by Barbara Ballard

An old coaching inn on Main Street in Cockermouth
An old coaching inn on
Main Street in Cockermouth
Situated between two hills, on the edge of the Lake District, the market town of Cockermouth is best known for its connection to the poet, William Wordsworth, who was born here on April 7, 1770 and spent his first 13 years in the town.

His birthplace, a late Georgian style house sits on the town's wide, tree-lined main street. The house was built in 1745 for the High Sheriff of Cumberland and later purchased by Sir James Lowther. William Wordsworth's father was an agent to Sir James and lived in the house during his marriage and the birth of his five children.

Although altered over the years, a few original features and furniture are on view. There is a panelled drawing room, and the library contains Wordsworth's bookshelves and secretaire. On the street just across from the house is a bronze bust of Wordsworth, dated 1970.

Wordsworth refers to his home at Cockermouth in one of his poems.

"A little croft we owned - a plot of corn,
A garden stored with peas, and mint, and tyme,
And flowers for poises, oft on Sunday morn
Plucked while the church bells rang their earliest chime,
Can I forget our freaks at shearing time!
My hen's rich nest through long grass scarce espied;
The cowslip-gathering in June's dewy prime;
The swans that with white chests up reared in pride
Rushing and racing came to meet me at the waterside"

Guilt and Sorrow - XXIV

The wide Main Street in Cockermouth
The wide Main Street in Cockermouth
Cockermouth's position at the junction of the River Cocker and the River Derwent made it an ideal location for farming, fishing, and fresh water. A mile from Cockermouth, at Papcastle, are the slight remains of a Roman fort, Deventio, one of the larger northern forts. Sited 25 miles from Hadrian's Wall, it was an important stop along the way to the Roman settlement at Ravenglass and a convenient place from which to control the warring Brigante tribes. The Romans mined the area. But long before the Romans were here, prehistoric man roamed the countryside, leaving behind earthworks at nearby Tute Hill and, four miles to the east, a stone circle.

Celtic place names (the Celtic 'Cocker' means "crooked " and 'mutha' means a river-mouth) in the area are also a reminder of past history. Cockermouth was under Scottish control, at least until the late 11th century. The town was granted a Market Charter in 1221. The cattle market building in the town centre served as a site for livestock auctions.

Cockermouth Castle

Overlooking the town, Cockermouth Castle was built in the early 1100's, by Baron William de Fortbus (according to some sources) who used stone from the Roman fort (the unique Roman wedge-marks show on the stone). The castle was added to in the 13th and 14th centuries. The massive walls were at one time surrounded by a moat, and a drawbridge and gate defended the castle. A dungeon and several towers, one containing the state apartments, were part of the large edifice.

The castle saw action in 1315 when Robert the Bruce attacked and destroyed part of it. The castle was again involved in fighting during the Civil War. From the 14th to the 18th century, the castle belonged to the powerful Percy family of Northumberland, and then the Wyndham family took over ownership. Percy heraldic devices are still in place above the arch of the outer gatehouse. An inner gatehouse and towers survive from the Percy times. Today privately owned, the castle is mostly a ruin-part was rebuilt for a modern residence. J. M. Turner painted the ruined castle.

Wordsworth's House
Wordsworth's House
Lead and iron mining and the development of water mills along the river brought industry and prosperity to the town. Eventually, the invention of steam power made the mills obsolete, and industry declined. Rope Walk was named after ropemakers' premises on the street. A footbridge over the river led to factories that made hats from rabbit skins. There were cotton check, gingham, and woollen manufacturers, skinners, tanners, and a large brewery in the town. The town also manufactured sewing thread and spun cloth.

Many of Cockermouth's houses are built of stone with blue slate roofs. Cockermouth has a town trail with small cast iron plaques to guide the visitor. The ruins of an ancient market bell and a windmill are part of the trail. The 1700's cobbled Kirkgate remains mostly unchanged.

The Grammar School was founded in 1676. One road, above the river, was the site, in 1685 of the Moot Hall, market house, corn market and shambles. The Almshouses were founded in 1760. The Dispensary, established in 1785, was another charitable institution in the town. The School of Industry was established in 1809, for the education of poor girls. The National School was built in New Street in 1845, while a British School was built in Market Street. A grammar school, library and newsroom were located in the Mechanics' Institute.

In 1828 a new bridge was built across the river, followed in 1829, by the building of a town hall and bank. A new market house was built on Market Street in 1837. Markets were held weekly, and there were hiring fairs and cattle shows as well. Another building of note is the Manor House Hotel. The hotel, built in 1847, was the home of a hat manufacturer. Three bays, giant pilasters, and Ionic pillars grace its exterior decor. Cockermouth Old Hall was notable as the temporary residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, who, after the battle of Langside, fled here, first stopping overnight at Workington Hall.

In the late 14th century a beautiful Gothic style church stood on the site of the present parish church, but it was removed to make way for another church in 1711, which later burned down. The mid-Victorian All Saints was built in 1854 in the Early English style. The 180-foot church spire has carvings of note on the capitals of the pillars and Victorian stained glass, one a memorial to Wordsworth. The church tower contains a peal of six bells, a clock, and chimes.

Cockermouth was where Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty attended school and there is a pub on Main Street named after him. John Dalton, originator of the atomic theory, also lived here, as did John Peel.

All Saints church, Cockermouth
All Saints church, Cockermouth
There are two breweries in the town. Bitter End, at 15 Kirkgate, is a freehouse with its own microbrewery, visible from the pub area. They produce two ales: Cuddy Lugs and Cocker Snoot. The Bitter End won a 'Pub of the Year' award from CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale). Jennings is an historic brewery, once sited at Lorton as early as 1828, but in 1874 the brewery moved near Cockermouth Castle to take advantage of the clean river water. It still uses traditional, time-honoured brewing. Most of its ales are sold in cask-conditioned form. Local ales including the dark bitter Original Brew and the light golden bitter Cumberland Ale are on sale. Visitors can take brewery tours.

The Castlegate House Gallery, in a listed Georgian house, exhibits contemporary English and Scottish paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and glass.

In 1965 the Council for British Archaeology designated Cockermouth as important to preserve for the country's national heritage. Full of interesting attractions in its own right, it also has the advantage of being set in beautiful countryside with mountain and river views. The town where Wordsworth was born remains relatively unchanged.

Cockermouth honoured Wordsworth with the planting of thousands of daffodils in his memory. The daffodils refer to his famous poem of the same name whose first verse reads:

"I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Essential Information
Cockermouth is on the A66 8 miles east of Workington, 7 miles southeast of Maryport, 14 miles northeast of Whitehaven, 27 miles from Carlisle.
Bus: from Penrith or Workington

© Barbara Ballard 2001. Reproduction of this work in whole or in part in any media, without the expressed permission of the author is prohibited. The author grants Britain Express one time publishing rights only.

About Cockermouth
Address: Cockermouth, Lake District, Cumbria, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location map
OS: NY1331
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest

Castlegate House Gallery - 0.4 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Jennings Brewery Tour - 0.5 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Wordsworth House - 0.7 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Bridekirk, St Bridget's Church - 1.6 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Isel Hall - 2.4 miles (Historic House) Heritage Rating

Spout Force Waterfall - 4.4 miles (Countryside) Heritage Rating

Bassenthwaite Lake - 5.3 miles (Countryside) Heritage Rating

Whinlatter Pass - 6.3 miles (Countryside) Heritage Rating

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Tourist Information Centre
4 Old Kings Arms Lane
CA13 9LS
Tel: 01900 822 634