The English Lake District is one of the most beautiful, scenic areas to visit in the country with it’s spectacular range of mountains, hills, fells and valleys. These hills and fells are ribboned with well trod footpaths which many are familiar with. However, there are other, more ancient and historical routes through these fells, routes that were first used as far back as the time of the Monasteries of the 12th and 13th centuries, routes which were used well before "fell walking for pleasure" on "public footpaths" was even thought of! These were the routes of the legendary Cumbrian Pack Ponies.
The Pack Ponies used were always Cumbria's native Fell Ponies. Mainly black in colour, they are small but strong with a willing kind nature. Averaging 12.2hands to 14hands, they had to be small enough for their packs to be loaded easily. These same ponies are still running as wild herds in some of the fells, living and breeding there as they have for centuries.
The Pack Pony routes provided vital trade links between the monasteries, isolated hill farms, market towns, ports, mines and quarries. By the middle of the 18th century Kendal was the main Wool market town in the North West. Between 20 and 30 trains of Pack Ponies would leave this important market town each week (a train would consist of 20 to 30 ponies all travelling nose to tail in a line) each one laden with on average 1000 kilograms of wool or other produce and would walk aprox 25 kilometres each day. Their destinations were other cumbrian towns and villages as well as ports such as Ravenglass and Whitehaven or further afield to the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, York and even London. The journey to London usually took just over 2 weeks averaging 20 miles each day. (See link to Cumbria Fell Pony Society and the Fell Pony Museum).
Highway men were a common problem on these routes, but that’s another story.
In the past as well as being used to carry their loads above ground, the smaller ones were often used below ground in the mines and others where used by the quarries to pull sleighs, loaded with slate, down the fells. Over time these sleighs, with their heavy load, eventually made substantial groves in the rocky parts of the paths, these grooves can still easily be seen today.
Others were used for the many jobs around the farms from ploughing to taking the farmers children to school. Some were even used for smuggling; the British Tax laws of the 17th and 18th centuries unintentionally encouraged an illicit trade in items such as tobacco, spirits, spices and salt. Smugglers ponies worked at night and for obvious reasons didn’t wear any bells as did their legitimate counterparts.
“A Smugglers Song” by Rudyard Kipling