The train disasters at Aisgill

Today it’s the 100th anniversary of a truly terrible train crash that changed the way the train industry used signalling systems. The crash that took place at Aisgill, near Mallerstang in Cumbria on September 2nd, 1913, is commemorated today outside the county, at the original signalling box which is now at a museum at Butterley in Derbyshire. It wasn’t the only terrible crash of that period on the fabled Carlisle to Settle line, sadly.

It’s sometimes difficult for people to grasp that for most of history, it was really quite hard to get into Cumbria. We see that whalloping great stripe of motorway cutting up the Eden Valley, interlinking with various roads west, and can’t imagine that for a long time it was actually rather tricky to traverse.

Princess Margaret Rose steam train at Aisgill c. Ken Crosby

Princess Margaret Rose steam train at Aisgill, 1993 c. Ken Crosby

I remember that my Cumbrian granda (never grandad. Cumbrian grandfathers have no last consonant) always added the word, ‘up’ to Shap. You never went ‘to’ Shap, or ‘through’ Shap; always ‘up’ Shap. And whilst we know intellectually that Shap is Continue reading

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Free healthcare for all, 1880s-style

I found out recently that my mum was born in Workington Hospital. You may think that’s not a startling revelation, but mum was born in 1941, before the National Health Service, and in those days most babies – unquestionably so, if you were from an ordinary working family – were born at home with the assistance of a midwife.

A certain Cumbrian baby with her mum, 1942

A certain Cumbrian baby with her mum, 1942

I then thought that this must be another example of my Cumbrian family’s belt-and-braces approach to life. Everything was insured, under warranty, serviced and any other Continue reading

A Very Cumbrian Christmas Dinner

Grandma and the bakery girls, c. 1934

Grandma and the bakery girls, c. 1934

I was very lucky when I was growing up to have a grandma who was not only Cumbrian but a fully-trained baker and confectioner. You know all those delicious cakes and buns that Birkett’s Bakery used to make before they were swallowed by that huge northern ‘cheap sausage roll’ conglomerate? Well, add a few more currants, another dab of butter and a shake of icing sugar, and you’ve got my gran’s baking. Continue reading

Cumbria’s Great Pearl Rush

‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.‘ (MFGB, 1926)

Miners during the 1926 General Strike

Miners during the 1926 General Strike

In May, 1926, there was a general strike across Britain. This was in response to  a move from coal mines to reduce miners’ wages by 10%-25%, whilst requiring them to work longer hours. In case readers are tempted to make comparisons with modern times, it’s important to realise that miners in 1920s Britain were poor to an extent we can barely comprehend. In 2006, Britons spent an average of 15% of their income on food; in the 1920s, this was closer to 40%. The strike officially lasted for a month, but many Cumbrian miners were unable to return to work until the following winter, and some never found employment again.

Some enterprising west Cumbrians found a way to cut a meagre path through disastrous times. The ‘pearl rush’ started when a London visitor to Ennerdale was noticed standing in the River Ehen, wearing waders and throwing pearl mussels onto the river bank. Continue reading

Famous Cumbrians: Norman Nicholson (1914-1987)

Where the River Duddon meets the sea, under the towering form of Black Combe, lies the former mining town of Millom and life-long home to the poet, Norman Nicholson. Nicholson’s Cumbrian connection defined both his reputation and his work, with many of his poems paying tribute to the town, the Duddon Valley, and local sights such as Scafell Pike, Whitehaven, Patterdale, stone circles and the western coast. His words contrast vividly the reality of the declining mining town and the timeless grandeur of the natural Lake District environment. Continue reading

Famous Cumbrians: Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Beatrix Potter was in many ways the ultimate Cumbrian, and yet she was born in London. Unmarried until her 40s, Beatrix struggled initially to make an independent living. She finally self-published 250 copies of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ in 1901; these were noticed by the publisher, Frederick Warne, and by the end of the following year, they had printed no less than 28,000 copies. Beatrix went on to write another 22 books, and used the proceeds to buy Hill Top Farm, near Hawkshead. Continue reading