The History of Ambleside
The tiny market town of Ambleside at the northern reach of Lake Windermere has its roots in the Roman occupation of Britain. Traces of earlier inhabitants dating back to Neolithic times have been found in the district, but the Romans recognized the sheltered spot as suitable for a fortified camp which they established in the late 1st century. This oblong construction with ditch and rampart guarded roads west to Hardknott Pass and ultimately to the port at Ravenglass , and north towards Carlisle . Hadrian improved the fort as part of his defensive network, a way-station en route to the wall he had built against Pictish marauders.
Galava was the name for this camp, situated at Waterhead on the southern edge of Ambleside. Many coins and other relics have been discovered there over the years, one notable find given to Oxford University in 1674.
After the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the late 4th and early 5th centuries such places were redundant, though its stones were reused in various buildings by local people in the settlement which remained, firstly on the hill slopes then later expanding nearer the waters.
In the 8th century the Vikings arrived, not merely warriors but traders and farmers (thought to have brought the Herdwick sheep to the Lakes) who colonised the remote area, their sheep-farming techniques suited to its landscape. The very name Ambleside is of Norse origin, with two suggestions as to its derivation: either the hill-pasture (saetre which becomes side) of Hamel, a man’s name; or the pastureland by the sandbank (mel).
Ambleside has been lucky to avoid violent conflict in its history, though a few miles north it is believed that Dunmail, the last King of Cumbria, was defeated by Malcolm of Scotland in alliance with the Saxon Edmund I in 945.
In medieval times Ambleside and its surrounding district belonged to the House of Lancaster, Roger de Lancaster given the land by Edward I . Later the area was controlled by the great abbey at Furness . The monks there developed the wool trade which employed many in and around Ambleside; slate working being the largest alternative means of making a living. After Henry VIII ’s Dissolution many farmers gained control of their own holdings, rather than a single magnate purchasing them as so often happened elsewhere.
Ambleside finally obtained a market charter in 1650, this Wednesday market essentially for trade in wool and woollen cloth. The market cross built the following year can still be seen in the town. Readily available water power from its streams that earlier powered corn-mills was for a time used in local textile manufacture, driving for example fulling mills for processing cloth.
The Industrial Revolution changed Ambleside. Local materials and craftsmen combined in producing bobbins for Lancashire factories; and the fortunes made by the owners of such factories allowed them to seek fresh air and calm in the Lakes, some building mansions in the town.
But it was war that had a more lasting impact, albeit a distant war. The French Revolution and later the Napoleonic struggles made travel overseas problematic for Britain’s wealthy: confined to home territory they sought out our wilder places, especially the Lakes; the roots of the tourist industry were thus put down. As the 19th century progressed villas, many still visible today, were constructed to host such long- and short-term visitors.
Ambleside’s attraction increased thanks to William Wordsworth , who lived some 12 miles away in Grasmere . His poetry popularised the Lakes, and other artists and writers settled in the area: Ambleside was proto-feminist Harriet Martineau ’s home from 1845 onwards; she was friendly with Wordsworth, and also with Matthew Arnold who lived at Fox How; and in 1850 she was a host to the novelist Charlotte Brontë for a week’s stay.
In the 19th century many travellers arrived by steamer, a trade which began in 1845; and Ambleside was a noted coaching stop too. These days visitors tend to arrive by car, many unconsciously following routes that date back to the Roman origins of the place.