When Janice, one of the viewpoint characters in my third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, had a friend to entertain on a wet weekend in the Lake District, I sent them to the pencil museum in Keswick. Although I’d known of it since childhood, I’d never visited until, on a wet Wednesday at the end of my research trip to Cumbria, I had the chance to put that right. Entering into a single room through a rather kitsch mock-up of a graphite mine, I thought I’d be in and out in five minutes. Not so! I’m sure that anyone who writes or draws would find the museum fascinating.
When we refer to lead pencils, we really mean graphite. The word graphite comes from the Greek for to write but, when first discovered in the Borrowdale Valley around 1550, graphite was originally referred to as black lead. The shepherds who found it, after a storm uprooted a tree, tried to burn it, like peat or coal. Although that didn’t work, they noticed the mineral stained their hands, so they began using it to mark their sheep to denote ownership.
Pencils are constructed from a cedar-wood “sandwich”. The first wood-encased pencil was made by Italians in 1565. Pencil manufacture was a cottage industry in and around Keswick until the late eighteenth century when the process became industrialised. While pencil manufacture continues in Cumbria to this day, although it has moved from Keswick to Workington, the graphite used is now imported.
Charli’s observations of competition between nesting birds has led to a challenge to write a 99-word story about property values. The property could be “a home, business or pencil museum”. How could I resist such a delightful nudge to share my account of my visit? I’m so enthused, I’ve composed two flash fiction pieces: the first based on the history of graphite; the second on a thread of the novel WIP that prompted this research.
Black lead didn’t burn like peat or coal, and their wives complained it marked their clothes. So the shepherds who discovered it didn’t protest when a wealthy lawyer acquired the title deeds for the mine. A century on, their descendants cursed them, now graphite cost more than gold. These men scavenged for scraps by moonlight, sold on to Flemish smugglers to carry by packhorse to the coast. If they believed they were only claiming their birthright, it was no defence in court. The original black marketeers, betrayed by the stains on their hands, flogged and transported for their crimes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against them myself. I’m thinking of the old folk, and the kiddies walking past to school. With that lot shambling and gurning, shouting obscenities or proclaiming themselves the second coming of Jesus Christ. It wouldn’t be nice, like Halloween without the dressing up, the apples and sweets.
Am I concerned about house prices? Not really, I wasn’t thinking of myself. But now you mention it, it does seem unfair. Of course, the poor souls have to go somewhere. But this is such a pleasant neighbourhood. Why do the authorities want to spoil it?