In the early 13th century, the land around Borrowdale, Watendlath and Newlands was owned and managed by Furness Abbey as grazing land (granges). After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, ownership reverted to the Crown, which sold the land to private individuals.
Around this time the area was opened up for mineral prospecting. With little mining expertise locally Elizabeth I created the ‘Mines Royal' charter, which invited German miners to dig for minerals in the Lake District. In the mid 1550s they re-opened an old copper mine in the Newlands Valley and discovered enough quantities of copper, silver and lead to name it ‘Gottsgab' (God's Gift), later distorted to Goldscope. The minerals were taken to landing stages on Derwentwater, Nichol End, Copperhead Bay and Brandlehow, and ferried across the lake to the large smelting complex at Brigham, near Keswick.
In the 16th century, graphite, known locally as ‘wadd' or ‘black lead', was discovered at Seathwaite. Wadd was a highly desirable commodity and gave rise to the pencil industry in Keswick. The mineral was so valuable that the mines were protected by armed soldiers. Illicit dealings in ‘black lead' led to the expression ‘black market'.
In the early 18th century slate quarrying developed. A narrow band of Lakeland Green Slate running through Borrowdale and up to Honister became the primary building material for Victorian Keswick. Honister Slate Mine, re-opened in 1996, continues to mine slate commercially and offers underground tours to visitors and also offers a Via Ferrata tour, which the Victorian miners used to use.
Alongside mining and quarrying the first settlers farmed sheep; in particular the local Herdwick breed that may have been introduced by the Vikings. The sheep have a stocky build with a distinctive grey coat. They are particularly hardy and well suited to the rigours of Cumbrian weather. An instilled ‘heafing' or homing instinct, ensures they keep within their home patch on the open fells, making it much easier for farmers to gather their animals at certain times of year. Every year the local farmers get together to hold the Borrowdale Shepherd's Meet and Show. Herdwick meat, renowned for its full-flavoured gamey taste, can be purchased from the farm gate in Rosthwaite.