The mystery of Eycott Hill

The mystery of Eycott Hill

By John Gorrill

Eycott Hill sticks out like a sore thumb – and the name is like nothing else in Cumbria either.

Most local places have a Viking name, including words from Norway such as dale, fell, beck, force, howe, pike, tarn and thwaite. If your town ends with ‘-thorpe’ or ‘-by’, your Vikings probably came from Denmark. Who or what is an Eycott though, and how did the name get here? I set out to solve this puzzle and found more than I expected.

A quick internet search showed me that the nearest place called Eycott is in Manchester. It’s part of a modern housing estate with other roads including Hawkshead Drive, Bowness Drive and Greystoke Drive, so Eycott Drive is clearly named after the hill and not vice versa. This is flattering to the nature reserve but a dead-end in more ways than one.

Some basic map-reading told me that in nearby Greystoke village there's a place called Icold Road. Now spelling was flexible before printing forced us (mostly) to obey the rules, so could it be that Icold and Eycott are the same name? Icold was originally I-keld, which means 'eye of the spring'. It's a well which villagers believed had special healing powers. Does the beck which flows from Eycott Hill take water to Icold Well? My map says no: Berrier Beck flows the other way. The well held nothing for me but a red herring.

Eycott is also a surname: Eacott, Acott, Ecott and Aycourt all come from someone in the Cotswolds about five hundred years ago who had no surname but used 'eastern cottage' to avoid confusion with the neighbours. One connection between the Cotswolds and Cumbria is sheep-farming; maybe an Eycott moved north, gave the name to Eycott Farm and to Eycott Hill nearby? A family history website seemed to confirm this by mentioning John Eycott, a farmer in Cumberland around 1880. That's believable...

…but wrong. It's based on misunderstanding a file in Carlisle's Archive Centre. Their online catalogue gives a summary of what's in a file but you have to go there in person to look in the file itself. The Howard family own Greystoke Estate and gave their papers to the Archive Centre for safe-keeping in the 1950s. One of these files mentions 'tenants' bonds' and 'Eycott', which suggests that Eycott was the name of a tenant farmer on the Greystoke Estate.

When I arrived at the Archive Centre in Petteril Bank Road, proved my identity, got a free reader's ticket, hung a visitor's tag round my neck, signed in and finally got into the search room, I had a shock. The 'Eycott' paper is simply a list of sheep delivered to Eycott Farm in 1883. The farmer's name was John Stevenson. I looked in several other files which featured 'Eycott' in the list of contents, but the trail had gone cold.

Life can be like a bad film sometimes: the Centre was due to close at 5.00pm and at 4.30pm I asked the archivist for help. I had the text of an Act of Parliament from the year 1800, allowing Charles Howard, Baron Greystoke (also known as the Duke of Norfolk), to enclose common land between Greystoke, Berrier and Murrah villages. Eycott Hill is on that land – was there a map to show the boundaries of the common and who had the right to use it?

The archivist produced a heavy roll of parchment wrapped in white cloth and about three feet long. There were 20 pages of hand-written legal jargon about the right to cut peat in 1796. The peat-cutters were named: Mary Jack, Nicholas Noble, the Reverend Austin Bushby… but no trace of an Eycott. On the last page of the parchment roll was a map drawn in ink and scuffed as if hidden by pirates. In the middle was treasure: Great Aiket Pike and Great Aiket Moss. So, Eycott was never a person – Eycott was Aiket and Aiket was a place.

'Aiket' is the Viking name for oak-wood. There's a cluster of places with similar names, such as Aiketgate east of Carlisle, Aikton near Wigton and Askew Rigg Farm beside Eycott Hill itself, which suggest that many parts of north Cumbria had oak-woods when the Viking settlers arrived in about 900AD. If you're wondering how they sailed in open long-boats from Norway, round the top of Scotland and down the west coast to Cumbria, they didn't.

Our Viking ancestors settled first in Ireland and the Isle of Man and later, perhaps one hundred years later, sailed east to Cumbria. What they found would be Roman ruins from about 500 years earlier. Wildlife would include beaver, wild boar and wolves; the locals would have been Angles who had come from Germany after the Romans left. England should really be Angland because it's named after them. If your town ends in ‘-wick’, ‘-mere’, ‘-ton’ or ‘-ham’, Angles got there before you in about 450AD. Cumbria, by the way, comes from an earlier Celtic tribe called the Kombroges, which means 'comrades’ – what a great name for a county!

How does this help Cumbria Wildlife Trust? Well, it gives two powerful messages. Firstly, the Trust is bringing back public access to this land after more than two centuries of private ownership; and secondly, the Trust is reversing over one thousand years of habitat loss caused by the felling of trees that gave Eycott its name. The sheep are fenced out now and volunteer work parties have been planting juniper, aspen and oak to help scrub and woodland redevelop.

Eycott Hill is tough, boggy country with frequent mist and rain, so if you've got wellies and a Viking spirit – and Viking, after all, means 'someone who leaves home in search of adventure' – it's a great place to explore or to join a work party. And there's more mystery: the papers I saw mentioned villagers taking lead from the common land. Is there a long-forgotten mine at Eycott Hill? That will take some serious digging...