HUDDLING inside the ruin of a quarrymen’s shelter high on Kentmere Pike as mist creeps in from the north-west bringing that prickly mizzle that soaks everything – it’s not a good day. I glance at the slate slabs in the wall in a vaguely-interested sort of way and suddenly think: someone’s son built that.
Someone’s father blasted the slate from the quarry; someone’s brother knocked it into manageable lumps with a tully and wedges; someone’s uncle split the lumps into slates with a riving hammer; someone’s nephew dressed them ready to be nailed on a roof; and at the end of the day, after they’d sent their produce down the fell on a packhorse, they gathered the waste and built this shelter. That would be about 150 years ago. It might have been further into the past; it might have been more recently. But they built it. And for the rest of their working lives they sat inside it to take their bait or shelter from the winter blizzards . . .
They will have had a laugh while they laid their walls, and a swear, and they will have sat occasionally for a smoke and a spit and looked down on a valley that was more or less their entire world – at least the ones who hadn’t fought in the Crimea and other places. But all that’s long gone.
One of the joys of writing a mountain blog is that it compels you to examine familiar places in a new light. When I was striding along the High Street ridge to Ill Bell the other week, I spotted this tiny slate quarry across the valley on the west flank of Kentmere Pike, at an altitude of about 1,800ft. From a distance, it’s just a narrow slit in the fell with a fantail of quarry waste. I thought I’d take a closer look sometime.
So this morning I left the car at Mardale Head, at the top end of Haweswater, and stalked up the path to Small Water and Nan Bield Pass. I followed the track down the Kentmere side a short distance and branched east just beyond Smallthwaite Knott along a barely discernable path to the quarry.
And here I am. I finish my brew in the ruin, shoulder my rucksack and clatter through the mounds of slate waste into the narrow, waterlogged ginnel of a quarry that some fellas will have toiled in from childhood to the grave.
I’ve been unable to find a single reference to this quarry on the internet. I don’t know anything about it in a historical context other than it was, perhaps, called Ullstone Gill Quarry and exploited the green slate veins that run in a south-west, north-east direction through Kentmere to Long Sleddale. Perhaps some dog-eared gazetteer or obscure dissertation mentions it in passing. But the font of all knowledge upon which we have come to rely – the great Google – is uncharacteristically silent.
Cyberdom has no reference to a tully, either – that’s another thing I’ve just discovered. In fact, there is an entire lexicon of slate quarrying terms that have never leapt across the gap between the printed page and the internet. Actually, having had a couple of seconds to think about it, the vast majority have probably never made the leap out of the quarry bottom. Here’s a few to be going on with, just to get them onto the web:
- Tully – a heavy hammer, perhaps a couple of pounds in weight, with a dull axe blade one end and flat face the other. Used for knocking slate lumps, either by rough riving or docking, into manageable sizes and shapes.
- Bate – the cleavage plane along which slate splits, or rives, naturally. This is the all-important characteristic that separates slate from stone.
- Docking – the art (and an art it indeed is) of splitting a slate lump across the bate.
- Riving hammer – a sharp-edged hammer used for splitting slate. These are now obsolete, having being replaced by hammer and chisel.
- Clog – a large lump of newly-quarried slate, or slate rock in situ in the quarry face.
- Mell – a large sledge-hammer, usually with a wooden head.
- Slug and feathers, sometimes referred to as plug and feathers – two tapered wedges (feathers) inserted into a hole between which a third wedge (slug) or chisel is hammered to split a clog. On a large clog, two or three sets of slug and feathers might be used.
- Jumper – a drill steel used for boring shot-holes. It was held in one hand while the end was hit with a hammer.
- Wrinkle – an irregularity in slate that deflects the bate, causing a wrinkled effect.
- Slype – a vertical joint or fault in a quarry face, filled with crumbly rock, or possibly an empty void. This one’s interesting because a slype is also a narrow passage in a cathedral or church that joins the transept to a chapter house. Probably a common root there.
- Ginnel – a Northern dialect term that means narrow passageway; but in quarrying parlance it’s a cleft driven into a quarry face to develop the working.
- Bate-hole – a shot-hole bored along the cleavage plane; the favoured method of quarrying the blue-grey Silurian slates of the south Lakes and Furness peninsula.
- Cross-hole – a shot-hole bored across the bate; the favoured method of quarrying the green and silver-grey Ordovician slates of the central Lakes.
- Closehead – an underground quarry or slate mine.
I shelter from the rain in the lowest working, which is a narrow though deep and impressive slit. The outlines of cross-holes are in evidence on the quarry faces – hand-bored by chaps whose names have been forgotten. And that’s bloody sad. It’s almost a crime. A waterfall plunges down the innermost face. This must have been a cold, damp place in winter – no sun until late afternoon and water spray continuously in the air.
Inside the upper of the two workings are the beginnings of what might have become an impressive closehead. But it was not to be. This is where fortune ceased to smile – if it ever smiled at all – and the venture collapsed. At some date, which is also forgotten, the quarry fellas picked up their tools and drifted elsewhere.
And me, I continue to the crown of the ridge and the summit of Kentmere Pike. I then double back and drift along the ridge to Harter Fell, where there are fine views over Haweswater, and drop onto Gatescarth Pass and the path down to Mardale.
These mountains never cease to deliver something new, an intriguing snippet of history that opens a window onto how our forefathers lived and worked. Every valley in the Lake District is pockmarked with mineral ventures of one kind or another. On every hillside someone’s father and someone’s son have scraped back the turf with picks and corracks (corrack – there’s one I’ve missed) to break the rock in search of copper, lead, iron and slate. Sometimes they were lucky – but most times they weren’t.
- Corrack – a corruption of coal-rake. A short-handled hoe or mattock, handy for clearing up rubbish at the end of the day and leaving a job half tidy. Like now.