Threlkeld - an introduction to its history

Early Threlkeld

There has been human activity in Threlkeld for at least 2,700 years as evidenced by the Iron Age settlement below Threlkeld Knotts. This was a substantial establishment with some 40 hut circles as well as the enclosures above the Quarry.

At that time the valley will have been totally different. There would have been trees covering the valley bottom. There may still have been the remains of a post glacial lake, dammed by the ridge between Wesco and Burns, but now drained by the gorge of the River Greta.

The valley remained heavily wooded until it was cleared for farming and the coming of charcoal burners and sheep. The charcoal burners used the wood (normally by coppicing methods) for smelt and other works, and the sheep prevented re-growth unless they were fenced out of the wooded areas.

The name Threlkeld is Norse and is said to be derived from: "Thrall" - a feudal term for a man bound in service and "keld" a spring or well. Old spellings have been Trellekeld, Threlekelde, and Threlcot.


Threlkeld straddles the boundary between the Borrowdale Volcanic series to the south and Skiddaw Slates to the north. On that boundary is the granite intrusion of Threlkeld Knotts. The other principal feature is the great north-south Coniston Fault passing through Thirlmere and up the Glenderaterra valley. To the east of the fault are many metalliferous mines for lead, zinc, barytes, iron pyrites and copper.


In recent centuries Threlkeld has been a farming and mining community and a stop on the turnpike from Penrith to Keswick. In the 19th century there were a surprisingly large number of farms in the area and many holdings were less than 30 acres. Though cereals have been grown, most are now cattle and sheep farms and today the plough is seen rarely in the parish. Today many farm houses are ordinary (or holiday) homes and barns have been converted to dwellings.

Threlkeld is still a farming community, but now more of its residents earn their living by travelling to Penrith, Keswick and other places or let their houses for visitors. There is also a significant retired population - many are "offcomers", though some of those have long associations with the village.


Christian preaching has been recorded in Threlkeld as early as 553 A D, when St Kentigern (St Mungo of Glasgow) preached in a field that might have been where Melbutts is now or, possibly, at Town Cross. The next record is of Randulf (or Randolph) as priest in Threlkeld in 1220.

Threlkeld was a chapel of the large and ancient parish of Greystoke. The Parish Registers start in 1572. It was a custom in Threlkeld that a sum of five shillings (25p in decimal money, but worth many times more in real terms) was paid to the poor of the parish by the party failing to complete a marriage contract. It is still the custom for the children of the parish to tie the church gate during a wedding service and not to allow the happy couple through until the groom has scattered sufficient money!
It is not known when the first church was built nor what it looked like nor how many other buildings there have been before the present church, though it is likely that they were thatched.

In 1776 the old church was in a dangerous condition and was pulled down and the present church was built, retaining only the bells and bell tower. The church was refurbished in 1911. The bells are old having been cast before 1500.

There were other places of worship in Threlkeld. There was a chapel beside the road from Scales to Wolt Bridge; it was built in 1842. In 1885 the Mission Room was built in Blease Road by the Keswick & District Christian Workers Band. The quarry owners built the chapel there for their workers in 1903. These were all either Methodist chapels or looked after by Methodist ministers.


There has been schooling in Threlkeld for well over 300 years. In 1659 Anthony Gilbanks of Guardhouse left £20 in his will towards the salary of the village schoolmaster. He appears to have been supporting existing schooling and it is possible that, in the 13th century, the first known priest Randulf also taught the children.

Initially, boys only were taught in the Church and then, after the Church was rebuilt in 1776, in what is now The Old School House in Blease Road. A room above, accessed by outside steps, was built for the girls in 1842. In 1849 the school moved across the road to the present buildings - built on land bought by the assistant curate, Rev Arthur Emilius Hulton.

There have been other schools in the area - at the quarry and at St John's Church. Both are now closed. The Quarry school was built in 1897 by the Quarry owners for children of the Quarry workers. It served families at the north end of the Vale of St John until 1952. The school at St John's in the Vale Church was rebuilt in 1848 and closed in 1948. The building is now the Carlisle Diocesan Youth Centre of which the Rector of Threlkeld is Chaplain.

Industry and Commerce

Prior to the rise of tourism, mining was probably the most important economic activity in the Lake District and Threlkeld was no exception.

The Elizabethan miners came to Threlkeld and started the mines at Gateghyll and at Wanthwaite and Fornside in the Vale. There were other mines in the valleys of the Glenderaterra and the Glenderamackin north of Blencathra. On the quarry side of the valley in Threlkeld Knotts and under Clough Head there were mines for lead and iron pyrites - used for making sulphuric acid. The last mine - the very successful Woodend and Gateghyll mine which produced lead and zinc - closed only in 1928 when prices fell, but mining continued to be important to the people of Threlkeld as miners bussed daily to the Greenside Lead Mine at Glenridding until 1962.

The Quarry itself is relatively modern, opening commercially only with the coming of the railway and finally closing, for extraction of high quality granite, in 1982. Probably there was surface quarrying there for local use for many years before formal records which exist only from 1878. However, it may have been commercialised as early as the 1860s and provided ballast for railways and granite setts for roadways. Despite extensions of the Quarry to Klondike, Spion Cop and Bram Crag - connected by a light railway - further extraction became impractical and the quarry closed in 1982. Since 1996 the quarry has become a visitor attraction with the opening of the Threlkeld Mining and Quarrying Museum.

The Quarry company built Railway Terrace and Back Row for their workers. They are now Glenderamackin Terrace and Blencathra View.
The former Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway line ran past Threlkeld Quarry. It was built primarily for transport of coal and iron ore between the West Cumberland mines and Durham. However with the growth of tourism it became a very popular tourist route. It also provided daily transport for workers and school children living along the line. Though freight was removed from the line and the rails west of Keswick lifted in 1963 as part of Dr Beeching's railway closures, the line continued in passenger service from Penrith to Keswick until 1972 when it closed finally. The National Park Authority bought the bed of the line from Keswick to Threlkeld and it now forms the very popular and busy Railway Footpath.

The Threlkeld by-pass was built in 1965 and, after the closure of the railway line, was extended to the Greta Viaduct and Keswick by-pass.

As well as the mines and quarry, there were many other commercial and industrial activities in Threlkeld and so it continues. There are the usual building trades to be expected in any community - joinery, stonemason and so on. But Threlkeld had two shoemakers, a petrol station & garage, several shops, two pubs in the village, also one at Scales and one at Setmabanning Farm, a fish shop, two butchers - all within living memory. Earlier there was a corn mill. Now there are food suppliers, professional artists, photographers, wholesalers, marketing, management and training course preparers, motor engineers, paraglider canopy makers as well as foresters, builders and contractors.

Fortunately for Threlkeld and the Lakes generally, as mining died tourism rose.

NB: The above extract was taken, with kind permission, from the Threlkeld Information Booklet 2006 produced by Threlkeld Parish Council, as part of the implementation of the Threlkeld Parish Plan, with financial support from the Cumbria County Council. The article was written using words from the book "Threlkeld: School & Community" by Stuart Cresswell and Janet Airey, written (with support from Eden District Council's Millenium Fund) to celebrate 150 years of the present school buildings. Copies are still available from Stuart Cresswell.