In the early years of the nineteenth century, extensive deposits of Irony were found all over Cumberland and Westmoreland (present day Cumbria) Within a few years, the large scale production of irony was in full swing and continued throughout the course of the 1800s. It is something we tend to forget when we gaze over beautifully rugged landscapes of the English Lake District – the fact that hundreds of years ago some of these mountains and valleys were heavily industrialised. After the total decline of irony mining during the 1870s /80s, which, when it came, was the result of the gradual depletion of the bigger, older workings and was hastened by the availablity of cheap irony on the world market, the Cumbrian landscape went through further change, as populations shifted, works and dwellings were demolished. It is against this backdrop that our story starts and finishes in 1977.
For it was in that year that My Dad and I went for a drink to a pub called the Lowther Arms at Scilly Banks, near Whitehaven, Cumbria. Nothing unusual about that; especially in this part of the world, where every second pub seemed to be called the Lowther Arms, after the Lowther family, the Earls of Lonsdale.
No, what was unusual about this was it was the smallest pub I’d ever been in, and although only seventeen I’d been in a few. The Lowther Arms was basically a ‘two up, two down’ miner’s cottage very typical of this formerly industrialised area of the West Lakes. Small towns built to house the Irony industry’s workforce like Frizington, Arlecdon, Rowrah – (some of them no more than villages or hamlets really) often consist of a single row of terraced cottages – no ‘other side of the street’ to look out on. Instead, they stand, almost defiantly ‘staring out’ the bleak mountains of this less fashionable part of the Lake District.
Formerly the Lowther Arms (with the red door)
In our tiny public house (now, incidentally run as a holiday cottage) the beer was served directly from the kitchen, where the pints were pulled and placed onto a rudimentary bar. There was a till. The bar also created a partition between the kitchen and the hall. The front room, to give you some idea of scale, was roughly the size of a front room and served as ‘Public Bar’. It was furnished with bench seats which ran round almost all of the wall space and a couple of tables each with two pairs of chairs. After that, there wasn’t space for much else – apart from the drinkers. And it was packed. Fifteen people. You can imagine the noise.
You collected your drinks from the bar/kitchen. Being such a small establishment, there wasn’t a lot of choice. If you didn’t like the ale or gin and tonic then you were out of luck, because there wasn’t much else. Otherwise, your drinks were brought to you at your seats by the lovely, but painfully slow septuagenarian hostess. Parched and dry, you sat patiently, eagerly willing the aged barmaid, hip joints creaking and groaning, to make it in one piece; while your pint glasses slid drunkenly from one end of the tray to the other as she negotiated her way: past sleeping dogs, coal scuttles, logs of wood and other drinkers.
It was a fascinating place, made all the more so by a couple of old ‘gadgies’* Bill and Ted, we got chatting to. Typically, my Dad initiated conversation so smoothly that I assumed he had met them before. He is a master at this. He hadn’t. Met them I mean. The two men, I guess in their mid70’s, were local born and bred and had accents you could cut with a knife. I listened hard. I didn’t contribute much – if at all, for I needed all my concentration to unpick the accent and figure out what the more unusual dialect might mean (a lot of it I simply couldn’t get) Anyway, basically it turned out that the pair: Bill born in Arlecdon, six or so miles east as the crow flies, and Ted in Pica, about three and a half miles more or less north, (That will more or less do, particularly if your crow happens to have Sat Nav) had met in the late ‘20s working at the Crowgarth mine in Cleator Moor, some four miles or so from the pub. They told us the true story of when irony ruled supreme.
Arlecdon and beyond to Ennerdale
Rowrah, towards Arlecdon and the North Sea
Crowgarth was an early starter in the great ‘Irony Boom’ It was opened in 1753 with capital raised by Whitehaven merchants in the Virginian tobacco trade. Of the principal bodies, which constituted just over about half the irony deposits in Cumbria, and typified most of those worked at Crowgarth, the majority occurred in large flats and although subject to earth moving and faulting generally meant easily worked, profitable sites, which were just as easily exhausted.
Montreal Mine, Cleator Moor before closure 1934
The characteristics typical of the highest grade Cumbrian deposits were their Socratic seams and richness in verbal irony; a result of their slow evolution over a long period of time and exposure to a variety of influences: most importantly, Celtic, Norman and above all, Norse. You only have to listen to the Cumbrian accent and dialect to know that. In fact, during the Second World War a certain Harold Manning, a Flookburgh man was posted to Iceland (Is it just me, or wasn’t almost everybody else being sent in the opposite direction? to France, Italy, the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia etc ?) Anyway, old Harold found that as well as having unlimited access to Black Forest Gateaux, mini Raspberry Pavlovas and Petit Fours, his Cumbrian accent,dialect and claims to have come ‘without any money [pennies]’ (félaus um peninga ) were understood by the Icelanders without any problem. Indeed,the Icelandic Sagas, which date from the twelfth century and recount tales of the tenth and eleventh reveal a strong connection in their terse style, yet well developed sense of irony and humour.
Illustrated manuscript of an Icelandic Saga: (‘Eat or you shall be put to the sword’ ‘No! No more chicken Goujons!’)
As competition in the industry reached fever pitch towards the second half of the nineteenth century, there came the discovery of quite considerable irregular deposits at Crowgarth as at a number of other sites of a baser, harsh irony often difficult to extract. This was thick with mockery, sarcasm, incongruity. Situational: not subtle at all. The local folk didn’t know what to do with it: had no use for it. Quite unsuitable for home consumption. As a result, the burgeoning Cumbrian mining companies began to look further afield. And sure enough they found that indeed, an eager market awaited …. in the United States. And so, hewn from the mountains and hillsides of the West Lakes, the Irony made its way from the mines such as Crowgarth, Montreal, Crossfield, Jacktrees and Todholes by rail to the ports of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. From where it crossed the Atlantic: thousands of tons at a time to fuel what was to become the nascent great American popular culture and entertainment machine.
In fact, some of it is still in use today. Tune in to ‘Family Guy’ ‘South Park’ or ‘American Dad’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Family Guy (Yeah, I hate you too, Stewie)
Ironically (there we go…) By the time our two companions in the Lowther Arms met each other at Crowgarth the ‘Irony Boom’ was well and truly over. The Cumbrian Klondike was nought but a mere memory. The irony got harder and harder to extract, became more and more uneconomical such that by the Second World War, Crowgarth was on its last legs and by 1948 it was abandoned.
Amazing to think that such heavy industrialisation, was just a stone’s throw away from some of the most spectacular natural landscapes, hillwalking and climbing in the world. Take Ennerdale for example – less than ten miles away! My Dad had begun waxing lyrical about his beloved Lake District
Ennerdale Water from above Pillar
He has walked, climbed and camped on every inch of it since he was a boy and knows it like the back of his hand, (or should that be sole of his foot?) He is not a ‘Crag-rat’ (the locals’ derogatory term for the weekend hiker) – you know the type: ludicrously over-prepared for the outing: layers of fleeces and waterproofs, each pocket stuffed with Kendal Mintcake, OS map in one hand; copy of Wainwright in the other: ‘Now it says here … Yes, … let me see, … that if you cross the stile here … Looks like that’s the one, then go immediately right along the dry stone wall, you can have a dump without being seen from the footpath. Look! He’s even done a little drawing. Cool!’
Or his recklessly under-prepared cousin, with cap-sleeved T shirt (vest if it’s cold) pair of tight fitting jeans and flourescent rubber beach sandals. Map engraved into the silver paper from a ciggie packet, two Snickers bars in his back pocket and a rucksack full of tins of beer.
No, my Dad is an expert: he doesn’t need to look at a map. He knows where he’s going. Treat the Lakes with respect and they will do likewise – and they do, because they know his passion is genuine. As a kid I would – as I would now – follow him to the ends of the earth and never once feel the need to look up to check we were going in the right direction.
‘Ehhhhhh?…’ pipes up Ted, rousing us from our reveries of cool, sweet-tasting mountain streams, hillsides thick with bracken, the colour of the heather, and the comforting smell of woodsmoke at day’s end …. ‘Ehhhhhh?…’he repeats. His mood has changed; it’s as if what my Dad has just said has revealed us as imposters.
‘Ahhh.. I dunno what all the fuss is about’ he continues, and in a comment which echoes in my ears still, made as it was without the slightest trace of irony in his voice, he says: ‘People are always going on and on about Ennerdale. I dunno what all the fuss is about. I was born in Pica – lived all my life there. I’ve never even been to Ennerdale. Why should I? It’s only a bit of water and some hills. Too many trippers too, and ‘Crag Rats’, roads are a bloody nightmare in the summer ….’
My eyes were begining to glaze over now. I wondered did the poorly paid, exploited people who faced the brutal conditions that they did to extract raw irony all those years ago, really understand importance of what they were doing? Or appreciate the potency of the fruit of their labours, its potential, had they realised it, to improve their lives imeasureably and the importance of its role in the development of British culture, national identity and humour in the twentieth Century?
There again, if they were like Ted, and in 70 – odd years not even bother to drag their arses less than a dozen miles or so to ‘See what all the fuss is about’ they probably weren’t all that bothered about irony. ‘S’pose it went to all those posh folk in Manchester, London and abroad’ volunteered, Bill. After which, signs of natural curiosity began to falter. And who am I to criticise?
Check the map to see the sort of distances we’re talking about
*Gadgies – Old Men
Pic Credits: 3, 4, 11: Simon ledingham 10, Roger Savage
© Andy Daly 2010