Penrith Beacon

Penrith Beacon

Click here to see more about the BENEATH THE BEACON Automaton Alphabet and Trail that came to Penrith in Summer 2018.

what is Beneath the Beacon?

Standing on a hill of red sandstone above Penrith, the Beacon was built to protect and connect communities during dangerous times. The stone-built, pointed tower marks the spot where beacon fires have blazed over the centuries.  An emblem for the town, sported on club vests and business logos, coming into view it heralds homecoming for drivers on the M6 motorway and passengers alighting from the London train.

Over the years the lives of the BENEATH THE BEACON characters could be seen unfolding from the vantage point above the town. BENEATH THE BEACON gives a home to the ghosts of these remarkable women and men.

BENEATH THE BEACON brings to life an alphabet of characters from Penrith and north east Cumbria and tells their story through the view from the Beacon across time and place.  

BENEATH THE BEACON aims to inspire people to discover more about the town and its surroundings - beautiful places but whose stories of origin and past are not at all well-known.  

BENEATH THE BEACON draws out the influences that have shaped people from the past, who have in turn left their legacy on the landscape. 

BENEATH THE BEACON is an ongoing programme of events and activities involving mechanical sculpture, story boxes, illustration, words, music, tours and trails and an alphabet of characters.  It draws upon local shops and businesses, artists, songwriters, poets, agencies and anyone who loves this town.  It brings to life historic documents in the local collections held by Cumbria Archive Service. 

Above all, BENEATH THE BEACON celebrate the uniqueness of Penrith.


the land beneath the beacon

The original Penrith ‘Bekyn’ probably dated back to the end of the 13th century as a pile of wood to be fired as a warning of impending attack.  By 1430 local aristocratic landowners including Hugh Lowther and Christopher Curwen had been commissioned to ensure that a chain of beacons was ready to transmit an order to ‘array all men-at-arms dwelling in Cumberland as occasion required.’  The Beacon could receive news from the high tower of Carlisle Castle and send it south to Orton Scar or communicate with its closer neighbour Dale Raughton above Kirkoswald.  

The current turret was built in 1719, a squat, square, pike of a building. Its roof is pyramidal, its windows round-arched and its walls thick sandstone blocks quarried from the hill on which it stands.  Some twenty five years later it was lit during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion. 

By Wordsworth’s time fear of Scottish invasion had diminished. His references to the hill above his childhood home were typically romantic.  Some of his most famous poetry dramatically recalls his five year old gaze being fixed at the sight of a gibbet emerging from the mist, but later he goes on to recall:

‘the Border Beacon, and the waste
Of naked pools, and common crags that lay
Exposed on the bare fell, was scattered with love,
A spirit of pleasure and youth’s golden gleam.’

The lofty position that made the Beacon’s flames visible to communities across swathes of Cumberland and Westmorland also makes it an ideal point from which to survey the surrounding landscape.  As far back as 1787 James Clarke published a ground-breaking survey of the two counties in which he described the terrain that could be seen from the lookout above Penrith, noting the views to Scotland and the dales of Yorkshire.  His maps were marked with a disembodied eye denoting the surveyor’s precise gaze and authoritative overview.  This is in marked contrast to William Hutchinson’s breathless description of the view from the Beacon as ‘a vast theatre, upwards of one hundred miles in circumference, circled by stupendous mountains.’

Today, following work to clear trees and open up the view, the stiff climb from the town once more provides a fitting reward.  A sign points the way from Beacon Edge and the path to the Pike is steep and rough in places, climbing for a kilometre through rowan, pine and beech, past badgers’ setts and foxes’ lairs.   

On reaching the highest point the visitor enjoys a stunning vista extending west over Penrith and its surrounding farm land to the Lake District fells, Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Blencathra, and the silver wedge of Ullswater, the most beautiful of English lakes.  Turning south, beyond the newly restored turrets of Lowther Castle, the distinctive shapes of the Howgills and Yorkshire Dales mark the skyline, while north and east the waves of the Pennines rise from Carlisle to their crest at mighty Crossfell’s summit. 

The Beacon connects all the characters in the alphabet of characters.  Wordsworth immortalised it in his writing.  Samuel Plimsoll claimed the ‘glorious panorama’ as his enduring childhood memory and as an adult returned to campaign for the restoration of the view following intrusive tree planting.  The Beacon itself was part of the Yellow Earl’s vast estate.  Percy Topless is buried in the cemetery on Beacon Edge.  Other characters may never have planted their feet on the close-cropped grass of the summit, but all saw their trials and triumphs shaped by their experiences living BENEATH THE BEACON. 

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From a Leicestershire farming family that had lost their farm, Dawn's Dad tended farm machinery for a living. 'He was always tinkering with mechanisms and motors; wasn't bothered about the aesthetics as long as it worked,' smiles Dawn, 'and he built some great machines.'

Albert, Dawn's grandad, was flamboyant: he wore a trilby hat with polished brogues for his daily trip to the village pub, dreaming up unfeasible projects.   It was Albert - with his print of The Haywain and a dubious family portrait - who first taught Dawn to draw and shade with an old 5B pencil.  She remembers him giving instruction, 'Squint your eye, look at the light and smudge it.'  

False starts followed: family law in Newcastle, fine art in Sunderland, graphics at Bretton Hall, then a breakthrough moment securing a craft metalwork apprenticeship in the public art studios of Hilary Cartmel and Mike Johnson. Afterwards Dawn moved to east Cumbria, found herself without co-workers or foundries and fell into a Community Arts MA.  Since then she has developed and delivered a range of projects mixing arts, heritage, culture and community.  Dawn’s work gained momentum with the Story Giants of Eden and at Cumbria Archive Service where her role was to share the county's written history.  Insight into the lives of extraordinary people led her to make puppets - shadow, rod and giant - and the characters came to life.   A need to give the puppets dynamism of their own and a collaboration with mechanism-master Rob Ives led to creating automata.