English Heritage. The main ruins are the church and cloisters as well as dormitories, infirmary and lay buildings, all laid out in classical monastic style.
The setting in this valley and the extent of the remains make this a fitting end to my Monastic Way through the ‘old’ Lancashire. Well, almost for I have to walk further south to a rail station. A green valley has a fine little stream and over it is the medieval three arched Bow Bridge built for the monks to access a mill. I’ve explored many unknown areas, met some very friendly people, learnt a bit more history, visited fine religious sites and completed before the year’s end. Here’s to 2020.