Ravenglass’ location by the estuary formed by three rivers, the Irt, Esk and Mite is critical to its historical development. Access to the sea and a safe harbour were essential for trading, transportation and fishing.
An Estuary Village
Whilst there has been ‘human activity’ at Ravenglass for centuries (the earliest evidence of human occupation in the area comes from flint-workings in the sand dunes) it is not clear whether a village existed by the time the Roman’s established a Fort here, but the name attributed to the fort “Glannoventa” derives from Celtic origins and may be formed from the words glan/glenn (bank, shore or landing) and venta (market, trading-station) which suggests that the Romans landed by an existing settlement on the riverbank. The Roman Fort was as part of Hadrian’s Wall and in effect formed the start of the Roman Western Frontier.
The first written record of R’englas comes in the 11th century and in 1208 King John gave a charter to hold a weekly market and annual fair at Ravenglass - thereafter the village and port grew and flourished.
The village displays a medieval street pattern with side lanes to the ancient field system. The medieval market place, now the main street, comprising open space enclosed by buildings with narrow pinch points at either end to help keep control of any livestock passing through the harbor or the market.
This bustling village at one point could boast 15 smithy’s, all working metal from medieval bloomers brought by horse from the bottom of fells.
Historically villagers on the seaward side of the street tended to be fishermen (or smugglers), families on the landward side tended to be farmers or traders
In the 16th and 17th century, the port was the only natural west coast harbour between the Rivers Dee and Solway. In 1675 the annual fair was described as “a grand fair of three days long for all sorts of cattle and other commodities…” The town prospered up to the 18th century mainly due to trade, legal and illegal, with Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland.
With its safe harbour, market and fair, Ravenglass was at this time the busiest and principal port in the old county of Cumberland. The town was also well located on the north-south overland route along the coast and was a stopping point where travellers waited to cross nearby fords of its three rivers.
However, the town went into decline as a port in the late 18th and early 19th century due in part to the silting up of the estuary. The narrowness and depth of the channel at Ravenglass led to it being unfavourably compared to the expanding port of Whitehaven further north which was also better located in relation to the coal fields and the shipping routes to/from the Americas.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the fair had ceased to prosper. The opening of the Whitehaven and Furness Junction Railway to Ravenglass in 1849 and the gradual growth of tourism in the latter 19th century, helped the local economy but failed to arrest the decline of the village as market and port.
From 1873-75 the narrow-gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (R & ER), known affectionately as ‘La’al Ratty’, was built for shipping iron ore from Eskdale and for passenger traffic. The iron ore transportation did not prosper but passenger operation continued.
Although granite hauled from nearby quarries for road improvements kept the railway in operation during the 1920s, it was ultimately the growth of tourism which sustained the revival of the R & ER. Today, trains still run into the Lakeland mountains on a scenic narrow gauge railway started 135 years ago.
Ravenglass boasts the longest Village Green in England
Ravenglass Salmon Garth
Historically there have been many fish traps or Garths in the Ravenglass Estuary and tidal stretches of its feeder rivers. As well as, at least, two in the Irt, one, referred to as the Monk Garth in the area where the estuary decants into the sea and one in the Esk up-stream of the present-day railway viaduct there was what is now referred to as Ravenglass Salmon Garth the remains of which can still be seen at low-tide in the lower stretch of the Esk near the present day railway bridge over the track onto the shore from Walls Drive.
Both the Salmon Garth and that further up the Esk were established during the reign of King John. Permission to operate the Salmon Garth was granted to Muncaster Estate and for that further up-stream to the Vicar of Bootle.
Garths operated by allowing fish to pass up-stream with the incoming tide but partially restricting their route back down-stream on the ebb tide. Fish then became trapped in a channel and pools behind the Garth and where caught by the operators using nets.
The Salmon Garth was a rather complicated structure and the details of its operation have been lost. The Garth as last operated in the 1970s was a simpler “V” shape with apex pointing down-stream and wings going out to the sand bank on the inland side of the river channel and to the shore near the Walls Drive bridge.
The Garth operated under a licence issued latterly by the Cumberland Rivers Authority. Fishing was effectively allowed only Monday to Friday. A gate at the apex of the “V” could be opened or closed to allow fish to pass through or not. The gate shouldn’t be closed until 12 noon on Monday and by 6am on Saturday it had to be opened. If the tide time was right a buoy with a long rope could be attached to the gate so drag of the tide pulled it closed.
No metal was allowed to be used in the Garth construction and wood from Muncaster Estate was used to repair the garths. The walls of the Garth were about 4ft high constructed of hurdles of “reches” woven between posts driven into the river bed sometimes with nets above the hurdles. Two inch gaps in the hurdles were required to allow small fish to escape – although fish tended not to be keen on swimming with the pull of ebbing water and ended up trapped anyway.
Operating the Garth was hard, physical, work. Tides ebb and flow at times that advance every day so fishing was twice a day at all hours of the day or night in all weathers. Tons of reching had to be cut every year to maintain the Garth and the nets had to be kept free of seaweed etc. otherwise the flow of water would break them down. Posts had to be replaced regularly although they tended to last many years.
The net used to haul the fish in was 75yds long and very heavy. When the time was right the operators walked the net around any fish that were trapped and then hauled it into shallow water. If there were more than one or two fish it was heavy work.
Local man, Arthur Wilson says “Tommy Raven and I once got 64 fish on a morning tide. We got two in the afternoon then none for a fortnight”. As well as the desired salmon other species were often caught. “Whitebait by the hundredweight that were served up in the Pennington Arms bar. On a couple of occasions 6ft Tope Sharks Galeorhinus galeu;, mackerel that nobody wanted and other strange fish with fins like legs” The Salmon were sent to Muncaster Castle or sold to local hotels.
Fishing the Garth finished in the late 1970s because of the decline in fish stocks and increase in license duty. The cost of the licence was £50 in the 1960s and increased to £65 in the early 1970s. On 1st January 1976 it went up to £100 and on 1st January 1978 to £130. In 1979 an application was made by Muncaster Castle Estates for a reduction in the annual licence duty on the grounds that its value to the Estate was of more significance historically than commercial. The request was turned down.
The fish garths provided fresh fish for 2 abbeys and a priory before sustaining the local tourist trade
The Irt was also once famous for its extremely rare black pearls which grew in its fresh-water mussels. Poaching of the pearls is thought to have led to their extinction in the river.
It is possible to tell from looking at the boats in the estuary if the tide if coming in or going out by the position of the boats in relation to their ropes – when the tide is coming in all boats will be landward of their ropes, when going out the boats will be seaward of their ropes.
Parish is also home to Muncaster Castle, which has been in Pennington ownership since at least 1208 and a narrow gauge steam railway (L’al Ratty) which has been operational since 1875
Many of the town’s buildings reflect the local geology with walls and roofs using local cobblestone, sandstone, slate and granite. There are two listed buildings (Pennington House and The Bay Horse) Characteristic Victorian dwellings are Wells Cottages
Muncaster Parish Hall is built in the Arts and Crafts style