Although Heversham and Beetham were the ecclesiastical centres, Milnthorpe, ‘the village by the mill', was the economic centre by virtue of its proximity to the Kent estuary and its overland links with Kendal and Lancaster. In 1280 the town gained its charter for a weekly market and annual fair and trade flourished with numerous inns and hostelries accommodating the needs of travellers. For centuries the Bela was navigable to Milnthorpe and port facilities developed along the river and at Sandside on the estuary. The town thrived on coastal trade well into the 19th century exporting woollen goods, leather, charcoal, gunpowder, limestone and timber, and importing coal, grain, spirits and ‘exotic' goods such as sugar and spices until the building of the Arnside Viaduct in 1857 effectively cut off sea-borne trade for ever.
The swift-flowing River Bela also supported numerous water-powered mills further upstream, one of which was Heron Corn Mill at Beetham. Conishead Priory acquired the rights to grind corn here in 1220 - an agreement that lasted until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538. The mill continued in use into the 20th century and is now a working museum that still relies on water power to turn the machinery. As well as flour production, other early industries included iron smelting at Leighton Furnace, boat building, salt making, charcoal burning and making quicklime.
It was not only Milnthorpe that benefited from trade. For centuries Burton-in-Kendal was fortunate in being situated on a major coaching road from Kendal to Lancaster and a convenient stopover point for changing horses. With the granting of a charter in 1661, the town's corn market expanded to become the biggest in the county. By the mid-18th century the town was in its heyday, but new transport developments were about to change its economic fortunes.
In 1819, the Lancaster Canal link to Kendal was opened, primarily to import coal and export limestone. In addition, large quantities of flax, hemp and linen from Holme Mills were taken by barge to Lancaster, as was gunpowder from Sedgwick Mill. Around the same time, the Turnpike Acts created a new road from Beetham to Heversham, now the A6. This, together with the arrival of the main line railway in 1846, effectively sealed the fate of the canal. Commercial traffic to Kendal ceased in 1944 and the construction of the A590 trunk road and M6 motorway in the 1970s blocked the canal in several places. However, the Lancaster Canal Trust, formed in 1963, aims to fully restore and re-open the canal for navigation by 2019, the 200th anniversary of its opening to Kendal.
The railway age also impacted on Arnside. From being a quiet fishing village, Arnside began to develop as a resort in the 19th century, with pleasure boats sailing from Morecambe and Fleetwood. Passengers came ashore to enjoy the promenade walks, partake of the famous salmon and shrimp teas or ride up Arnside Knott by wagonette. The construction of the Arnside Viaduct in 1857 to carry the Furness Railway over the Kent estuary made the village even more accessible and led to a proliferation of guesthouses, many of which line the promenade today. The final chapter in the railway era came with the building of the Arnside to Hincaster branch line (opened in 1876) to connect the Furness railway with the main north-south line at Hincaster junction. Although providing a useful link between the two railways, the line became a victim of the Beeching cuts of 1963 and now forms part of a permissive footpath between Arnside and Sandside.