Continued from Part One…
(Note: republished from my Mac laptop as the latest version of WP on the iPhone 11 Pro has crashed itself, repeatedly, and appears to have taken the original post with it… I’ve had to recreate this from a (mercifully) still open window that allowed a cut and past of the whole thing… Apologies to those whose links arrived at nothing!)
We have a somewhat unique connection to the history of our tiny village of Sedgwick, near Kendal and on the edge of the English Lake District. The village of only 350 residents has neither shop, nor pub nor church. But its location, four miles south of Kendal is an ideal basis for Lakeland life and also gives easy access to the M6 motorway – a mere fifteen minutes away.
The village has no shop, no pub, no church and about 350 residents. But it’s a gently attractive place to live…
Our home is one of the few properties which still bear the imprint of the old canal which ran from Preston to Kendal in the early years of the 19th century. Our neighbour, Richard – who has lived here all his life – remembers being allowed to stand on the deck of the maintenance barge as the water was finally drained from this stretch of the canal in 1958. The maintenance boat is buried on our side of the property, some ten feet below the lawn (see photo above) that now abuts the large stones that were the original wharf – the ‘dock’ – for Sedgwick’s interaction with the canal… and the canal, or rather, the reason the canal came here, is what created Sedgwick.
In the sixty years from 1770 to 1830 canals were the height of innovation. They helped fuel the industrial revolution. Each one required an act of parliament for its creation. They, plus the long barges that floated on them, were very important forms of transport, known as ‘navigations’, which gave the name ‘navvies’ to the labourers who dug them out by hand from Britain’s rugged landscapes.
Their reign was brief. Britain’s growing network of railways meant that the slow transport by inland boat was made obsolete within thirty years of the canal’s height of success.
Sedgwick has few claims to fame. One is the former canal; but a far more important reason is how and why the canal ever ran through this tiny place at all…
Let’s tell it as a bit of a mystery – by way of a walking tour and easy reading.
We have a large garden. It’s taken us ten years to transform it from the run-down wilderness we inherited when we decided to blow most of our savings designing and having built a home on the edge of the Lake District.
At the end of garden, on the south side, is a stone outbuilding known locally as the ‘Saltpetre’. It’s quite well known in the village and forms a key part of the industrial history of the place. A sign on the canal path about a hundred metres away describes it. It was built in 1830!
Historic gunpowder (also known as ‘black powder’ to distinguish it from modern smokeless powder) is the earliest known means of creating a chemical explosion. We associate gunpowder with war and aggression, but far more of it is used in mining, quarrying and other peaceful endeavours. The canals, themselves, were created by the use of gunpowder to blast away rocks that would have prevented the straight lines necessary to create the economic route.
Gunpowder was made from a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. The latter was known as saltpetre – pronounced ‘salt-peter’. The sulphur and charcoal are fuels for the core ‘burning’ reaction, while the saltpetre injects a literally explosive reaction of rapidly expanding oxygen, catalysing the ordinary burning into something entirely different…
No saltpetre, no bang…
Saltpetre is known, historically, as the ‘white mother of gunpowder’. We will explore its relationship to Sedgwick and the strange naming of our outbuilding in the next post.
The interior of our Saltpetre building is still floored in the original limestone ‘cobbles’ once used throughout Cumbria.
For now, let’s climb out of the old canal bed, through the gate and up onto the original canal path – still in use as a footpath and right of way. The immediate area is heavy with trees which follow the steep bank down to the adjoining farmland.
About a hundred metres along the canal path we get to the old bridge that is the centre of Sedgwick. The bridge is an aqueduct – designed to carry water over a roadway. Its strength is demonstrated by the fact that it’s still here, and still carries the bed of the long-drained canal through the centre of the village. A special national authority still exists to protect and maintain such structures.
The bridge is of the ‘skewed’ type. This allowed the existing track or roadway to operate directly beneath the ‘bending’ stone bridge. Without this design, the road would have needed alteration to become a ‘z’ shape.
The other side of the skewed bridge allows descent via a pedestrian slope. The village hall is directly ahead at the base of this pedestrian slope.
From here, continuing on the canal path, we walk southwards for a few hundred metres until we come to the edge of the village.
Eventually, after another five minutes’ walking, we come to one of our most iconic and mysterious structures: a ‘bridge to nowhere’ that crosses a canal that is no longer there. In this view you can see what happened to the canal along most of its length; it was sold off and filled in to create agricultural fields – as it was with the piece that is now our garden.
At this point, we can look down the slope to see a very different face of Sedgwick. There, set in its own grounds, is the largest building for miles around. Its present name is Sedgwick House, but originally it was named Wakefield House. ‘Wakefield’ was the family name of a man whose industry was to transform the landscape of Sedgwick; and connect it with the beating heart of the rest of industrial Britain.
(To be continued… )
©Stephen Tanham 2020
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.