FROM humble shoemakers to an innkeeper’s son and a bishop, the lives of 11 pioneers of natural history in the Lake District are explored in a new book.

Levens resident Ian Hodkinson has looked back to the 18th century to shed light on a time when roaming around the countryside collecting plants was “viewed as a nefarious activity linked to the work of the devil”.

His book, Natural Awakenings: Early Naturalists in Lakeland, describes an era when wildcats, pine martins and polecats stalked the valleys, and corncrakes could be heard in the meadows.

The author is part of Levens Local History Group, and is Professor Emeritus at the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University.

He spent around four years researching the eclectic lives of the 11 early naturalists at locations such as Kendal Museum, the Kendal Library local studies collection and the county archives at County Hall, Kendal.

Among the characters brought to life in the 260 pages is Thomas Lawson, a Quaker clergyman, schoolmaster and plant collector born in 1630, who spent most of his life in the Lake District.

He is described as “the true pioneer of Cumbrian natural history” who began the process of recording the county’s plants in his meticulously kept notebook.

Lawson suffered persecution after becoming a Quaker, and he sought refuge with the Fell family at Swarthmoor Hall, where in 1674 he was paid to instruct them in botany. He may also have taught them the beneficial effects of herbal gardens and medicines.

The cast of characters also includes John Robinson, a travelling shoemaker by trade, who lived near Kendal and collected rare Lake District plants and fossils to sell. His interests brought him into contact with clergyman William Nicolson. The two unlikely acquaintances - a lowly cobbler and the future Bishop of Carlisle - scrabbled around seeking marine fossils on the River Kent at Force Bridge, near Sedgwick, and hunted for plant specimens in nearby hedgerows.

- Natural Awakenings is published by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. To order a copy, call 01228-544120 or visit