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The Droving Tradition of the Upper Eden Valley
During the 13th and 14th centuries fairs proliferated throughout England as more Bishops, Barons and Lords were granted the right to hold weekly markets and annual fairs, many associated with specific Saints and usually linked with the rural calendar. Kirkby Stephen’s St Luke’s Fair, was granted by Edward III in 1353 in return for an undertaking by Robert de Clifford, Baron of Westmorland, who owned the manor of Kirkby Stephen and others in the parish, to provide the King with men at arms and archers for his wars with the Scots.
The fairs brought money into the de Clifford purse by way of tolls, stallage, pickage and fines so everybody was happy not least the more local inhabitants who found increased opportunity to sell their produce, buy some necessities of life and participate in a spectacle of colourful proportions compared with their rather mean and modest lives. Local horizons were greatly expanded by the tales carried by the pack leaders and drovers and the exchange of gossip was almost as important to the rural dwellers as the exchange of goods.
For centuries animals and goods had been moved from one area to another as an economic necessity but it was in the early medieval period, when clothmakers from Europe spied the potential and quality of English wool, that the wool market exploded and England’s wealth settled firmly on the backs of the ‘wandering ewe’. The monasteries, ever mindful of a profitable opportunity, seized the chance to expand their already considerable estates and the traffic in animals to the fairs and to winter grazing increased. Ancient ways through the Eden Valley saw greater use as the farming Abbots of Bolton and Fountains Abbeys moved their animals to winter grazing in the Borrowdale valley, returning their flocks in the spring to their home pastures.
Over time these relatively ‘local’ routes became extended to incorporate the longer distance ‘roads’ along which thousands of, mainly black, cattle (or nolts), many eventually of Irish origin, were driven from Scotland for fattening in the softer valleys of the Dales and more southerly areas of England. All though trade in the middle of the 14th century was somewhat sporadic, depending upon the state of relations between the Scots and English at the time, by 1663 the number of beasts passing through Carlisle was documented at 18,574 with toll dues of 8d a head. It was the custom for beasts to be sold and replacements bought at fairs and markets on the way (Brough, Kirkby Stephen, Hawes, Malham), the rest continuing onward to the southern fairs and markets. In the middle of the 14th century oxen were selling at 12s 3d per head, cows at 9s 6d per head and wethers at 1s 3d per head, profit margins were tight and might disappear altogether with the fluctuations in trade.