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The Pencil Museum July 3, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, memoir, travel.
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The first pencils were made with graphite from these slopes

The first pencils were made with graphite from the slopes of Grey Knotts

I described in my last post how I walked from Grasmere to Rosthwaite, climbed Scafell Pike (England’s high point), and then walked over the Cat Bells to Derwent Water, where I took the boat to Keswick.  The next day I visited the Pencil Museum.

Barbara Bennett 2I credit my appreciation of pencils to my mother, who always—and I mean always—kept a batch of freshly sharpened pencils on her desk.  She wrote all of her school notes, her grocery and “to do” lists, and her poems, in pencil.  The metal pencil sharpener bolted to her desk was faithfully emptied of its crisp aromatic shavings, and her supply of plump, clean erasers never failed.

The pencil was invented in the Cumbrian Mountains.  At the headwaters of New House Gill, on the eastern slope of Grey Knotts (2287′), just down the Borrowdale valley from Scafell Pike, wandering shepherds in the early 1500s discovered a deposit of graphite.  Legend has it (legend is so possessive) that a violent thunderstorm toppled some trees and exposed a mysterious black material that the shepherds found useful for marking their sheep.  The shepherds thought at first it might be coal, but it didn’t burn.  They did not realize that they had found an exceptionally pure and valuable form of carbon.

It actually was coal, what is sometimes called meta-anthracite, which is harder and higher in percentage of pure carbon than anthracite.  It is lacking in the volatile (gas) content that makes coal burn.  The coal food-chain goes: meta-anthracite, anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, lignite, peat.  Anthracite can be hard to burn too, as well as low-volatile bituminous coals that sometimes cause “flame-out” in boilers.  (There—my experience writing about international coal markets is coming in handy.  Just ask me about thin-seam mid-vol metallurgical coal.)

The Cumberland graphite, also called “wad,” was found useful for lining casting molds for cannon and musket balls.  And around 1560, someone wrapped a thin cylinder of graphite in string and used it for writing.  And so

Assembling pencils in Keswick

Assembling pencils in Keswick (photo source: Cumberland Pencil Museum)

the pencil was born.    Borrowdale graphite mines continued to operate until 1890, when they closed due to high production costs and overseas competition, even though the overseas product was sadly inferior.  People had also discovered that clay could be mixed with the graphite for making pencils, or that other materials altogether could be used.

The graphite mines were dangerous and difficult for working.  Heavy lumps of it would be sent racing to the bottom of the hill on rickety tracks, with someone riding along the top of the graphite.  But it was valuable.  Cumberland graphite was said to be used in the late 1500s by the school of art that Michelangelo founded, and graphite’s use in the manufacture of ammunition caused its value to soar during the Napoleonic wars.  Thieves burrowed stealthily into the mines and extracted the material by night.  One smuggler pretended to be digging a copper mine while tunneling down into his neighbor’s wad mine.  For more information about these nefarious activities, visit the Lakestay website.

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

In the early 1800s, deposits of graphite were discovered in New England.  Henry David Thoreau worked for a time in his uncle’s pencil factory.  The New Hampshire graphite at Thoreau’s factory had to be mixed with large amounts of clay.

Pencil production in Keswick is now limited to high-quality artist’s color pencils under the “Derwent” name (no graphite involved).  The Pencil Museum gives a good historical introduction to this humble but important implement.  It is well worth visiting.  You can see what the museum boasts is the world’s longest pencil (26 feet).  I see from a little googling, though, that this claim is disputed by various pencil enthusiasts.

The pride of Keswick

The pride of Keswick (photo source: Cumberland Pencil Museum)

I particularly like how the museum describes Keswick as the “home” of the first pencil, suggesting the pencil’s possible need for domestic comfort.  The museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5NG, tel. 44 17687 73626.

I spent several hours at the museum before it was time to catch the bus to Penrith, a larger town to the east located on the main rail line.  The next day, I took the train back to the south of England.

I looked forward to telling my mother about it.  She would enjoy hearing about the graphite mines, the historical development of the pencil, and how NASA spent enormous sums trying to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in zero-gravity conditions, while the Soviets sent their astronauts into orbit carrying pencils.

Borrowdale valley

Borrowdale valley

The Pike of Carrs, Bleak How, Scafell Pike, and the Cat Bells June 28, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, travel.
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Between High Spy and the Cat Bells

Between High Spy and the Cat Bells

It started with my old boss, Gerard McCloskey, loaning me his Wainwright books about walking in the Lake District while I was over in England for work in October 1989.   From there it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some exploring in the wilds of the Cumbrian Mountains as a side trip.  I had no real hiking gear, but I borrowed a backpack—more what you would call a knapsack— from Gerard and, since my raingear was inadequate, I also borrowed an umbrella from his wife Sheila.  For footgear I wore shoes that are hard to describe: not hiking boots, not running shoes, but comfortable shoes that were a bit dressy, like something you would wear with slacks to a social gathering.

I got from London to Windermere by train and from there to Grasmere by bus, as I recall.  (I am going by memory on all of this.)   It was a windy, overcast afternoon as I dutifully looked in on Dove Cottage, the home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.  I am quite willing to journey iambically with Wordsworth, but I wasn’t really in the area to look at points of historic interest.  I was there to see mountains.  I found a small hotel and had a dinner that involved Cumberland sausage and a brew called Old Peculiar.

In the morning, after my breakfast of eggs and sausage, fried tomatoes, and toast, I called over to an even smaller hotel in the village of Rosthwaite and made a reservation for the next two evenings.  I then started walking toward Rosthwaite.

It rained most of the day.  To reach Rosthwaite, I had to climb over the wide divide that separates the watershed of the River Derwent from the chain of lakes that includes Thirlmere, Rydal Water, and Windermere.  It was a rough, stony track that took me past guardian sheep.

This one wore a black and white sweater

This one wore a black and white sweater

My route took me up the valley of Far Easedale Gill, past the Deer Bields and the Pike of Carrs, and across the height of land at Greenup Edge.  At that point my umbrella nearly blew inside out from the wind.  Passing through an unmarked junction of rough paths, I continued northwest along the headwaters of Greenup Gill, between Long Band and Bleak How, and down into Stonethwaite Fell.

Near Bleak How

Near Bleak How

I passed some small farms.  All of the streams were running high (or as they would say in that region, the becks were in spate), and in the picture below you can make out a cascade glimmering in the distance.  It was starting to get a bit dim.

Approaching Stonethwaite Fell

Approaching Stonethwaite Fell

Right around 4:00 I found my Rosthwaite hotel, folded my umbrella, and walked in.  The proprietor said, “Good to see you, Miss Bennett.  We will be serving tea in ten minutes.”  Hot tea and cookies, which I had in the dining room with three or four other guests, have never tasted so good.

The next day I walked down the Borrowdale valley and climbed Scafell Pike, the high elevation point of England (3209).  From where I started, it was a climb of about 2900 vertical feet.  The Pike is a rugged mountain studded with sharp stones and riven by steep gullies.  I took a well-traveled route, going up along Grain’s Gill.

Grain's Gill

Grain's Gill

Then I passed Sprinkling Tarn.

Sprinkling Tarn

Sprinkling Tarn

The clouds were just brushing the mountain.  I believe the next picture was taken looking past All Crags over Angle Tarn, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

Lake District 10

The path was easy to follow, but at no point were there any signs—not at trailheads, junctions, or destinations.  I hope that is still the case, and I applaud the English for that tradition.  It was not hard to find my way to to the summit, but when it was time to descend, many somewhat confusing paths led toward widely separated valleys.  Picking my way carefully over the scree, I sorted things out and followed the path that led past the Round How and back toward the Borrowdale valley, a route that roughly paralleled my ascent.  I saw some interesting formations of grass and hill on the way down.

Lake District 15

I remember that at this point, my ankles were getting a little tired in my thin, low-topped shoes as I stepped from rock to rock, but I am strangely proud of the fact that I managed to pull off this … feat.  Eventually I wended my way back to the Rosthwaite hotel in time for dinner.

The next day I headed north toward Derwent Water, a large, clear lake.  I followed the River Derwent a short distance, then scrambled up to the top of the ridge that lies to the west of the river.  The ridge, or at least part of it, is labelled as Narrow Moor on my map.  I passed High Scawdel, Lobstone Band, and Nitting Haws.  Clouds were scuttling across the sky, creating a patchwork of light and shadow (see top picture).  The ridge terminates in some hills called the Cat Bells, which I descended down to the lake.

Derwent Water

Derwent Water

I knew that a boat circled the lake in a clockwise direction, touching at various points at scheduled times.  I recall that I had a timetable for the boat, and at any rate, I walked to Hawes End and waited for the boat.  I had a bit of trouble at first believing that the boat really existed, but eventually I saw it approach, and I boarded it for the journey to Keswick.

Heading toward Keswick

Heading toward Keswick

I strolled around Keswick (pop. 4800) in the late afternoon.  The next morning I visited the Pencil Museum.  That deserves its own post, because I need to explain why pencils are so interesting and fill people in on what they have to do with my mother.  That will be my next entry in this blog.