Monthly Archives: January 2015

Our Viking Heritage

When I was eating in the Gate at Yanwath, I heard a lady at the next table remark loudly, “of course we are all Vikings here.” I looked up. And everyone at her table nodded, unsurprised. But two hundred years ago, Cumbrians would have been surprised to learn they had Norse ancestors. One of the very first clues was picked up by the editor of the Westmorland Gazette, who heard a woman imploring her naughty child in 1819, to ‘Come its ways, then, and get its patten”. It was only because his brother had been imprisoned by the Danes for eighteen months that he recognised she was using the Danish word for ‘breast’.

Victorian scholars began the process of recording in detail (through Cumbrians studying Icelandic, or Norwegians visiting Coniston) just how many Scandinavian words survived in place-names – fell, dale, beck, gill and the rest. They began to look more carefully at eroded figures on Cumbrian crosses. And by the end of the nineteenth century, some traditional Cumbrian dialects began to seem closer to old Norse than modern English. Finally, ten years ago, Penrith was revealed to have “the highest concentration of Scandinavian DNA in England”. For more than a quarter of us, it seems, our – times 40 – male ancestor was from Norway.

And yet, this had never been how old Cumbrian historians had described our area. Roman yes, part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, perhaps even partly Scottish, or, for the pedantic, part of the Welsh-speaking Kingdom of Cumbria. But nothing in the historical record, and very little dug from the ground, suggested this had been a very Norse area. And yet it was. Sometime, at least a thousand years ago, Scandinavians settled almost every valley in the Lakes from Wasdale (Vatns-dalr or “valley of the water) to ‘Ullswater (Ulf’s water).

They left no records – may in fact have been illiterate – and we have to rely on much later sagas from Iceland to even sense what they may have been like. It seems certain, however, that the Norse who came here were no longer only ‘Viking’ pirates: although they may have continued seasonal raiding. They came here to settle – bringing their families, their livestock. They took over small upland farms, kept pigs, and focused on cattle and sheep – possibly Herdwick sheep. They coppiced ash-trees to feed their livestock, and they built dry-stone walls. Their society looks almost like an early democracy: possibly like other Norse communities reaching decisions through assemblies on mounds called ‘thing-mounts’. But they also kept slaves. If they were like their Icelandic cousins they could be quick to take offence, fiercely independent, obsessively litigious (suing their neighbours over land boundaries, grazing rights, and inheritance) and fond of killing each other.

Their apparently isolated, parochial society was connected to the broadest international culture of its day. All their ancestors had sailed from Scandinavia around the Orkneys. Their contemporaries and relatives had fought on the coast of Libya, had served in modern Istanbul, set up dynasties in Kiev, and even established a small settlement in North America. They came to Cumbria in enough force to obliterate almost all the earlier place-names and replace them with their own Norse names. There must have been ‘original’ inhabitants of Cumbria, who had occupied these valleys before them, but only the smallest trace remains. Unlike the British or English locals, these immigrants were not Christian.

They took their names from Norse mythology: from Odin and his sacred bird the raven (‘Oddendale, Crosby Ravensworth). They believed, it seemed, when they saw a Cumbria rainbow stretching over the fell that they were gazing at a bridge, at whose end lay the home of the Gods. They watched the sun cross the sky, believing its light was being dragged by demi-gods, galloping in terror from wolves at their heels; and that the wolves would eventually catch the sun and plunge the world into darkness. They expected that their society, the world, and the Gods themselves – would all one day be wiped out, in a great apocalypse.

We can still see their traces around us. Their God ‘Loki’ is carved – bound in the entrails of his children – on a stone in Kirkby Stephen church; their sacred Ash tree – Yggdrasil – on a sandstone pillar in Dearham church; and the world serpent in Penrith churchyard. These stones were probably used by Christian missionaries to convince the Norse that Christianity was not very different to their old beliefs. (Loki and the serpent were just versions of the Devil perhaps, the beautiful and peaceful Baldr was Jesus, and the ash tree was the cross).

But today they should remind us not of similarities, but of deep and startling differences. It is tempting to get round the strangeness of the past, by making it simply glamorous. You could point out, for example, to the lady who said ‘we are all Viking’ – that, her 41 times great-grandfather might seem familiar: a tall dalesman, with an upland farm, a Herdwick flock, behind his dry-stone wall; but that the silver on his brooch came from Islamic coins, minted in Samarkand, the bangles recorded the number of enemies he had killed, the hammer round his neck was an amulet of Thor. But it is easier to describe his jewellery than his mind: or to inhabit his values, his honour, and sense of justice. We should hold back from claiming to understand. Why did such great care go into depicting Thor and the final apocalypse of the Gods along the fourteen foot shaft of the Gosforth cross? What does it mean to believe, like those Norse ‘upland farmers’, that if that if you die in bed, instead of battle, you go to hell?

Forty Percent Rule

I heartily applaud your government’s efforts to make the public service unions more accountable. But how about taking your own medicine and applying it to local and national elections?

– Less than 40% turnout and the election is voided!
– Less than 25% in any constituency and no candidate can ever stand for election again



Local MP Rory Stewart on Friday visited Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith to learn about the school’s participation in the Sky Sports Living for Sport initiative. He was greeted by deputy head-teacher Rob Dawsion and participating students from Year 7 who were taking part in this new initiative designed to build young people’s confidence and life skill through partnerning them with a sports mentor. Athlete and paralympic cyclist Rik Waddon joined Rory, spending the day with the participating year 7 pupils, sharing stories about his sporting journey, and working with them to develop key skills. Following this visit and as part of the initiative, the pupils will take part in a project to encourage fellow year 7 pupils from neighbouring secondary schools to participate in an inter-school cross country event.

Rory said: “Rik and the year 7 students I met today were truly inspiring. It was fantastic to see such an engaging initiative being embraced with such great energy here in the constituency, and I wish the students all the very best with their exciting inter-school cross country event.”


Following its New Year launch, local MPs, Rory Stewart and John Stevenson, have added their support to the “Cumbria Yes” campaign, which is calling for the creation of a directly-elected mayor for Cumbria that will change the way in which the county is governed. Both MPs have been strong advocates for greater localism since their election in 2010. Rory Stewart has served as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Local Democracy, and has previously helped champion similar local campaigns, such as the setup of Penrith Town Council and the Penrith Business Improvement District. John Stevenson was central to the campaign for a directly-elected mayor for Carlisle. Mr Stewart and Mr Stevenson have urged all Cumbrians to get behind the campaign in what they call ‘a huge opportunity to redistribute more power and control back into the hands local people.’

The “Cumbria Yes” campaign requires 5 per cent of Cumbrian voters – which equates to about 19 000 people – to sign the petition over the next twelve months, in order to trigger a county-wide referendum. It is currently planned that this would take place in May 2016, and if successful, it would see an election for Cumbria’s first mayor held later on that year or in 2017.

Rory Stewart said:

“This is a great, local and apolitical campaign, that has arisen from a call by local people for a change over the way in which Cumbria is governed. The Scottish referendum that took place last year, was a massively invigorating exercise of democracy, and it is in no way surprising to see this energy and passion spill across the border, with Cumbrians now demanding a greater say over the political issues that matter most to them. A Cumbrian Mayor is a call for greater control over the future of our local communities, and a bigger say over the way in which our local services are run. It leaves no doubt where responsibility and leadership lies on local affairs, and means every Cumbrian knows exactly who to hold to account when problems arise. I hope everyone will get behind the “Cumbria Yes” campaign and add their name to the petition.”

John Stevenson said:

“I have long been a strong advocate for Elected Mayors up and down Britain, having campaigned for one in my constituency of Carlisle. The idea of a Cumbrian Mayor is a concept that I support. It would bring clear, transparent leadership to our county. This is something that local government would benefit from in Cumbria. Cumbria is a long way from London and I believe that a Cumbrian Mayor would be able to better sell our county locally and nationally. I will certainly be putting my name behind the petition.”

To sign up to the “Cumbria Yes” campaign, and add your name to the petition, please visit


Penrith and The Border MP, Rory Stewart, has again called for greater support for Cumbrian small farmers in his most recent meeting with Lake District National Park Chief Executive, Richard Leafe, in his longstanding campaign to preserve small upland farms, and the families and local communities they support. Rory Stewart has repeatedly met with local farming stakeholders, including Natural England, United Utilities, the NFU, the RSPB and The Environment Agency, to ensure they understand the serious challenges local small farms face, and the need for a genuine commitment to ensuring their long-term preservation as traditional, working farms.

At a meeting with the Upper Eden Farmers group in Ravenstonedale earlier in the day, Mr Stewart was told how the number of farmers in the local area has halved over the last 25 years, as pressures from every possible direction had made the job increasingly untenable. The impact on the local community has been evident, with the loss of two pubs and a school, and many farmers now living increasingly isolated lives. The MP took questions on stocking levels, the EU’s role in farming, and the severe challenges currently being faced by the dairy industry in particular. Reiterating these concerns with Richard Leafe, Rory Stewart was also keen to stress that a commitment to small, upland farms was also good for the wider economy in the Lake District, with many tourists visiting the area to enjoy the close-cropped fells, sheep and working farms that form the iconic image of the national park.

Speaking after the meeting, Rory Stewart said:

“Our small farms in Cumbria are valuable in and of themselves. They are a fragile link to a local culture and history that extends back over 2,500 years. Cumbria’s cultural landscape is an inherent product of our small farming heritage, and their cultural impact is now at the heart of the Lake District’s bid to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But my meeting with Upper Eden farmers today saw them express real concerns over the long-term future of farming. Many are really struggling. Upland farmers have had to contend with a drive towards much lower stocking levels, and this is not only bad for them, but for our tourism-led economy too. Everyone I speak to is always keen to stress they are committed to supporting our small farms. But without a more concerted effort from all stakeholders to really understand local farmers and implement policies and practices that support them, I worry that the trend towards falling farm numbers will sadly continue.”


Local MP for Penrith and The Border Rory Stewart today received a commitment from broadband Minister Ed Vaizey on government’s backing of a flexible funding solution to ensure that Cumbria’s superfast broadband rollout will reach its targets this year.

Speaking in a debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon, the MP – who has championed rural broadband in an almost 5-year campaign – challenged the Minister to guarantee future funding for Cumbria broadband.‎ And in particular he urged the Minister to resolve a stand-off between government departments, which he argues would prevent Cumbria getting additional EU funds.

Rory’s interventions today follow his campaign over the Christmas recess to lobby the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid; the head of Broadband Delivery UK, Chris Townsend; and the Minister for Local Government, Lord Ahmad of Wimbeldon, to step up their efforts to make sure that the national pilot in Cumbria – which has been supported by the Prime Minister and successive Ministers in government – continues to achieve its aims of delivering the best broadband in Europe to Cumbria, through the extension of delivery and accounting deadlines.

Commenting on the debate, Rory said: “Our Cumbrian broadband project is tackling the most sparsely populated area in England. And this requires special flexibility from government. By its very nature, Cumbria has been the national test bed for delivering rural broadband, and must keep doing all we can until we reach the goal of delivering not only the 93 per cent coverage to homes and businesses by the end of this year, but also – crucially for the people of Penrith and The Border in particular – of connecting the remaining 7 per cent of homes, who are those most in need of being connected to this increcibly important utility. That is why I pressed the Minister today to confirm absolutely that Cumbria would not end up in a situation where inflexibility and a narrow interpretation of EU guidelines could leave us with tens of thousands of constituents without broadband coverage, which would be intolerable.”

Minister Ed Vaizey responded:  “I absolutely take on board my honourable friend’s point, which he also made to me over the Christmas recess, and I can confirm that the Secretary of State is in touch with the relevant minister at DCLG. We are making a confident case to DCLG that we can continue to spend the money throughout 2015 without any danger of spending the money after the cut-off date at the end of 2015. The Member for Penrith and The Border’s points are well made, we agree with them, and we are working hard with DCLG to come up with a solution because it is important, when European money is on the table, that that money is spent well on behalf of our constituents.”

Rory Stewart also personally contacted all parishes and broadband champions in his constituency over the Christmas break, to encourage as many as possible to feed into the Connecting Cumbria Phase 2 consultation which closes this Friday 9th January. He is also fighting for the remaining 7 per cent of homes and businesses to be prioritised in the next phase.

He said: “Cumbria has a right to feel proud of the broadband service it will have delivered by the end of 2015. Many Cumbrians have fought hard to secure the best possible deal for our rural communities. But up to seven per cent of houses are still missing out and it is these – our most rural and isolated communities – that will benefit the most from broadband technology. That is why this second phase of Connecting Cumbria’s broadband rollout absolutely must focus on these communities, to ensure no one is left behind.”