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Ambleside History!

Ambleside's history is punctuated by the arrival of a series of people who brought new ideas and wealth to the area. Vikings, Romans, Medieval wool traders, eighteenth century artists, Victorian thinkers and the modern tourist have all had an impact on the town. Almost 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers sailed up Windermere; they came to protect the Empire's northern border and built a fort close to Waterhead on a site now known as Borran's Field. The Romans left towards the end of the Fourth Century and Waterhead became deserted.

In Roman times many local people lived next to the fort at Waterhead, supplying it with food and labour. The bottom of the valley was wet and muddy and after the Romans left a decision must have been made to move to higher ground. The area known as 'Above Stock' in Ambleside is the most likely site for the post-Roman settlement. Here, north of the River Stock, would have been dry and offered some protection from the harsh winter weather. Among the people who used this site were the Scandinavians who arrived in Cumbria around the second half of the eighth century. They called the site 'Ambleside', a sheiling (summer pasture) by a riverbank. Above Stock grew and developed until the middle of the sixth century when a market opened in an area below the river. New buildings were built around the market, and gradually 'Below Stock' replaced 'Above Stock' as the centre of the town. The tradition of Rushbearing developed.

Ambleside was granted a charter in 1650 which allowed for a weekly Wednesday market. The market, held near where the Post Office is today, was established to allow wool and cloth to be sold. It brought great prosperity to the town which rapidly grew in size. Perhaps to celebrate Ambleside's new status, a market cross was erected in 1651. This was soon followed by a market house, a stone building with a wooden veranda that stood on pillars. The Ambleside people were optimistic about the future; about 1796 they decided to build a new, larger market house, but soon there was to be no need for such a building. A rapid decline in the wool trade led to the closure of the wool market in 1825. This could have been the end of Ambleside, but fortunately the tourist trade was just beginning. By 1850, Market Place was bustling with coaches travelling through the Lakes. Today, a market is still held each Wednesday, and although this is now sited opposite the Public Library, Market Place continues to be the centre of the town.

Ambleside, and the Lakes in general, have not always been such a popular tourist destination. In the early 18th century the Lakes were thought to be wild and frightening. Two things helped to change this view: improvements in the road transport, and war, which made it impossible for rich Englishmen to travel through Europe on the Grand Tour. For these rich gentlemen, going to the Lakes in the 1780s was an adventure. There were few maps, and only local people knew the names of the hills and the way through the mountain passes. Ambleside became an important point on the tourist route. People visited the waterfalls and stayed at the inns before travelling on to Grasmere and Windermere. Guidebooks were published which described routes, amazing views, high mountains and thundering waterfalls. They were read by the newly rich factory and mill owners, many of whom came and stayed in Ambleside's best hotels and built holiday homes near the town. Until the opening of the railways in the 1840s, working people had neither the time nor the money to visit the Lakes. But increasingly they could travel cheaply and quickly for day trips and longer holidays. In 1999 some 14.8 million people visited the region for the day, and there were 11.5 million overnight guests. A large proportion of these visited or stayed in Ambleside itself. TOURISM "The influx of visitors during the last ten days has been so numerous as to occasion almost a dearth in the necessities of life..." The Westmorland Gazette July 29th, 1854

Until 1800 most children were treated as small adults. Children from poorer families were expected to work. In Ambleside boys worked as farm labourers and girls as servants in the big houses. Many children were living in dirty, slum housing. In these conditions children quickly became ill and died. Almost every child in Ambleside would have experienced the death of a brother or sister. In the first six months of 1835 four babies, a seven year old, a six year old and a fifteen year old, Agnes Preston, died. During the reign of Queen Victoria children began to enjoy better lives. Laws were passed which stopped young children working and encouraged their parents to send them to school. By the 1930s children were able to enjoy their childhood. They had time to play and could meet in the recreation field at White Platts, go on bike rides into the Langdales and swim in the lakes and tarns. In the year 2000 children might not be allowed to go swimming in the lakes or for lone bike rides but they do have access to free education, health care and a huge range of clubs and activities.

In 1723 John Kelsick, a local grocer, left money in his will for a school for boys. They were taught reading, writing, accounts, Latin and Greek. It was a good school and some boys went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge. The same opportunities were not available for girls. Two schools opened in 1807 and 1852 but the girls were taught how to do housework rather than academic subjects like their brothers at the Kelsick school. Parents also had to pay for their girls to attend these schools and only the rich could afford the fees. Before 1870, many children did not go to school at all. This was because they needed to work to help support their families. In 1891 the law was changed so that all children had to go to school. A Victorian schoolchild in Ambleside would have attended the Church school until the age of twelve. Teaching was basic, classes large and discipline strict. Very few children had access to secondary education. From 1908 the most gifted children could compete for a free place at the Kelsick Grammar School but not until 1965 could all Ambleside children attend a local secondary school.

In the Lake District it was quickly discovered that only sheep could survive on the fells. In medieval times most people wore woollen clothing and consequently there was a great demand for wool. Around Ambleside the fells were cleared of trees to make more land available for sheep. This land was divided between rich landowners and monasteries who kept vast flocks of sheep and made huge amounts of money from selling wool. Henry VIII's decision to dissolve the monasteries changed the landscape. By the 1550s most of their land had been divided into small farms, owned or rented by local people. In the eighteenth century farming experienced a boom time with many farmers increasing their wealth by 70%. However, the prosperity of these farmers was not to last, soon the price of wool fell and the number of farms reduced as land was sold for building. In the 20th century sheep farming has been in decline. The price of wool has always fluctuated but today farmers are facing severe financial difficulties, even before the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic. In 1999 a local farmer could expect to receive about 10p per fleece. It is difficult to say if there will be any sheep left on the hills at the end of the 21st century.

In 1781 Ambleside was a small town. There were a few shops but the goods they sold were practical rather than exciting. This all changed with the arrival of tourists who wanted to buy the same goods that they bought in their own towns and cities. To meet tourists' demands Ambleside became a building site for much of the Victorian period. A row of shops known as 'Central Buildings' was built near the Salutation Hotel and shops and lodging houses (B&Bs) were built along Compston and Lake Roads. Tourism may have led to this building boom, but the new shops were also useful to local people as well as to tourists. There were fishmongers, toy shops, florists, ladies' and men's outfitters, bakers and chemists. Today Ambleside does not have such a wide range of shops. Supermarket shopping and the development of shops specifically for tourists have changed Ambleside. In a town where 24% of households do not own a car, it is not surprising that some Ambleside residents are nostalgic for the past.

By the late 18th century the landscape of the Lake District had assumed an almost mythic quality as a place of solitude, peace and fabled beauty. Writers, artists, scholars, naturalists and sportsmen were drawn to the area to live and work, then, following fashion, the tourists arrived. The Lake District attracted and held some remarkable talents: William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, Robert Southey, John Ruskin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Beatrix Potter, all of whom are now household names. But there were others, less well-known now, but who made a profound impact in their day: the economist Harriet Martineau, the leading pioneer of education Charlotte Mason, the gifted Arnolds, the historian G.M. Trevelyan, the politician W.E. Forster, Canon Rawnsley (co-founder of the National Trust) and the learned Armitt sisters after one of whom, Mary Louisa Armitt, Ambleside's Museum and Armitt Library is named.
An astounding array of artists has produced work inspired by the natural landscape and people of the Lake District, notably: T L Aspland, Ophelia Bell, the Collingwood family, Alfred Heaton Cooper, Julian Heaton Cooper, William Heaton Cooper, William Green, Beatrix Potter, William Payne, JB Pyne, Kurt Schwitters, J W M Turner, Josefina de Vasconcellos, James Walton and Fred Yates. This community of letters also drew some distinguished visitors to the Lakes, amongst them John Bright, Charlotte Bront—Ď, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the American President Woodrow Wilson.