Return of the Forests

12,000 – 6,000 years ago

The last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago leaving behind Cumbria’s now familiar landscape of upland fells cut by deep valleys with lakes and rivers.

Artist’s impression of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in West Yorkshire, dating from 9,000 BC.

For the next 6,000 years, largely undisturbed by humans, mixed temperate forests began to dom-inate the landscape. It was a period known as the Mesolithic (or middle stone-age) when small groups of hunter-gatherers were constantly on the move hunting wild animals, fishing and gather-ing wild plants to survive. The pollen record shows that juniper (now mainly confined to the up-land fells) was an early coloniser, followed by birch, willow, hazel, elm, oak, pine, alder, lime, ash, maple and yew. Ferns and woodland flowers proliferated below the trees. Large animals of the arctic tundra, such as mammoths and aurochs (large oxen), became extinct. Animals more at home in the forests, such as deer, elk, beavers and wolves, became more abundant.

The Mesolithic period in Britain ended about 6,000 years ago. But humans were about to start making some big changes to this sylvan scene as hunter-gathering gave way to farming in the Ne-olithic Period (the New Stone Age). This made the land more productive and lead to an increasing population and a steady decline in forest cover.

Something to Ponder

We don’t really know much about this period in Kendal’s history. Our earliest stone age artefact is a flint scraper about 7,000 years old and found near the river on the southern edge of town. But we can speculate. Here’s an artist’s impression of Star Carr, a world famous archaeological site in Yorkshire, dating to around 11,000 years ago. Would we have had something similar on the banks of the River Kent supporting a small community of hunter-gatherers and how long would they have stayed before moving on? If not, why not? And what lessons, if any, can we learn from the hunter-gatherer way of life and are they still relevant today?

What’s in the planter and why?

Centre-piece. As the glaciers melted, the retreating ice left behind large mounds (drumlins) made up of soils and boulders – like the one on which Kendal Castle was much later built. Boulders, such as the one in this planter, are still a common sight around the Town and provide a reminder of our frozen past.

Plants. The ferns in this planter symbolise the shady forests that would have dominated the land-scape through most of this period. We’ve also added bulbs of native woodland flowers such as wild daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops which would have covered the forest floor and we’ve in-cluded meadow fritillaries and woodland herbs such as hedge woundwort and primroses that could have colonised woodland glades created by fallen trees and the grazing of deer. But un-forgivably, we’ve not included any examples of the many food plants (such as wild garlic, ground elder, fungi, fruits and nuts) that would have contributed so much to human diets at that time.

Strictly for the Geeks who Want to Know Exactly What We Planted

1. From: Stone, P, Millward, D, Young, B, Merritt, J W, Clarke, S M, McCormac, M and Lawrence, D J D. 2010. British regional geology: Northern England. Fifth edition. Keyworth, Nottingham: British Geological Survey. 
2. See Historic England’s “Interactive Prehistory Timeline”  at 
3. Roger Bingham. Kendal: A Social History (1995).  
4. Star Carr Archaeology Project.