Lake District quarries

in Lake

In iron making, charcoal was used as a fuel, but it also formed the vital ingredient for a substance in great demand by the mines and quarries gunpowder. The best charcoal for gunpowder production was obtained from alder and juniper. Its use was first recorded in the mines and quarries in the late seventeenth century, but the industry did not start in the Lake District until 1764, when John Wakefield of Ken¬dal built the Sedgwick Works. By the mid nineteenth century powder mills were operating also at Gatebeck, Low Wood (near Haver¬thwaite), Elterwater and Black Beck (near Bouth).


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These mills required very large, often linear sites so that buildings could be kept apart to prevent the knockon effect of explosions, but also necessitated the use of elaborate horsedrawn tramway systems. Mills were sited near the estuaries of Morecambe Bay, or existing trade routes, for the import of Chilean saltpetre and sulphur from Stromboli, and near good supplies of water power.The ingredients had to be carefully ground together or 'incorporated' and then passed through a series of processes to pro¬duce a consistent quality and grain size of black powder. By 1937 all the works had closed down due to the increasing use of chemical explosives. Today most gunpowder mill sites still retain some features, including large runner stones, wheelpits, water races, blast walls, over¬grown tramways and thickly wooded blast screens. The Langdale timeshare development occupies the site of the Elterwater Gunpowder works, whilst some of the others have become caravan sites. As time passes and the trees cover yet more remains it becomes increasingly difficult to visualise that these sites were once some of the most exten¬sive and labour-intensive industrial mills in the Lake District.

Besides these largescale industries, the woodlands supported a variety of crafts, in particular the making of 'swill' (or spelk) baskets. These coracleshaped baskets, made from thin pieces of split oak woven on a hazel frame, were produced locally since early medieval times. In the nineteenth century almost every village in the southern Lake District had its swiller, with places such as Broughton-in-Furness and Lowick the important centres. Sadly, today this skilled craft has virtually died out. The 'swilling shops' are difficult to identify, many have been converted or demolished and the once common iron boiling tank, about 3m long, is hard to find.

Most coppice was cut in autumn, but oak was usually left until May or June when the sap was rising and the bark could be peeled off. In the woods are circular or oval-shaped low stone walls with a hearth which formed the basis of a bark peeler's hut. Here lived the peeler with his family who were also engaged in occupations such as making besoms, clothespegs or tent pegs.

Oak bark was sent from the woods to the local tanneries. Of all the products to come out of the woods, for each acre the bark was the most valuable. Tanneries were established in most urban centres, but the industry was concentrated in the High Furness area at Ambleside, Hawkshead, Coniston, Rusland, Lowick, Penny Bridge, Greenodd, Broughton, Ulverston and especially at Kendal, still famous for its shoes. The introduction of chemical tanning using chromium salts, in the mid nineteenth century, led to the closure of most rural tanneries. A few buildings survive, a good exam¬ple being the Rusland Tannery near Rusland Hall, but others are merely ruins or filledin pits. Old maps contain the hidden clues with names such as Bark House, Bark Booth, Tanyard Cottage, Tanpit Lane and Tanner's Wood.

Some of the kilns are larger, about 15ft (5m) in diameter, and as these occur near lead mines, they were prob¬ably 'kilnwood' kilns for producing the kilndried timber or 'white coals' to fuel the lead smelters in the seventeenth and eighteenth cen¬turies. A particularly fine example is at Elfhowe, to the north of Staveley, near Kendal. As with other woodland crafts and industries, old maps reveal a host of placename evidence such as Kiln Bank, Kil¬ner Coppice, Hellpot Wood, Ashes, Ashburner Side and Ealinghearth.

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This article was published on 2010/10/08