The great thing about Cumbria is that you can find almost unknown treasures just off the
beaten track. Sometimes you wonder how they survive; others seem to be thriving
despite not being anywhere obvious, nor well-signposted.
An example is the delightful little museum at Bewcastle – out in the middle of wild, almost-unvisited, haunted Reiver country. It doesn’t take long to look around, but it tells the story of Bewcastle for those lone visitors who trek up to this remote part of north Cumbria.
Today we went to Threlkeld Mining Museum, which sits within the Lake District National Park just outside sometimes-crowded (relatively speaking) Keswick. It represents one of the contradictions of the Lake District, even of Cumbria itself: this now idyllically rural county once made its wealth from industry, the landscape being gouged to free various valuable minerals. Copper, lead, slate, graphite and even coal have been taken from the fells, valleys and coast that sheep now roam over and walkers ramble across.
Threlkeld Mining Museum appears not much more than a collection of rusty excavators in a quarry at first glance, but spending some time there is rewarding. There’s a short ride on a narrow gauge steam train which takes you up to a quarry which is still worked – perhaps recently most significantly to help repair the road past Thirlmere (Keswick to Ambleside) which collapsed when the side of Hevellyn suffered a major landslip in the floods of December 2015 – and a tour of the old mine workings. The guides are informative and enthusiastic and you come away with an enhanced understanding of how unsafe and unhealthy conditions were working underground – children carrying large tubs of excretia away at the ends of shifts; pit ponies and men falling down shafts, to be left at the bottom to rot; poisonous lead; children laying explosives, made from goose quills filled with powder, at close range because they were more expendable than adults… the social history is fascinating and humbling.
The Museum has no flash modern cafe facilities but during the gap between our train ride and our underground tour, one of the Museum staff pointed us in the direction of the cafe in Threlkeld village (the excellent Village Coffee Shop). This was another ‘find’. The village is bypassed by the A66 but if you bother to turn off the main road and head into the village there is a sign for a cafe. This is situated in a beautifully refurbished village hall with superb views across to the quarry and the fells beyond. It’s a community enterprise project (I can’t remember the exact name) so the cafe is run by paid members of staff but any profit it makes is ploughed back into the community. It’s no amateur tea-room either: the coffee was lovely, the cakes looked superb, and the toilets were clean and nicely decorated with fresh flowers.
And friends I worked with at British Waterways may be amused to see that one of BW’s rusty excavators now lives at the Mining Museum!