St Kentigern (518-603 AD), otherwise known as St Mungo, also had a significant influence on this region. He travelled widely throughout Cumbria and probably baptised converts at the holy wells associated with churches at Aspatria and Bromfield.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Viking settlers landed on the western shores and moved inland following river courses. They founded settlements such as Allonby, Allerby and Arkleby. In 1790, at Beacon Hill just north of Aspatria, an excavated burial mound revealed a skeleton and various Viking grave goods including an ornamented sword, dagger, shield, helmet and spurs. Once the Normans arrived in the late 11th century, many of the ancient churches in the area were rebuilt, such as those at Aspatria, Bromfield, Torpenhow and Gilcrux.
Throughout the Middle Ages, smuggling was rife along the Solway coast with goods such as spirits, tobacco and fine textiles regularly smuggled in from Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The small coastal fishing village of Allonby was not only involved in smuggling but also shipbreaking. Old wooden hulls were brought here by tug to be broken up on the beach - the largest ship took two years to break up.
The wreck of the Hougomont
On 9 October 1902 the Hougomont left San Francisco bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wheat, barley and tinned fruit and salmon in cases. On reaching the Mersey, bad weather forced the ship to continue northwards to Maryport. Here the Hougomont waited for a tug to tow her back to Liverpool. During the night of 26 February 1903, hurricane-force winds struck the coast, severing the ship from its tug and driving her north into Allonby Bay. By daybreak, her masts were in pieces and most of her cargo strewn on the beach. Although the crew were safely rescued, it is said that there was no shortage of tinned fruit or salmon in the vicinity of Allonby for a long time afterwards.
Aspatria's location on the old Roman road to Carlisle helped secure its destiny as a market town. Goods such as wool, flax, salt, charcoal, honey, grain and meats were regularly carried through the town on packhorses, and livestock driven through on the way to markets in Wigton, Carlisle, Cockermouth and Egremont.
Coal was mined from the mid-17th century, initially using drift mines. The first pit was sunk at Oughterside in 1681 and thereafter the area became honeycombed with pit workings. The coal was hand-cut at the face using pickaxes and brought out by pit ponies.
The arrival of the Maryport to Carlisle railway in 1845 increased production of coal, which could now be taken easily to Maryport docks for export to Ireland and to the iron and steel works of Workington. The railway was also instrumental in transporting farm produce from the area to markets in Carlisle and Newcastle. The station at Aspatria became a nucleus for further development as warehouses, a goods yard and cattle mart suddenly sprang up to accommodate new trade. During these boom years many rows of 19th-century terraced housing were added onto the town.
As Aspatria was developing as a mining town, Allonby was evolving from fishing village to fashionable sea-bathing resort. Fine Georgian houses were built for those who wanted to benefit from the sea air, briny waters and fine views over the Solway. These were later followed by the grand Victorian Baths in 1835 that provided a suite of heated saltwater pools for bathing.
The Mechi Experiment
In 1862, a farm at Blennerhasset became the focus for progressive ideas in agriculture management. The farm was named Mechi (after an enthusiastic advocate of scientific farming) and began to test out new agricultural techniques and experiment with different crop and livestock strains. It was here that the first steam-driven ploughs in Cumberland (called Cain and Abel) were put to work. However, the venture was not a great success and the farm was sold just 10 years later.
Although mining and quarrying were important industries to Aspatria, the surrounding countryside remained pastoral with many farms engaged in the business of producing milk. Selective cattle breeding produced higher yields of milk per cow allowing the surplus to be turned into butter and cheese. In 1888, a group of dairy farmers formed the West Cumberland Dairy Company and built a creamery on land near the railway station. Milk could now be sent to Carlisle, Newcastle and London by rail tankers. On nationalisation of the milk industry in 1934, the creamery at Aspatria was the first to be taken over by the newly created Milk Marketing Board, which invested in creating one of the most modern cheese-making factories of its time. Today, the creamery is owned by First Milk - a dairy farmers' cooperative - with over 170 dairy farms in the surrounding district supplying the creamery with milk.