Patterns of Movement: mapping prehistoric cup marks across the Lake District landscape

During this year’s Ullswater Outdoor Fest, the Friends of the Ullswater Way organised a series of five talks on the history and heritage of the valley. The second was by Kate Sharpe from Durham University on prehistoric Rock Art in the Lake District.

Kate SharpeTwenty years ago almost nothing was known about rock art in the Lake District fells but, as Kate Sharpe’s talk revealed, it seems that the more we look the more we find. Carved into stones and boulders, we find mysterious circular hollows known as ‘cups’, perhaps together with rings, grooves and other shapes. So when were these designs created? By whom? And for what purpose? Kate’s talk, illustrated by stunning images of rock art throughout the area, guided us step by step towards an understanding of what we know so far about Rock Art in the Lake District and highlighted the big questions that she and others are still striving to answer.

Cup marks on an outcrop at Allan Bank, Grasmere (in the garden of the National Trust property). Photo credit Kate Sharpe
Cup marks on an outcrop at Allan Bank, Grasmere (in the garden of the National Trust property). Photo credit Kate Sharpe.

Kate first gave an overview of what we currently know about British Rock Art, using a map to illustrate that the majority of Britain’s 7000 known rock art sites are in Scotland and northern England. However, she emphasized that only a few areas have been thoroughly documented, an example being Northumberland and Durham where local communities have been in involved in the recording process. She also explained the different types of rock art, distinguishing for example between designs found on bedrock and boulders, those found on megalithic structures such as standing stones, and those on portable stones, such as cup-marked cobbles. All this rock art has been dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, from about 4000 to 1500 BC.

Complex carvings at Copt Howe, Chapel Stile, Great Langdale. Photo credit Kate Sharpe
Complex carvings at Copt Howe, Chapel Stile, Great Langdale. Photo credit Kate Sharpe.

When Kate began working on Cumbrian Rock Art, about 20 years ago, the markings on Long Meg and the Standing Stones of Shap were well known but almost nothing had been recorded from the central Lake District. However, not soon after, a local resident of Patterdale who had seen cup marks whilst on holiday in Italy, realized that there were similar designs on the rocks in his garden. Subsequently similar marks were found in other locations in Patterdale and beyond.

The more people have looked for rock art, the more has been found – at Loweswater, Buttermere, Langdale, Grasmere, Grange in Borrowdale, Thirlmere, Rydal, Ambleside – 35 sites to date. As Kate plotted these sites on a map, she began to see a pattern emerging which might help explain the purpose behind the enigmatic designs.

Cups arranged around natural fissures on an outcrop in Broadgate Meadow, Grasmere (near to the War Memorial). Photo credit Kate Sharpe.

Kate realized that all the Lake District rock art sites are close to the head or tail of lakes, on or just above the valley floor of valleys linking the lowlands to the mountains. Perhaps our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors moved seasonally in and out of valleys or between valleys, following their herds, or making regular journeys to key sites such as the axe factory known to have existed in Langdale. Perhaps the valleys provided useful site-lines, perhaps lake margins were easier to move along than the higher fells, perhaps cargo and people were moved by boats on the lakes.

Crummock Aug05 KES1634
Cup marks on ‘Barber’s Rock’, near Loweswater Village on the northern shore of Crummock Water. Photo credit Kate Sharpe.

So were the cup-marked stones used for way-marking? Or did they perhaps mark a meeting place? Or maybe they had a commemorative or ritual purpose – a place, for example, where the solstice could be observed. If you would like read more about Kate’s work please see the attached article. You can also follow the unfolding story of Britain’s Rock Art on  and as you are out and about in the fells please keep your eyes peeled for new discoveries.



A Short History of the Ullswater Steamers

During this year’s Ullswater Outdoor Fest, the Friends of the Ullswater Way organised a series of five talks on the history and heritage of the valley. The first was by Nick Smith entitled “A Short History of the Ullswater Steamers.”

Nick SmithNick began with a fascinating account of how he came to be a skipper on the Ullswater Steamers. Born in South Devon Nick arrived in Cumbria via Africa, Canada and various parts of Europe. He worked on ferries, fished for oysters and owned his own trawler before coming to work for the Ullswater Steamers when his wife took up a post with the Cumbria Constabulary. As a master boat handler, it took just 5 weeks intensive training before Nick’s first solo voyage as skipper of Raven.

From his own story, Nick turned to the history of the Ullswater Steamers, taking us back to 1855 when the Ullswater Steam Navigation Company was formed. In those days, before the road was completed around the base of ‘falling rocks’, the Steamers were a lifeline, transporting goods, people and mail from one end of the lake to the other. The Society’s first boat, bought in 1859, was a paddle steamer but it was soon replaced by Lady of the Lake, purchased in 1877 and Nick’s firm favourite. Lady of the Lake was built by T.B. Seath & Co. at Rutherglen near Glasgow and was transported in sections to Waterside where she was reassembled and winched into the lake. This year she is 140 years old and is thought to be the oldest working passenger vessel in the world.

Lady at Ullswater Hotel
Lady of the Lake at the Ullswater Hotel. Courtesy of Ullswater Steamers

However, it has not been all plane sailing for Lady of the Lake. In 1881 she sank at her moorings, in 1958 she sank again when swamped by a gale and 7 years later she caught fire on the slipway and lay idle until 1978. Today all this is behind her and she is a simply majestic site as she plies the Lake.

Steamer Lady of the Lake Howtown Pier
Lady of the Lake in Howtown Bay. Credit Janet Wedgwood.

It was not long after the purchase of Lady of the Lake that Thomas Cook, the agency bringing tourists to the Lakes, suggested that a bigger boat was needed. Raven was built by the same company as Lady of the Lake and was launched in 1889. In 1912 she briefly became a royal yacht when the 5th Earl of Lonsdale entertained the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Earl’s personal colour was yellow so Raven’s decks were painted yellow for the occasion.

Raven at Patterdale
Raven arriving at Patterdale. Courtesy of Ullswater Steamers.

Both Lady of the Lake and Raven were converted from steam to diesel in the 1930s but they are still lovingly called Steamers.

The Raven turns into Howtown Bay, Ullswater
Raven turns into Howtown Bay. Credit Janet Wedgwood.

In recent years Lady Dorothy, Lady Wakefield and the Western Belle have been added to the fleet. Pier houses have been built at both Glenridding and Pooley Bridge and a new jetty has been installed at Aira Force.

Ullswater Steamers continues to break records, with visitor numbers up to 300,000 last year.