Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (3) – Two Peters…

(Continued from Part two)

Everything was quiet…

Several hours after I began swinging the sledgehammer, there was finally peace from the destruction. I pulled up a wooden box and sat on it, wiping the congealed sweat from my forehead onto my arm.

The Lucky Bag ‘number square’ idea from the last post seems to have caught the imagination, so I’ve updated it, below, to reflect the actual dimensions of the Saltpetre – or ‘Salty Pete’ as we have come to know it.

(Above: The ‘Lucky Bag’ map of the Saltpetre was getting greener. The motorbike and lawnmower normally take up squares 20 and 9, but they were parked on the gravel drive, leaving squares 2 and 15 from which to swing the mighty sledgehammer)

My wooden box/seat was located at 2.

I was sitting, gazing at three mountains of shattered and fragmented red pegboard, broken spars of ancient wood, and the surprisingly intact skeleton of an old wall cupboard. This pile of re-organised carbon took up squares 1, 14 and 11.

Hearing the temporary cessation of the apocalypse, Bernie had taken pity and brought me a large mug of steaming tea. I sipped it gratefully and looked around at the remains of Peter’s Pride…

“Wow,” she said, leaving hastily, before the tall red pile could begin sliding towards her.

(Above: The Wharf just after we bought it, in the spring of 2010. Phone cameras have come a long way, since!)

Peter’s Pride: I had better explain… We bought ‘The Wharf’, as the property is named, in December 2009, during one of the coldest winters on record. On December 23rd, we literally slid along the pavements in Kendal to collect the keys from the seller’s estate agents, keen to, at least, take possession of what would be our new home – once we had thrown our life savings into rebuilding it.

I clearly remember coming back to open our own front door for the first time. The property was a 1960s single storey bungalow with a large plot of land, the plot running along the line of the old Preston-Kendal canal. The canal had been drained in 1958, but the waterway had been unused for decades before that. A man named Peter and his wife had built the house, and brought up their children there. Their son, Richard, still lives in a cottage next door, gifted, by his mother, to him and his wife before, sadly widowed, she moved south to live with her daughter in Cheshire.

The Wharf was left to its own devices, eventually being bought by an ‘investor’ and becoming a rental cottage. It was overgrown, run-down and had a poor bathroom. The place soon got a bad name in the holiday trade market.

On the Sunday when we deliberately got ourselves lost in the car and inched down the tiny lane with the ‘For Sale by Auction’ sign, we found a very dilapidated house on a large and potentially beautiful plot of Lakeland soil, just outside Kendal. The house was behind a huge stockade fence and unoccupied.

As we approached in the car, a man came out of the adjacent cottage, looking a little hostile. We didn’t know him, but it was Peter’s son, Richard. Seeing we were genuinely interested he spent a few minutes telling us the history of the place. He was eager to have someone ‘real’ take over the property that had been so important in his life. Ironically, the house had failed to sell that very weekend. A local builder had been interested but wasn’t prepared to pay the ‘Investor’s’ asking price. For the sake of about ten thousand pounds, the deal had fallen through. Later, we found that the ‘Investor’ had money problems…

(Above: The Wharf in the spring of 2010, just before work began on its partial demolition and re-making)

The run-down ‘Wharf’ had potential, but you had to have a lot of imagination to see what it could become. Bernie and I got back in the car for a chat. After a long discussion lasting six minutes, we decided it was our big chance to have our own ‘Grand Designs’… On the following morning, we made an offer, subject to survey… and waited.

Several weeks later, the deal was done. It was two days before Christmas when we entered our new house. It was freezing – the heating had failed – something it did all the time, according to the holiday lettings company. We made some tea with the supplies we had brought and explored, with that lovely feeling that we finally had a Lakeland home – no matter how much needed doing to it!

We didn’t need to stay, as we still had Bernie’s house in Chorley to go back to. But we wanted to have good look round what would one day be our dream home. As darkness was falling, we managed to reset the boiler before we left, wishing our new home-to-be a happy Christmas.

Just before driving off, I said to Bernie that I wanted to stick my head into the old outbuilding. We had no idea, at that time, of its importance in the village’s industrial history. It wasn’t a listed building; we could have just knocked it down… but something said, “No…. wait and see.”

(Above: The Saltpetre, as it looked in the spring after we bought the plot. A sad and neglected outbuilding with a leaking roof, no driveway and a jammed door!)

The old door was rusted and hanging off. I managed to prise it open and stuck my head in. It looked to be full of rubbish, but when I peered into the gloom, I could see that all the rubbish on the left side of the building was a faded red colour.

There was no power, so I had to switch on my phone light to take another look. As my eyes got used to the gloom, I could see what looked like a string of cubicles made of red pegboard and hung together with an assortment of cast-off timbers. Months later, I was to find out that Peter – the father of the man next door, who had sadly died five years prior, was a keen radio-ham. The ‘cubicles’ were his radio-shacks, and had been connected to a complex arial system. Each of the huts had a specialised function, but they had fallen into disuse a long time ago. Even his son, Richard, had no idea what they did.

(Above: the entire length of the left wall, and the first square around the corner, had been freed up by the destruction of the ‘radio-shacks’. Now we could begin the work of reconstruction and organisation)

At that point none of this was known. I knew that, whatever the red cubicles were, I would one day have to knock them down. Now, ten years later and sitting on my wooden box, sipping tea, I looked with satisfaction at what the necessary destruction had wrought. The entire length of the radio-huts had been reduced to rubble, and there was an emotional feeling that the ghost of the second Peter had been finally ‘freed’ from the place.

There would be a bonfire that evening. The shattered bits of the old radio shacks would burn brightly in the canal basin. Later, in the smoke-kissed morning, I would have the luxury of the entire left wall to begin my ‘organic reorganisation’ of Salty Pete. Even at this stage, I could feel the place beginning to breathe… though it was still laughing at me. “There’s only so much you can do with a hammer, little man,” it seemed to say.

Giant hammers, I mused–thinking of my boyhood love of the Norse tales–are mighty things. But they are not the only tools in the box…

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (2) – ‘If I had a hammer..’

“If I had a hammer…” The words rang out in my head. Peter, Paul and Mary giving it their all with one of the most memorable protest songs of the 1960’s. Now, I did have a hammer – a rather big one – and I was striding up the garden path towards an unsuspecting ‘Saltpetre’ with a hefty degree of intent…

(Above: Oh, yes, do I have a hammer!)

Bernie’s words rang in my ears… “Well, how about not spending any money at all?” The challenge, designed to inject some humour and purpose into the Covid-19 lockdown period, had been accepted over one too many white wines the previous evening in the amber light of the sunset.

I was about to begin the work… but where to begin?

The problem was one of space… To deal with the jam-packed interior of an old and dank stone building (built in 1820 as a gunpowder store for the canal that used to be half our garden) required working space… and that was precisely the problem: there was no space left, inside. Aside, that is, from the tailored holes that remained when you wheeled out either the lawnmower or my motorcycle.

(Above: The ‘Saltpetre” – a former gunpowder store from 1820, known in those times as an ‘Expense Magazine’. It had seen me fail, before. But this time I had intent…. and a big hammer… A kind of High Noon, but it was ten in the morning)

When it comes to tidying, I have what Bernie calls an ‘organic method’. You would have to study her facial expression when she says this to understand the subtlety of the remark. She will approach a similar task with a mental fork-lift truck, wearing battle fatigues and brandishing a couple of litres of bleach wired to the end of a long mop… But me, I prefer to get close and personal and work around the space I’m in.

I don’t mind getting down and dirty… the dark and dubiously-speckled detritus washing off my body in the shower at the end of such a day is all the testimonial I need that it has, indeed, been well spent.

When it comes to working within a confined space, I’ve developed a nimble and strength-inducing set of arm movements that simulate an octopus. In fact, when armed with one of my favourite drills, I can guarantee that…

But we’ll get to drills later. Drills rule, drills are killer-diller old school tech modernised with freedom-bestowing, long-life batteries.

(Above: the drill, the mighty, finger-lickin’ drill… stay tuned)

Ok, later then… I say (in the now) to the sequence-loving muse on my shoulder as I type. I’m all right now… Back in the story, I unlock Salty Pete, as we have come to know it. Later in the story it will come to have another name, earned in the battle of the drills… Ok, I know, I know…

(Above: Salty Pete leers down at us. “Oh yeah?” it seems to say…)

The newly funded door swings up and in. Don’t let it fool you: what’s inside isn’t related to such efficiency. The dark interior sneers at us. “Oh, yeah,” it seems to say. Clearly, we’ve been here, before. But never with a hammer this big. You’ll note I’ve switched to the present tense. I’m taking you with me… kindly buckle up! Those of delicate sensibilities better leave now, I drawl, nodding at the side door and sounding Welsh rather than Texan. It’s the fault of Tommy Lee Jones, always wanted to be able to do his voice at moments like this… Never works, but you’ve got to keep trying…

(Above: the Saltpetre’s side door. “Last chance to leave,” says Tommy Lee Jones)

The only accessible space is occupied by the lawnmower and the motorbike. So, as two of the most precious objects in here, we wheel them carefully, backwards, to stand on the garden path, where they will be safe from everything but Cumbria’s dubious climate. Later in the project, the supportive neighbour who’s so adept at DIY he’s just fitted a galvanised roof on his shed, confesses that he knew ‘something was up’ when I did this. One object ‘on the lawn’ he could understand; two meant business…

The effect is electric. Even sneering Salty Pete is considering his options. It’s the hammer in the right hand… Great track here (Jackson Browne) about how the ‘hammer shapes the hand’. It’s dark work, but somebody’s got to do it…

(Above: The ‘Lucky Bag’ number square – undoubtedly toxic and one of a nastiest devices ever inflicted on children. Source Pinterest)

Your childhood may well have been later than mine, but one of the little toys we used to be able to get for sixpence was a ‘Lucky Bag’. Apart from dodgy sweets, they sometimes contained a plastic square of numbers or letters that you needed to slide into new positions to make, say, a chosen word or to allow a line to add to a specific total. It was an intensely frustrating experience, because the initial state of the square had only one blank. Play with it in your head and you’ll see the problem.

We’ve just created two squares… Two squares of space makes all the difference in the world. No wonder Salty Pete has fallen silent.

I pick up the huge sledgehammer and brace my legs across both squares. “I’m comin’ for ya!” Tommy Lee Jones says. It’s getting better… at least it’s not Welsh this time.

We swing the mighty hammer. No going back now… The colossal head arcs, neatly, through the old and dusty air… towards a tall target selected in the dying light of the previous day.

They’re not laughing now, as the comedian Bob Monkhouse used to say…

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, this is Part Two

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The masked man in the forest

(Above: Gareth, masked man of the forest…)

I’m writing this on Sunday. The unexpected gale-force wind is battering the house. Temperatures have dropped thirteen degrees in the middle of the night – I know, because I woke up at four, fought wakefulness for half an hour (it may have been the bright moon), then gave in and let the collie out for a wee, to find I was too cold to photograph the startling moon without dashing back in to don a coat…

This in a spring so warm you could have gone out in beach shorts for most of the days and nights of the previous two weeks. Not the norm for Cumbria!

(Above: The May 04:30moon. It would have been churlish to talk about it and not show the photo…)

The beautiful spring moon is unrelated to the rest of this post, but why waste it!. There weren’t too many people out in their gardens at 04:30 pointing a camera at the night sky.

(Above: ‘Trevor’ the tractor – Low Sizergh Barn forest walk)

Our C-19 ‘lockdown’ has been made more tolerable by the weather and the proximity of some lovely walks. Living on the edge of the English Lake District, we are fortunate, indeed, to have so many of them. We try to use the car as little as possible, though it’s the only way to do weekly food shopping, as we live in a tiny village four miles from the nearest supermarket.

(Above: the village of Sedgwick photographed from the nearest main road)

To keep car usage to a minimum, we regularly use four local walks. One of these winds up from the river Kent’s valley into Sizergh forest. It is part of a well-managed estate, which includes the ruins of the old gunpowder works. I am currently researching the history in order to complete a series of posts on the subject.

Industrial history can be far more complex than you envisaged…

(Above: part of one of the old gunpowder works next to the river Kent)

The walk through the forest climbs up from the river before levelling off at a crossroads of paths. One of the way-markers (without which many walkers would be lost) is a large charcoal-kiln. I photographed it in April, just as the forest was ‘greening’.

(Above: the charcoal kiln. Well stacked, but we had never seen it in action. Photo taken in April)

On Saturday, we got to the crossroads to find a masked man in a green T-shirt working the kiln. I asked if I could take some photos, and he kindly stopped to chat to us, raising his mask. His name is Gareth (see the photo of his board), and he has the licence to carry out forest maintenance on behalf of the owners – The National Trust – as well as running his own charcoal production business and other forest-related activities.

(Above: Gareth’s charcoal site in the centre of Sizergh forest)

Gareth reassured us that the process of charcoal production was a simple matter, but, in the manner of skills handed down through the generations, what he described seemed anything but simple.

He was standing in the middle of his kiln, blackened with the messy work; the mask now pulled up over his forehead in what looked like a rhino’s horn. For all the visual drama, he turned out to be a wonderfully friendly man.

Later, I realised that his demeanour and openness had a lot to do with his life in the open forest, and his closeness to its nature. Clearly, he loved his work, and its many faces.

Charcoal is prized because it burns at high temperatures without making smoke; hence its popularity with domestic summer barbecues. It is the ‘residue’ of a method of burning (typically) small logs of wood – ideally hardwood, such as oak or cherry. The production method is a slow pyrolysis: the heating of wood and, possibly, other organic materials, without allowing oxygen to enter the chemical reaction. The whole process is known as charcoal burning. The finished charcoal consists largely of carbon. It is a very pure substance, produced by an ancient recipe.

Seeing charcoal made so close to the old gunpowder works was ironic, because charcoal is an important ingredient of gunpowder – produced in large quantities a century ago in the nearby works. The Sizergh forest is no stranger to the production of charcoal…

(Above: A century ago, charcoal was made here on a large scale, as a vital component of the manufacture of gunpowder)

Gareth paused his work and described the process of making charcoal for us. It takes four days to complete and begins where he stood, in the centre of the kiln. The relatively thin logs – recycled from his coppicing work – are laid out radially from the centre. They are set and ventilated so the fire in the lowest part of the kiln begins with a great intensity, sacrificing the lower level of wood but infusing the steel vessel with intense heat, but only burning the lower levels of the wood.

The kiln is ‘over-stuffed’ to begin the process, but, in the secondary stage of the burning, the heat and the weight of the lid seals the cylinder, itself, allowing only enough oxygen to enter to ensure the charcoal effect, rather than burning the wood to ash. All the timing is controlled by the initial stacking of the wood within the kiln, which, to me, sounded like a very skilled process, indeed.

Four days later, the charcoal has cooled and Gareth once again steps into his kiln to extract the charcoal by hand, dropping it into a metal and plastic ramp from which it is loaded into large carriers for subsequent domestic bagging in his workshop, near the river.

(Above: the charcoal is extracted by hand from the kiln, then passed onto a metal mesh for first stage grading)

His busy time is usually the summer months, when people have barbecues. But the warm spring weather is enabling him to bring forward more charcoal production. During the winter, demand is minimal, so he supplements his income with forestry work, and also runs outdoor courses in making furniture from ‘green’ wood.

(Above: Gareth’s information board. His website is here – a tenner buys you a big bag. He also runs forestry-related courses, including furniture making from ‘green wood’)

He took about twenty minutes from his busy schedule to explain things to us. We thanked him and moved on through the forest, only to meet him, later, loading his truck, when we returned from our walk to Low Sizergh Barn.

I have no commercial connection with Gareth. The above was our first meeting. I am keen to support these native crafts and small industries of our local woodlands. Gareth and Ro’s website is a mine of information.

If the above links don’t work, paste this into your browser and help support our native forest crafts: http://www.garethandro@woodmatters.org.uk

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Circles around Sedgwick (2 – recovered) – a canal of our own

(Above: our garden, larger than most in the village because its right half was the bed of the Preston-Kendal canal. The large stones forming the boundary between the two were part of the old wharf)

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.

(Above: from the top lawn the extent of the old canal is apparent. As the stones indicate, it was wider here to provide a docking wharf and a turning point for the larger boats returning to Lancaster or Preston (and on to the sea))

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.

(Above: How the old canal bed looked when we bought it!)

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!

(Above: ‘The Saltpetre’ is a large stone outbuilding at the south end of our garden. As its name implies, it played an important role in Sedgwick’s link with the manufacture of gunpowder – its only industry!)

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.

(Above: The side view of the Saltpetre, with the steep slope down to what would have been the canal bed)

The interior of our Saltpetre building is still floored in the original limestone ‘cobbles’ once used throughout Cumbria.

(Above: Limestone ‘cobbles’ form the floor of the ‘Saltpetre’)

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.

(Above: the steep and irregular stone steps lead down to crossroads which marks the centre of Sedgwick)

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.

(Above: Sedgwick’s Skewed bridge allowed the road to pass directly beneath the aquaduct)

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.

(Above: The old canal path is intact, and provides the basis for many local walks)

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.

(Above: one of the many ‘bridges to nowhere’ as we call them!)

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.

(Above: Sedgwick House… but it didn’t start off that way)

(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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.