The Vale of Lyvennet

Its Picturesque Peeps and Legendary Lore

By John Salkeld Bland



The river Lyvennet rises on the northern side of the range of hills stretching eastwards across Westmorland from Shap Fells. It runs through the parishes of Crosby Ravensworth and Morland, receives the tributary stream of the Leith, and falls into the Eden near Temple Sowerby. The distance from its source to its outfall is less than ten miles measured in a straight line; but the little valley is full of varied interest, to which each age has contributed a share. Half way down the stream, and out on the west, lies Reagill, and in it, Wyebourne; and Wyebourne was the home of John Salkeld Bland, who, nearly fifty years ago [i.e. about 1860], compiled this manuscript history of “The Vale of Lyvennet.”

John Bland’s grandfather was a yeoman farming his own land at Reagill. He had a family of two sons, Thomas and William, between whom he divided it; Thomas, who was an artist and sculptor of no mean ability, remaining at Reagill, while William established himself at Wyebourne, a mile away, married, and also had two children; one being John Bland himself, the other a daughter, now Mrs. Dufton, to whom the thanks of this Society are due for use of her brother’s manuscript, and for her kindness in supplying information about the family.

John Bland was only six months old when he lost his mother, from whom, perhaps, he inherited a constitutional delicacy from which he always suffered. He was educated at the well-known school at Reagill, and afterwards at Croft House, Brampton. Early in life he began to show a gift for drawing, but he never received lessons; his aptitude, like that of his uncle, was purely a natural one.

He also studied botany, geology and chemistry. Before he was twenty-two he had made a geological map of the district;  this came before the notice of some of the leading authorities of the day, and received high praise from them; it is interesting, therefore, as it affords us proof of the high standard of merit reached by his work.  He afterwards went over to America for a time; an expedition comparatively rare in those days. During the summer of 1866 he made studies from nature of about a hundred wild flowers, painted in water colours, and had just finished mounting them before his death. For his weakness of health had shown itself in attacks of pneumonia when he took cold; finally consumption set in, and he died on January 4th, 1867, aged twenty-seven years.

But the work in which we are most interested is his manuscript “The Vale of Lyvennet.” The book consists of ninety-one pages about 12 by 10 inches, filled with drawings and plans, of which there are about two hundred, large and small; with a written description of each. Infinite pains have been spent upon it. He has taken each object of local interest in turn, recorded minutely what is known about it, and accompanied it with at least one drawing. The work has not been quite completed, as the last three pages, and pages 79 (a beautiful half-page drawing of Flass House), and 82, lack text; there are a few blanks left for measurements, and several spaces for pictures. It is, of course, the pictures that give the books its unique character, for they make everything a reality to the reader. The drawings
themselves are beautiful; but even apart from them, a better account of the valley could hardly have been made, either in material or arrangement. And it is not unworthy to add that the text is written in the most delicate penmanship, almost as finely executed as the drawings themselves.

But his studies were not confined to antiquities or art, nor his reputation to his native valley. Mention has already been made of his geological work. The map was submitted to the Manchester Geological Society at a meeting on December 30th, 1862, with a paper entitled :- “On the Carboniferous Rocks in the neighbourhood of Shap and Crosby Ravensworth: a section of that series which lies on the northern and eastern extremities of the Lake District.” He also submitted a section from Wasdale Crag to the valley of the Eden near Appleby - distance about ten miles; which, with the paper, was printed in the Society’s Transactions, vol. iv., p. 44.

Mr. Bland was unable to be present, and the paper was read by Mr. E.W. Binney, F.R.S. Mr. Binney, who was one of the most eminent geologists of the day, afterwards made the following remarks :- “I became acquainted with Mr. Bland last year, in going over that district to look over some property. He showed me this map, and it occurred to me that I had not seen any map of a limestone district so well worked out by a local man. Mr. Bland has devoted many years to the examination of the becks and gills of his district, and has formed this section. I think the paper a very valuable one, because it shows how the limestone begins to be separated by coal measures.”

Mr. Joseph Dickinson, H.M. Inspector of Mines, President of the Society, added :- “I could have wished for the map to be published as well. I do not think we could hand over our funds for a better purpose.” But the expense was a serious matter, and the map, now preserved at Reagill, does not appear ever to have been published. The paper is written in a much more matured style than the present work, possibly because he is writing of matters that can be ascertained with greater certainty; he expresses himself in the manner of one who has a complete mastery of his subject.

As to the sources of his information, Mrs. Dufton says that his account of the manorial disputes was derived from a collection of old parchments in the possession of Mr. Salkeld of Meaburn Hill, his great-uncle; representative of a family which had been resident in the locality since the reign of Elizabeth. To attack sixteenth century documents for information must have required a great deal of enthusiasm, especially in one with such a love of outdoor life; for these documents are dreary things, and, as Mrs. Dufton observes, they were very hard to read. Another instance of the thoroughness of his work is shown in the fact that he reproduces the heading of one of these in the old writing, an undertaking by no means easy;  and an excellent reproduction it is.

He had evidently read a great deal, and had gone carefully through most books that describe his neighbourhood, and he collected and stored up what was related to him by his friends. His industry was extraordinary, and he is said never to have wasted a moment of time.

He probably owed much to Canon Weston, then vicar of Crosby Ravensworth, who took a kindly interest in his work, and used to invite him to the vicarage when he had visitors interested in science or archaeology. Among those whom he met were Canon Simpson, first President of the local Archaeological Society, who was then incumbent of Shap; and Professor Harkness, who once filled the Chair of Geology at Queen’s College, Cork. He was also appreciated and helped at Lowther, where he saw the paintings by Lady Mary Lowther (wife of the famous “Sir Jammy,” the first Earl) some of which he copied; while no doubt he learned a great deal from his uncle, Thomas Bland.

The latter, a man of varied talents, also deserves some notice here. He was famous for his Italian garden at Reagill, which he laid out and decorated with statues and oil paintings in the alcoves, all his own work; he was an excellent artist in black and white, and reputed to be a musical composer of merit.

His nephew tells us of his sculpture commemorating Charles the Second’s halt at the head of the Lyvennet, and of the stone he set up to mark the place where the forefathers of the famous Joseph Addison had their home in days gone by. But there is another work which can be seen by everyone; a pedestal and pillar surmounted by a figure of Britannia, executed by him, and erected at his expense, on the hill facing Shap Wells Hotel, to commemorate the accession of Queen Victoria. It was placed there in 1842; the railway close by was opened in December, 1846; so it stands within the view of all.

Mr. Bland did not attempt to immortalise himself by putting his own name upon it; it is a pity that persons visiting it have not been equally modest;  for the pedestal, which bears bas-reliefs and an inscription, has been defaced by idlers for more than half a century, as their dated scratchings show.

He also celebrated this event each year by a large entertainment. This is mentioned by Whellan in his History of Cumberland and Westmorland, written in 1860, who says :- “A festival of a somewhat unique character is held here (at Reagill) annually, on the anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession, on the grounds of Mr. Bland, which are richly ornamented with pictures, statuary, etc. A band of music is engaged for the occasion, and the day’s amusements are interspersed with lectures, addresses, music, dancing, and other recreations.” The gathering was actually held on the Friday nearest to the anniversary; on some occasions as many as 1,400 guests were present.

No memoir of Thomas Bland would be complete without some account of the wonderful garden that he planned and made. John Bland has preserved one view of it in its old splendour; it is reproduced at the end of this book. The wall on the right of the entrance was known as “The Local Gallery,” as paintings of local scenes, Shap Abbey, Lowther, Brougham and others, were mounted in alcoves there. Beyond, near the angle of the wall, was the “Shakespeare Gallery.” Facing the entrance stands Sir Walter Scott; below three bas-reliefs, that on the right of the spectator representing Rob Roy, that in the middle Bois-Guilbert fighting on horseback, striking Athelstan down; the third, Prince Charlie. On the left of the entrance is a terrace with a statue of Music, holding a lute, emblematic of the Lyvennet; there are also statues of Addison, Burns, and Hugh Miller the geologist; for Thomas Bland, like his nephew, was interested in geology. This terrace stretches away to the left; against it, and facing the lower lawns beyond was a building for the musicians. The whole garden was lavishly decorated with paintings and sculptures; the last of the former were removed from the walls about three years ago. It seems almost incredible that one man should have accomplished so much work; but he had a marvellous facility for rapid work and simple execution. He could finish his work very finely, but seldom did so.

A description of the gardens, and the statues in particular is contained in Anthony Whitehead’s Westmorland Legends and other Poems. It would have been pleasant to say something of Mr. Whitehead, whose memories are so closely connected with the work of the Blands; but it is a delicate matter to write of a man in his lifetime; and he is still living, and bearing his ninety-one years very lightly. Two of his stanzas are quoted in this book, to illustrate the tale of Crosby Hall.

Thomas Bland worked at art for its own sake, cared nothing for fame, and would have hated notoriety. He had at least one excellent chance of becoming known to London art circles, for David Cox (the younger), who had seen some of his drawings, was interested, and wished to introduce him to his friends. He gave Mr. Bland several of his own water-colour paintings, and some correspondence passed between them; but the introduction fell through. He had, of course, many visitors, some of whom came to see him only from idle curiosity. These he could not endure. For their benefit he had a large oleograph of Garibaldi set up in his studio. If they fell into the trap, and admired it, they were summarily dealt with, for he could be brusque to those whom he did not care about. The Garden Beautiful was free to all:  but he would not sacrifice time or convenience to a bore - least of all, an admiring bore.

There is one story told of a trick which was played upon him: about 1855 he went to Kendal to hear a lecture on electricity. He was sceptical of the marvellous powers claimed for it, and refused to believe that it would be impossible for him to let go the handles of the battery when the current was turned on. Having the courage of his disbelief, he went upon the platform to try, and unsuspectingly put his top hat between his knees. Then the operator turned the current on strong, and it was only after that top hat was fairly flattened in his struggles that he was released, amid the roars of the audience; whereupon he fled from the room and back to Reagill, a wiser man - with a ruined hat.

He seems to have been credited with a certain amount of eccentricity, though this may have been due to a commonplace reading of unusual gifts and vigorous originality; but it is certainly the case that he was highly esteemed as a man of warm heart and kindly disposition, which attracted all with whom he came in contact;  and in his own neighbourhood his death was greatly deplored. He died on September 18th, 1865, in his sixty-seventh year, unmarried.

But John Bland’s work, good as it is, has an additional value, because there was at the time no systematic effort in this field of research. The Cumberland and Westmorland antiquarian Society held its inaugural meeting on September 11th, 1866, only four months before he died, and for some six years not much was done.  Thus he was the first to plan the important stone circle at Gunnerskeld. This, like its neighbour at Oddendale, belongs to a class, rare in Britain, which consists of concentric rings of stone. Mr. C.W. Dymond, F.S.A., in publishing a plan of Gunnerskeld circle, says :- “So far as my researches have extended, no plan of this megalithic group has ever been published, nor, save in a local guide book, have I ever seen it mentioned.” The book contains a drawing, a ground plan and a description of each of these remains.

But he never lapses into dullness. Indeed, he pokes quiet fun at the antiquary pure and simple. Certain earthworks, he says, have been supposed by some antiquaries to be a maze; a dilemma in which antiquarians are sometimes found. Writing of Crosby Park, he has a gentle thrust at those who deal of venison and vert, and ancient deer parks and forests :- “These things,” he says, “are past and gone, except to the dreaming poet and the prosing antiquary.”

His sketches cover a wide range. He puts before us each object of which he writes; heraldry, old buildings, picturesque landscapes, down to the bracelets and rings found in Skellaw quarry. And each of these pictures is a work of art, for his was a genius that touches nothing it does not adorn. He had no mean imagination; there is a vivid picture of man on horseback, rider and beast recoiling in terror before the vision of the Headless Horseman of Gaythorn Plains, which is galloping across their track in the moonlight. He has a humorous picture of a “Ghost seen by Bet Whistle” - a dead pollard tree, which makes a most menacing apparition, though probably the ingenuity of the artist has something to do with it. And over the first page, majestic in flight, soars the Roman eagle.

It has been possible to reproduce only a limited number of his drawings: in making a selection (no easy task), some preference has been given to those which represent objects no longer existing.

In dealing with the text, variations have been made as seldom as possible, and then where the author might have wished an alteration, in accordance with later discoveries. Thus, the account of the settlement at Langdales has been curtailed, as its great mystery, a bank running from the pre-Roman village across the Roman Way, has been explained by the recent discovery that the bank is modern. Part of the account of Harberwain is left out, as he takes Har, on the authority of a distinguished local antiquary, to be a man’s name; and reasons accordingly. It really means high. Some of the quotations from Ossian are left out, as, though
appropriately introduced, they divert attention from Mr. Bland’s own work. The chapter on the history of Crosby Church, compiled from Charleton’s History of Whitby Abbey, is omitted, as a recent account of the church has been published; while in the present book certain limits of size had to be observed. Incomplete sentences, where details of measurements are wanting, have generally been deleted.

This brief memoir attempts nothing more than a record of the life and work of John Salkeld Bland. If he should be forgotten, we should be the poorer for the loss;  and yet his work was done so unobtrusively that a studied appreciation seems out of place. The publication of his book may cause his name to be connected in local literature with that of the Lyvennet. Perhaps this is the most fitting memorial for him - to be remembered as the character of the valley he loved so well.



The Vale of Lyvennet, Its Picturesque Peeps and Legendary Lore, By John Salkeld Bland, 1910.
Originally transcribed by Diane Coppard and Kate Burns, and reproduced here with their permission.


As is usually the case with this website, short comments within the text from me are placed within square brackets, and longer footnote comments are indicated by superscript numerals - clicking on these will take you to the comment at the end of the page. Footnotes from the original text are indicated by symbols - *, # and the like.

As with all such old books, scholarship will have moved on in the intervening years. Read with enjoyment, but apply a tempering of caution.

19 June 2015.

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