Much of this area was formerly monastic land owned by Furness Abbey which derived its wealth from sheep farming, and iron ore mining and smelting. One of their estates was at Monk Coniston, now owned by the National Trust. The local Herdwick sheep, from the Norse for ‘sheep farm', have distinctive grey fleeces and short, sturdy legs. Many Lakeland hill farms continue to farm this old breed as they are particularly suited to the rigours of living on the open fells.
Slate quarrying developed during the 17th century in response to increased demand for building materials, particularly roofing slates. The quarries at Tilberthwaite and on the ‘Old Man' were mined systematically for around 200 years and one or two are still in operation today. Quarrying and mining were so profitable that in 1859 a railway was built to bring out the copper and slate. In later years, the railway brought the first tourists to the area, but was subsequently closed in 1964.
Early tourists came to marvel at the natural scenery of the area. John Ruskin, the influential 19th century writer and social reformer, also admired the local landscape, declaring that his house, Brantwood on the eastern shore of Coniston Water, had ‘the best view in all of England'. Brantwood and the Ruskin Museum in Coniston are tributes to his life and work. Another well-known writer, Arthur Ransome, was so enraptured by Coniston's scenery that he used various locations as settings in his children's book, Swallows and Amazons.
More recently, Coniston Water was the scene of an ill-fated attempt by Donald Campbell to break the water speed record in 1967. The remains of Bluebird K7 were reclaimed from the lake in 2001 and are currently being restored.