Because of programme rescheduling, Open Country's Thursday repeat is subject to cancellation at short notice.
Richard Uridge travels to south Cumbria, which used to known as Westmorland. County reorganisation in 1974 combined Cumberland and Westmorland into one county but, according to Pigot and Co's National Commercial Directory of 1828: "Westmorland received its name from its situation to the west, and the principal part of it being formerly moorish barren land. It is one of those counties which, in the time of the Romans, was inhabited by that tribe of the ancient Britons called the 'Brigantes'. Under the Saxons it formed part of the Kingdom of Northumberland. Traces of two Roman roads are still visible, one from Carlisle to Appleby, and the other from the Picts wall in Cumberland, by Kendal, to Lancaster. The county is divided into two unequal portions, called the baronies of Westmorland and Kendal; the former although abounding with hills is comparatively an open country; the latter is very mountainous containing many bleak and barren hills, usually called the fells."
Richard's first port of call is the Lyth Valley, famous for its damsons and its damson gin. The annual Damson Festival takes place on 12 April and Hartley Trotter shows off the mass of blossom on the trees at his farm. Peter Cartmel, Chairman of the Westmorland Damson Association explains that the fruit, a kind of plum, originally came from the area around Damascus, hence the name, but no-one knows whether the Romans, Crusaders or the Vikings brought them to Britain. Whoever it was, damsons have a long history in this area. There are damsons in other parts of the British Isles, but the flavour of the smaller Westmorland damson is said to be second to none. The crop used to be big business in the area - Hartley remembers bumper years and recalls one farmer claiming to be able to buy a whole new farm solely on damson profits. Few farms in the Lyth valley still pick large quantities, but the Damson Association is trying to renew interest in the fruit. At this year's festival there'll be damson jam, bottled damsons, wine, gin, beer and syrup, chocolates, ice cream - and even damson bread.
Westmorland was also once a major centre for gunpowder manufacture. Local historian Anne Hillman takes Richard around the site of the first gunpowder factory, built at Old Sedgwick in 1764. It started to supply mines and quarries in the north with blasting powder - until then the main buyer was the military and most suppliers were based in the south of England. The area was absolutely ideal for the task - it's sparsely populated, allowing this potentially dangerous business to be sited away from people. There was plenty of woodland to supply charcoal - a key ingredient in the process - and there were fast flowing rivers to supply power. Waterwheels drove grinding stones which powdered charcoal and saltpetre and presses which squeezed the mixture together into blocks known as chocolate. The whole operation was dangerous. Local limestone was used for the buildings because it didn't create sparks, leather liners ensured the stones didn't meet and the area was hedged with trees and bounded by earth banks to absorb blast from the inevitable accidents. At its height each factory might have been producing 20 to 30 tons a week - 40 per cent of national production.
Cumbria gunpowder history
English heritage gunpowder history
Travelling on to Low Sizergh Farm, Richard meets up with Colin Barr from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Grange-over-Sands. Cumbria is known for its dry stone walls, and it's easy to forget that in the lowlands of Westmorland there are still many hedges. Britain's hedgerows have been monitored since the late 1970s, but none of the surveys so far have focussed on what is growing in hedges locally. Colin's about to begin a new survey as part of the regional Biodiversity Action Plans, experts and keen amateurs are going to survey sections of their local hedging. The volunteers will register the woody species in the hedge and find out if it is an ancient hedge or not (that is, pre-1750 after which the enclosures acts were written). They'll also be looking at the ground flora in plots along that 30-metre length. Colin explains the difference between a Westmorland hedge and a Cumberland one - it's all a matter of style.
National Hedgelaying Society
Whilst peering into the hedges, Richard fails to find a plant known locally as Easterledges. But local cook Joyce Leeming has been luckier and shows him how to make Easterledge Pudding, the local speciality. It's a savoury dish made with Easterledges, nettles, barley and eggs. Fresh greens would be welcome after a winter of preserved food and the dish was also considered a Spring tonic. The key ingredient is more commonly known as Bistort, and looks very like young spinach with pink staining at the base of the stems. It's a plant whose leaves are said to have many medicinal qualities, from curing diarrhoea and jaundice, to soothing mouth ulcers and stopping nosebleeds. Joyce is a keen student of the history of dishes found in Cumbria and something of a regional food pioneer. She explains that Westmorland's isolation meant a diet of plain dishes, mostly preserved meat and oatcakes (known locally as haverbread), but the coming of spices changed things dramatically and gave rise to such delicacies as gingerbread, rum butter, spiced sausages and a celebratory dish called sweet tart made with lamb and spices.
|Richard meets his match||
Fortified by his tonic lunch, Richard goes to the centre of Kendal to meet Jim Bland and John Wilson, experts in the art of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. The sport goes back to the 1700s and has always been associated with rural farming areas as well as the towns of Carlisle and Kendal. In the old days there was good money to be made, leading sometimes to accusations of fight fixing known as 'barneying', as well as community status through winning championships and participation in the various wrestling training academies. Top wrestlers could often compete until their late 40s. These days there is something of a struggle to attract younger people into the sport, one area of contention is the traditional white long johns which some feel is important (it's obligatory for the world championships) but others think puts youngsters off. The sport has always been dominated by a handful of local families including Jim's - he's a former world champion and his father is said to be one of the best all time wrestlers. With referee Colin Kendal making sure it's a fair fight, John challenges Richard to a round or two - with the inevitable consquences.
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Cumberland and Northumberland wrestling
Food Programme Food Awards 2002
BBC Holiday Category