Industrial Archaeology


From Orthwaite Lane up, over Barkbeth Hill

Broad, green-mounded rigg and furrow,

Fell gate, Southerndale, bright sun, cold dry stillness,

Rock cut track, sled-iron-smooth ground grooves.


Below the broken grey blocks, Watches,

Hard picrite intruder into Ordovician siltstone

Quarried lintel and quoin for house and farm,

Eyes up, sharp lit Kiln Pots and The Edge.


Across sparkling cold Southerndale Beck,

The sled-gate road rises over the tawny sedge,

Hollow ways fall from the fellside

Eroded tracery of sled-runs.


Remnant of the rock running slaters,

Loping down the rushing scree

Slate laden sleds behind them,

Run out, braking trail-barrows rest.


Walking-in, cold wind, low light

Morning mist draped over the tops

Little Knott, Great Knott, Buzzard Crag,

Randal Crag terrace – to work.


The “old men” in kytel coat

Dresser and river

Bait bag, chisel and mell,

The clogged trod upwards.


Dig, delve, dock and split,

Open tops of slaty layered tumble,

Blaeberry, purple-grey fossil mud revetment,

Riving shed, collapsing cards sliding sideways.


Wafer fine split slate from the clog

Dressed with whittle and anvil, sheltering

Basenthwaite, Bewaldeth Snittlegarth

Orthwaite, Ulldale and Ireby.


Solitary watcher on observatory ridge,

Skiddaw Man, time out of mind,

Feint footings by the cairn,

John Adams telescope hut.


Ullock Pike, Longside Edge, Carlside;

Blencathra, Knott, Great Calva;

Broad End, Bakestall, Binsey;

Little Man, Lonscale and Latrigg.


High and airy, shallow trials,

Left abandoned, by Gibraltar Crag,

Echoes of Peninsular Wars, of Succession,

Greater rock possessed by force of arms.


Down Barkbeth Gill, ghostly figures

Below Broad Stand, White Horse,

Across the mired track, into the mist,

Jet black fell pony and sled fade.


Some Notes:

Like several ancient slate quarries, the workings on the edge of Randal Crag Terrace became evident when the sled runs were exposed in low oblique light. I have as yet found no reference to these quarries in the literature, for those interested the books of Ian Tyler, Alasdair Cameron and John Adams amongst others provide a more in-depth research into the subject of Lake District quarrying and mining. There are other slate quarries on the Skiddaw slate series but none at such altitude, the main workings are at between 650-700 m although the trials adjacent to Gibraltar Crag are at about 850 m AOD making them the highest slate workings in the Lake District, perhaps why they were not developed further. Despite this there are extensive areas that have been worked as hollows or “open top” delphs on the terrace and more developed quarries on the steep scarp slope of Randal Crag.

Some notes on terminology: Old Men was a miners term used for the early miners. A river was a chisel used to split the slate along with a mell which was a hardwood mallet, sometimes iron bound. Thus, the river or splitter splits the slate and the dresser shapes it with a dresser was someone who finished the slates with a whittle and slate anvil. On workings of this scale the job of the river and dresser were probably merged. A clog was a very large lump of slate. A tully was similar to a wood splitting axe with a blade on one side and sledgehammer head on the other, for breaking the clog into manageable lumps. The trail barrow was a sled used to transport the finished slate down the sled run to the loading dock where they would have been transferred to a horse drawn sled or cart. Horse drawn iron runnered sleds were often used in the fell country as they were more stable than carts on the rough and steep terrain. A kytel coat was a heavy cotton working jacket.


Finished slates being sledded down Bull Gill, Honister in a trail-barrow

Whilst these workings were likely to be worked on an intermittent basis and given the exposure not worked all year, this would have been a hard life, with little shelter whilst quarrying and only an open fronted riving shed for shelter when sat on the ground splitting or dressing the slate. In this instance all the production would have taken place on the fellside so no unnecessary weight needed to be taken down the sled run, of course the sled then had to be dragged back up the scree. There is no bothy apparent at the site so it must be concluded that they walked up to work here every time they quarried some slate.

The period of activity of these quarries is uncertain however there are certain indicators that suggest these are quite early workings. The workings are relatively small scale, so likely to be pre-industrialisation, also the track that used to go down Barkbethdale had an enclosure wall built across it by the 1862 (1st Ed OS) so would not function as a track. It is quite probable Gibraltar Crag was named by the slaters working the trials there and may relate to major current events, either the ceding of Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 (Treaty of Utrecht) or the Peninsular wars of the early 19th century. The earlier date would fit with the increased demand for slate as a consequence of the “great rebuilding” of the late 17th early 18th century thus prior to the increased production of the like of the Honister Mines or Elterwater quarries and the use of blasting.

In 1689, a geographer Mr John Adams built a hut on Skiddaw “of a sufficient size to contain his telescopes and optic glasses, whereby he was enabled to give a better description of the two counties; but being arrested by his engraver, and death soon following, his labours were lost.” The description of the site of the hut, “towards the northern extremity of this stupendous mountain where chasms of enormous depths in the bowels of the mountains, forming steeps of slaty silver, yawn upwards with frightful grin, and threaten to swallow inferior hills” tallies with the most northerly summit on the Skiddaw ridge, where, with a keen eye the vestiges of the footings of a wall about 4m long might be discerned adjacent to the modern cairn.


Ripples Under the Rails

Beneath the crusty cast pillars

Frozen ridges in russetty rock, relic of

Forgotten tides ebbing from the foreshore,

Compressed moment in time, stasis.

From under the earth, drilled blown and split,

Cut and dressed, mallet and cold chisel, lifted

Block and tackle to wagon and rail,

Lifted and lowered, jointed, bedded and faced.

Beached above high water, breached by winter gales

Facing the shifting strands of the surging sea,

Mudstone moulded from silty sand

Reformed in angular conformity.

Stanchions standing still

Memories of a weighty feat

Steam drove piles deep down

Spanning the divide.

Girder beams and rails run over the estuary

Building problems, sinking on the heathery bog

A mile of iron-y to carry its ore

Shiny ruddy haematite across northwards.

Elemental forces test its metal,

Water freezes, split columns,

Ice floes collide and crash,

Broken bridge.

Mended, revived by World War

Carrying the seeds of death south,

Years of labour’s lost,

Helplessly hoping for peace.

Wee Free bridge, Bowness beer on Sundays,

John Barleycorn calls across the waters,

Wobbling back over sleepers to Alba

Sabbath man is full of ale.

Linking former foes, the Solway Viaduct,

Before Bouche’s ill-fated Tay Bridge

Lesser losses tumbled to the brackish water,

When Brunlee’s bridge was broken up

No McGonagall opus to immortalise the decaying

Remains across the brackish Solway

Embanked piers still reach out

From both sides of the Eden.


The Solway Viaduct was opened in 1869 as part of the Solway Junction Railway crossing the Solway Estuary between Bowness-on-Solway and Annan and linked to the Maryport to Carlisle and the Caledonian Lines. Its original purpose was to transport iron ore from Cumberland to the Ayrshire and Lanarkshire Ironworks. The viaduct was the longest in Europe at the time a total length of just over 1 mile, the piles and columns were constructed of 2,892 tons of cast iron using a steam pile driver, the superstructure was of girder construction using a further 1,807 tons. There were 193 spans of 30 feet each. Surprisingly perhaps it was the crossing of the raised bog at Bowness that provided the bigger challenge in construction of the line. In the building of the bridge Port Carlisle, already struggling, was effectively shut off from any larger shipping and Silloth became the port for Carlisle.

Thursby born Thomas Bouche, engineer of the first Tay Bridge, was not given the contract for the railway or viaduct, despite having constructed several Cumbrian and Westmorland railway lines and viaducts. However, this was perhaps fortunate given the disastrous bridge failure that led to the Tay Bridge Disaster, constructed ten years after the Solway Viaduct. Despite this the Solway Viaduct was not without its troubles. In the severe winter of 1875 water froze in the columns splitting several of them, these were repaired but in the next severe winter of 1881 ice floes came down the Eden and Esk piling up and refreezing into icebergs up to 6 feet thick some 27 yards square odd feet across, these battered the stanchions and around 300 were broken leaving a damaged length of 3-400 yards, these were again repaired despite this obvious shortcoming.

Economically the line made a good start but business tailed off as this was a second line to the Caledonian line. In 1914 it closed to passenger traffic and had a brief spell of profitability during the First World War due to its proximity to the armament’s factories at Eastriggs. It was finally closed in 1931, although still used by people to cross over to drink beer at Bowness on Sunday. It was finally demolished in 1934, three men died during demolition when a boat capsized; surprisingly Though no deaths were recorded in its construction. The Iron was sold to Japan who, it is said, used it to strengthen their arsenal of military hardware prior to the Second World War.

Photographs of the extant viaduct can be seen here: http://

Credit: Old photograph of Solway Viaduct, D.S. Barrie (Aston & Barrie, 1932; p. 27).

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