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the history of sedbergh...

The historic development of Sedbergh in the Western Dales is linked to its position at the convergence of four valleys formed by the rivers Lune, Rawthey, Clough (Garsdale) and Dee (Dentdale) that served as access and trade routes. The Romans followed the north-south axis of the Lune Valley, establishing forts at Borrowbridge (near Tebay) and Over Burrow (south of Kirkby Lonsdale) linked by a Roman road that runs on the line of Fair Mile and Howgill Lane.

Norse settlers arrived in the 10th century, penetrating up the valleys in search of suitable grazing grounds for their livestock. Their traditional longhouses, often sited next to watercourses, are the forebears of many of today's Dales farmhouses and can be identified by names ending in ‘thwaite' (‘clearing') or ‘scales' (‘summer dwelling'). The name ‘Sedbergh' is derived from the Norse ‘Set Berg', meaning ‘flat-topped hill', a possible reference to the defensive structure at Castlehaw.

Sedbergh is mentioned in the Doomsday Book so a settlement must have existed here before the Norman Conquest. On their arrival, the Norman barons established control by constructing a defensive motte and bailey at Castlehaw (SD 662 923), and later founded the two churches dedicated to St Andrew at Sedbergh and Dent.

From time immemorial drovers taking their animals to markets, packhorse trains and stagecoaches regularly travelled through the valleys. Sedbergh, at the convergence of these trade routes, naturally became a stopover for cross-Pennine traffic with coaching inns, smithies and other services for travellers. In 1251, the town was granted its first market charter by Henry III, a second charter was granted by Henry VIII in 1538. The original market site was beside the church at the top of Finkle Street, a plaque on the wall marks the site. As well as weekly markets, Sedbergh also hosted an annual Charter Market, which is still held in August every year.

By medieval times, Sedbergh was a well-established town; its reputation cemented by the founding of its famous public school in 1525. The school has produced many distinguished names over the years including Professor Adam Sedgwick, the father of modern geology and Will Carling who captained the England rugby team 1988-1996.

The relative isolation of these valleys fostered a strong sense of independence in Dales folk, which during the 17th century turned to disillusionment with the established church. In 1652 George Fox, founder of the Quakers, came to Dentdale and Garsdale bringing the message that God could simply be found within you. His inspirational words struck a chord with the people of the Dales, so that when he arrived at Sedbergh, a receptive audience of over a thousand was waiting for his sermon on Firbank Fell, now known as Fox's Pulpit (SD 621 938). Thereafter groups of Quakers began to meet in isolated houses and barns, enduring much persecution for the next 22 years. After the Act of Toleration in 1689, Meeting Houses were built at Cowgill and Dent, though the earliest is at Brigflatts, southwest of Sedbergh, which dates from 1675.  In the 18th century, the spirit of non-conformism was still evident with the founding of numerous Methodist chapels in the valleys.  

Sheep and cattle farming was the mainstay of the economy along with some quarrying and mining of lead and coal. Farming incomes were supplemented by spinning, weaving and production of woollen cloth. During the 18th and 19th centuries, virtually the whole population of Dent and Sedbergh was engaged in knitting, especially during the Napoleonic Wars when there was a huge demand for knitted gloves, socks, stockings, jerkins and caps for the army. It was said that the men, women and children of Dent knitted so fast and furiously that they became known as the ‘Terrible Knitters of Dent'. Continuing the tradition of knitting today is Sophie's Wild Woollens, selling a range of colourful garments made using the skills of local knitters. 

 "dent station is the highest railway station in england"

 Kendal Rough Fell sheep were bred by local farmers to provide coarse, durable wool suitable for carpets and mattresses.  They are generally only found in the Kendal-Sedbergh-Howgill area and are easily recognised by their horns, long white fleeces and distinctive speckled faces and legs. The sheep are grazed on the open fellsides and are born with a ‘hefting' instinct that ensures they do not stray far from their ‘home' patch.

The 1761 Turnpike Act improved the local roads and made the town and its valleys more accessible, which encouraged the establishment of several water-powered mills in the area. One of these was Farfield Mill, built in 1837 to mechanize the washing, carding, spinning and weaving of wool. The mill specialized in producing horse blankets with members of the Royal Family among its many customers. Nowadays it functions as an arts and heritage centre.

After being part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Sedbergh and Dent were absorbed into the county of Cumbria in 1974, yet remained part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Although this sometimes causes confusion, the town and its attendant valleys are uniquely placed to enjoy the best of both worlds, being in the National Park and within easy reach of Kendal and the Lake District.


Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873)

Adam Sedgwick is regarded as the father of modern geology. He was born in Dent at the Old Parsonage, the son of the local vicar. As a boy he attended the tiny grammar school in the churchyard before moving to Sedbergh School and then to Cambridge University. Here he became Professor of Geology and one of the most authoritative experts on the subject. Adam Sedgwick was the first to identify the Dent Fault, a major break in the underlying rocks of the area. Shortly after his death in 1873, and in commemoration of his benevolence towards the village, the people of Dent erected a drinking fountain encased in a block of Shap granite which provided water for all the homes in Dent until the arrival of piped water in the 1920s.

The Dent Fault

Along this north-south rift in the earth's crust, formed 290 million years ago, the ancient Silurian rocks of the Howgills were uplifted over the younger limestones of the Pennines, producing a marked contrast between the steep-sided domed Howgills and the gentler flat topped fells of Garsdale and Dentdale. The Sedgwick Geological Trail along the Clough River traverses the fault line and explains the rock formations on either side (leaflet from Sedbergh Information Centre).

The railway came to Sedbergh in 1861 when the Ingleton Branch of the North Western Railway opened. It ran from Clapham past Sedbergh to join the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway, now part of the West Coast main line at Lowgill (south of Tebay). The branch line ceased carrying passengers in 1954 and closed in 1967. At the upper end of Dentdale is the Settle to Carlisle Railway, a great feat of Victorian engineering that forges a level route through the Pennine hills over high arching viaducts and through deep tunnels.

In 2006, Sedbergh became England's official Book Town, one of only three in the United Kingdom, the others being Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland. The venture has attracted many secondhand book dealers to the town and generated two major festivals.

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