Close-up picture of Burneside Hall and its attached ruined tower
14th century Burneside Hall incorporates a ruinous tower attached to the inhabited hall. © Historic England
14th century Burneside Hall incorporates a ruinous tower attached to the inhabited hall. © Historic England

Cumbrian Medieval Tower Houses: A Reminder of Cumbria's Troubled Past

Cumbria has a rich heritage of medieval fortified 'tower houses', these are much-loved features of the landscape. The medieval tower houses at Burneside Hall and Gleaston Castle in South Lakeland, Cumbria, have been on the Heritage at Risk Register since its inception in 1998. Parts of them had fallen into disrepair long before that.

We’ve been working with the owners of these tower houses over recent years to improve understanding of their history and inform their conservation.

Defensive dwellings or medieval status symbols?

Tower houses are fortified houses that can include defensive features such as moats, curtain walls or gatehouses. They can take the form of standalone towers or the wings of a hall can be carried up as towers, as seen at Burneside Hall. They are widely spread across the north of England, built in response to the border wars and Scottish raids of the 13th and 14th centuries. They faced varying levels of threat of attack, and some may have been fortified for more ornamental reasons, as status symbols. Indeed, some might be considered a step towards the development of country houses. At the other end of the social scale, bastles feature defensible towers with farm animals housed below living accommodation.

A tale of two towers

Burneside Hall dates mainly to the 14th century. Its tower is attached to a hall which is still inhabited, and includes decorative window and door openings, as well as a panelled timber screen added some time before the 17th century. The tower itself is roofless and covered in vegetation. A large crack is believed to be historic, but rainwater is washing out mortar and gradually de-stabilising the tower. Water is now also damaging a decorative plaster ceiling in the hall, dating to the 17th century.

Building of Gleaston Castle is thought to have started in the second half of the 14th century. It incorporated four corner towers, used for residential accommodation, surrounded by a defensive wall. Other wooden buildings such as stables and workshops probably existed inside the enclosure. The castle was abandoned as a manorial dwelling as early as 1458, and fell into disrepair. Parts of it survive as upstanding ruins.

Both Gleaston Castle and Burneside Hall are within working farms.

Specialist research

We have provided close to £25,000 to fund surveys investigating the architecture and archaeology of these tower houses using a multi-disciplinary team of specialists, from geophysicists to structural engineers. The report will bring together archaeological and historical research, using techniques such as laser scanning and rectified photography to shed new light on when and how these tower houses developed.

Dendrochronological analysis is being carried out at Burneside Hall. Small samples of timber will help date the building by analysing tree rings to understand when the trees used in its construction were felled.

A geophysical survey to understand the surrounding land has identified a moat in addition to visible features such as fishponds.

Survey work including a digital terrain model has already been carried out at Gleaston Castle as part of the Headlands to Headspace project led by the Morecambe Bay Partnership. All-important costed condition surveys will highlight immediate risks to the buildings as well as their long-term conservation and management.

The heightened understanding of the tower houses will mean their future management can be carefully considered. We hope to celebrate their removal from the Heritage at Risk Register in the not-too-distant future.

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