PICTURE the Langdale valleys and what comes to mind - the harsh outlines of hacked-out quarries, or heaped remnants of industrial activity? writes JANE RENOUF. Or perhaps a stunning scene of sky and fells, where docile Herdwicks graze grassy fellsides, below which lie photogenic rows of white-washed cottages?

Add to this the indomitable spirit of its local population and all are brought together in Langdale: In A Time of Change, the subject of the Armitt Museum’s new summer exhibition.

The views remain the same over centuries, but life within that landscape continues to change, as it responds dynamically to the economic, social, demographic and cultural changes imposed by the wider world, in times of war and peace and as industries rise and fall.

Rocky fells, grazing sheep, streams, waterfalls and woods may be the very signature of Langdale. However, these also provided timber, charcoal and water power suitable for manufacture of gunpowder, as well as slate for roofs and buildings and sheep’s wool for clothing and carpets. The Armitt’s new exhibition shows how the Langdales reached their industrial height at the turn of the last century, when quarries and gunpowder works employed dozens of men, and the land supported 25 farms in the two valleys. Advances in in the manufacture of explosives put paid to Langdale’s gunpowder works in 1930, but in its place came the development of tourism, and of Langdale as a centre for walking and climbing. This only partially filled the void and although quarrying remained important, it was a harsh and unforgiving industry without compensation or benefits for those injured at work, leaving acute hardship for local families in its wake.

Armitt curator Deborah Walsh tells the story of the Langdales largely through photographs and in the words of local people themselves, whose first-hand recollections of everyday life in the past were recorded by Ambleside Oral History Group and can be read and researched online at www.aohg.org.uk.

Nothing could be more poignant than the words of May Bowness, whose father was killed in the quarries, leaving her mother sewing workers’ shirts each evening as she struggled to bring up six children: “Life was very raw in the valleys…of course, poor people suffered,” May simply said.

Accounts of sheep farming, particularly those of Vic Gregg who farmed at Low Millbeck, Great Langdale, from the late 1930s, capture Langdale’s ‘sense of place’ and purpose, with remarkable detail. The number of working sheep farms in the Langdales has declined significantly in the 20th Century with many of those now reliant on farm tourism.

“Langdale has played a key part in the development of the conservation movement in the Lake District” Deborah said. “The work of the National Trust and its early donors, including Beatrix Potter and G M Trevelyan has been vitally important to preserve this landscape with its patchwork of field boundaries, buildings, quarries and heaped remnants of industrial activity. But it might also be true to say that our complex and multi-layered relationship with the land itself has diminished, and the cosmetic perfection of cottages which are no longer homes but holiday retreats is a symbol of this.”

Funded by the Arts Council, Langdale: In a Time of Change leaves much food for thought, particularly regarding housing. Some 70 per cent of houses in Chapel Stile and 80 per cent in Elterwater have become second homes or holiday cottages, with no planning permission for change of use required:

“It will take an act of Parliament to change this,” Deborah said. “We have achieved World Heritage Status partly on the grounds of cultural heritage. However, it sometimes feels as though our local living culture is regarded as little more than a sideshow, marginalised, devalued and, along with local people, rapidly disappearing."

The Armitt Museum at Rydal Road, Ambleside, is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 10am-5pm; last entrance 4.30pm.