The history of Austwick began millions of years ago when the rocks forming its basis, slates, limestones and sandstones ,were first laid down in prehistoric seas. In addition to the obvious influence on the construction of houses, farm buildings and field walls, there was the effect on agriculture both in soil formation and in the use of limestone for soil improvement.
Much later came the great Ice Ages which cut the valley, built the low rounded hills (which usually have names ending in ‘ber’), decided the drainage patterns and strongly influenced the climate and vegetation, both wild and cultivated, as well as leaving us with the perched blocks (erratics) on the hill called Norber.
People have lived, died and been buried in and around Austwick for over 4000 years. Near the footpath leading from Austwick to Clapham there is an extensive settlement and metal detecting has uncovered a wide range of finds dating from the Bronze Age to modern days. Above Crummock there are the remains of an Iron Age settlement and not far away was found a large copper cooking vessel. There was a prehistoric cave burial in Feizor Nick and a ‘bog burial’ in Austwick Bog (or Moss).
Like most places with a long history, Austwick has experienced a variety of fortunes and fulfilled several functions. Austwick has passed through many phases, both in importance and in ways of earning its living. There have been times of prosperity and times of dearth; times of joy and times of tragedy; times of rising population and times of semi-desertion such as the period after the Civil War when Austwick was described as “…wherein there are many blind, lame and aged persons; the inhabitants are impoverished by plundering, billeting and assessments.”
Austwick was one of a group of four manors forming the parish of Clapham:- Austwick, Clapham, Newby and Lawkland, each with its own lord.
In Doomsday Book, Austwick was at the head of a group of 12 manors, spread along the route north (now roughly the line of the A65) and was obviously of importance. The manorial history with its various lords is very interesting in itself. The Anglian lord at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 was Thorvin. (Incidentally, a field not far from Field House on the A65 bears the name ‘Thorvin Croft’- a connection or just a coincidence?) The Manor Court Books provide a great amount of information about the manor and its functions, mostly concerning the agricultural workings of the area. Since 1782 the Farrer family has held the Lordship of the Manor of Austwick, the present Lord being Dr John Farrer of Clapham.
Throughout its life, Austwick has been concerned with agriculture, sometimes as its main occupation and sometimes in a subservient role such as in the times when the manufacture of textiles provided the main means of earning a living. Although, at present farming is entirely pastoral with a variety of breeds of cattle, the terracing on the hillsides points to earlier arable fields and this is borne out in the written record. In 1297, although most people with land had animals, cattle, sheep and goats, nearly half grew oats. The growing of corn was essential for bread and beer until communications improved enough for it to be imported from elsewhere in the country. As late as 1851, it is mentioned that Austwick had 151 acres of arable out of a total acreage of 8000.
The earliest known mention of quarrying is in a document of circa 1200 and refers to a slate quarry.
Another industry that continued from at least the Middle Ages until the second half of the nineteenth century was the weaving of textiles: first wool, then linen and finally cotton. There are still reminders of this inexistence, the remains of a ‘spinning gallery’ is still to be found in a private house in the centre of Austwick.