We didn’t realise until we arrived and got some information at the Visitor Centre just how interesting Furness Abbey was going to be….. It was founded in 1124 by the Savigniac Order (who were invited over from Normandy and granted land by Stephen, a grandson of William the Conqueror and later King Stephen), which was incorporated into the much larger Cistercian Order in 1147.
There was nothing particularly special about Furness Abbey at the time it was founded, but by the time it was surrendered to the Crown in 1537 as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, it was spectacularly wealthy (Furness was the second richest Cistercian Abbey in England, Fountains Abbey being the richest).
How did that happen? Weren’t Cistercians supposed to be an austere bunch? That doesn’t seem to have stopped them building up a veritable commercial empire…….
As early as the 1130s, daughter abbeys were being founded at Calder in Cumbria and Rushen on the Isle of Man, followed a few decades later by further establishments in Ireland. An initial endowment of land was followed by purchases of further land as the abbey’s riches snowballed. Iron, charcoal, fisheries, peat, salt, corn, malt and livestock (with wool exported to be woven in Flanders) were big business for the Abbey. Crikey! They even built their own castle (Piel Castle) to defend the entrance to the harbour at Barrow of Furness which was important for safe passage to the Abbey’s extensive holdings in Ireland and on the Isle of Man.
Nowadays, you can still imagine from the ruins just how huge and impressive the abbey would have been in its heyday. The visitor centre does a good job of explaining what’s what and has a range of artefacts on display including some unusual effigies of knights with closed visors from the church nave, sandstone carvings brought indoors to protect them from the elements, effigies presumed to be from the graves of the rich and powerful (another good source of revenue for the abbey!) and a crozier found in a grave discovered in 2010, which was presumably the resting place of an abbot or a visiting bishop.
Mind you, whilst I was engrossed in all this stuff, the highlight of the day from Mark’s perspective was undoubtedly the Cistercian shed!
The next day (Sunday), the weather was truly grim so we took ourselves off to one of the attractions on Mark’s list, the Lakeland Motor Museum.
This was a good motor museum in that it had plenty to interest Mark but also a good variety of things to interest people like me who know nothing about cars. As usual I had a good look at the more unusual exhibits:
The last one is a 1966 Amphicar. Less than 4000 were built, and having seen a video of one in action on water, I have to suspect that most of those sank….
I did get caught at one point looking at an old desk rather than the cars!
There were some fake shop fronts to match the era of the nearby cars on display and some information on the blue dye industry in the area (the museum is on the site of the former Reckitt Blue Dye Works). Returning to a motoring theme, there was a good set of photographs on early motoring in the Lake District, and a collection of motoring-inspired postcards.
Finally there was a separate building dedicated to the World Speed Record attempts of Sir Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald (Donald Campbell was famously killed during a record attempt on nearby Lake Coniston in 1967).
We came across speed records last year when we saw the Sverige 1 replica in action in Sweden. To recap, Sverige 1 was planned in the 1920s to take on the water speed record and in particular to compete with Miss America XIII.
It’s amazing to see how quickly the water speed record progressed from that point. Miss America IX was the first to cross the 100mph threshold in 1931. In 1939, Malcolm Campbell raised the record to 141mph on Coniston Water. In 1964, his son Donald was the only person to take both the land and water records in one year: 403mph on land and 276mph on water. He was doing over 300mph at the time of his crash in 1967.
The boats in the exhibition are all replicas, though we noted that the K7 Bluebird that crashed in 1967 was recovered from the bottom of the lake in 2001 and is being restored. There’s a website with a really interesting history page detailing the exploits of the Campbells and information on the project to rebuild K7 and trial it on Coniston Water (though not at 300mph!). That would be something really worth seeing if we’re in the country when it happens…..
Sadly it was getting time to start slowly heading back home to pick up the post and deal with a few outstanding items of admin., though we managed to stop off in Lancaster on the way for a look at the castle.
Lancaster Castle contained a functioning prison until 2011, with all of the messing around with the structure and decor that such things involve, so although the castle is now open to the public there are huge sections that are off-limits whilst the builders are hard at work.
We got a very good guided tour that showed us the two court rooms at the castle (both still in reasonably regular use) and told us all about how justice was meted out in centuries past. Lancaster was the Assize court for the county of Lancashire, so would have been a busy place with prisoners held on remand awaiting the arrival of the judges in March and August of each year.
We saw lots of good stuff – the trap door where defendants would be “taken down” from the dock, the branding iron that would be used to mark the hand of the guilty (hence the expession “my hands are clean”) etc. Unfortunately, we were told that it’s illegal to take photos in a court, even when it’s not in session….. ☹️
We did of course get a lot of information about hangings. One thing I didn’t know and wouldn’t have guessed was that the offence that resulted in the greatest number of hangings at Lancaster was that of passing forged banknotes. Also, that if you were to be transported to Australia for your crime, you first had to walk to London in chains (below). That’s a very long way to walk….
The debtor’s prison in one part of the castle was where people would be held who had been sued by their creditors for non-payment; typically these were the more wealthy members of society who, it might be expected, had a chance of paying if “encouraged” by imprisonment rather than the very poorest, who had no chance of paying and so weren’t worth suing. The debtors’ prison at Lancaster was apparently one of the cushiest in the country, and the debtors imprisoned there seem to have had quite a reasonable lifestyle. Unfortunately this part of the castle has more recently been used as a prison laundry, and is still looking quite institutional….. I didn’t take any photos there, not because we weren’t allowed to, but because there really wasn’t anything to see.
The square tower in the middle of the photo above is commonly known as the Witches Tower; the famous Lancashire Witches, tried at Lancaster Castle in 1612, were held in a small dungeon below this tower whilst awaiting their trial….. Hopefully if we return in a few years’ time, work will have been completed in that part of the castle and we’ll be able to see more….
We’ve arrived back home this evening but it won’t be too long before we’re off on our travels again…..