Cumbria History

Lakeland Colours

IMAG1370Not textiles, but colour related so I thought this would interest some of yous.


The old Cumberland pencil factory, Keswick.

Yesterday we went to the Pencil Museum in Keswick. (I know how to have a good time).

The museum is a former canteen, standing in the grounds of the now empty, old Cumberland Pencils factory. It would make a brilliant set for a re-make of ‘I’m Alright Jack’ or ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’.

Derwentwater, Lakeside, Keswick
Derwentwater, Lakeside, Keswick

Production has moved to Workington now, so the pencils are still from Cumbria. The story is that it all started in 16thC Borrowdale during a violent storm where an old tree was uprooted; amongst its roots were shards of graphite.

Older pigments used in pencil production
Older pigments used in pencil production

I’ve always wanted to see Derwentwater – remembering the pictures on the pencil tins we had at school in the 1960s and 70s.  Some weird nostalgia gets hold of me when I think of those pencil tins with the ‘Lakeland’ logo and  picture of Derwentwater on the front. Am sure I never had those pencils at home, where I probably had the ‘Happy Shopper’ equivalent. But at school, getting those tins out of the cupboard was always a happy sort of thing. Maybe less to do, at the time, with the colours and more to do with the fact ‘colouring in’ was easier than actual work.

I also have fond memories of the endless paint boxes I had at home; thinking about it, my interest in colour (and old, pretty tins which I have accumulated for a lifetime) probably started there. Many textile artists like to play with colour, and it is easier to experiment with watercolours or coloured pencils, than it is to mess with fabric or yarn.

People had been telling me forever “You have to go to the Pencil Museum. You’d love it!” Not sure how to take that really but anyway, we were up in Cumbria for something in the morning and thought we’d spend the rest of the day at Keswick, as we’d spent out on petrol to get up there, anyway. When we got in there, there were so many lovely things – I thought those of you who love pigments, dyes and colour in all its forms, might enjoy this.


IMAG1342The museum is small but very interesting. And that pencilly smell hit us as we went through the door – the same smell you got as a kid at primary school when you were the honoured one who was allowed to open The New Pencil Tin.

Graphie mining
Graphite mining

The first Keswick pencil factory was opened in 1832.  The Museum has a couple of pencils dating to the early 1830s which must have used natural (mainly mineral?) pigments. The familiar ‘Lakeland’ pencils weren’t developed until nearly 100 years later.  Pencils were originally graphite (which occurs naturally in Borrowdale). Coloured pencils were a later development, when pigments (first natural, later synthetic) were combined with binding agents and wax or oil. Derwent pencils are wax based.

Artists’ coloured pencils have higher concentrations of pigment, and are now extensively tested for light-fastness – how fast pigments lose their “colour integrity” –  and are graded accordingly. The concept of fugitive colour is nothing new to dyers. Trial, error and experience have told many of us that x natural dye is more fugitive than y.


There was an interesting video about a James Bond style top secret wartime mission to create a pencil containing a hidden compass and map for RAF servicemen and how the company have made a modern repro – not an easy task as it turned out, as the ‘secret pencils’ were made at night, and no records kept of precisely how it was done.


I might have accidentally bought a couple of things in the Museum shop where the majority of items seemed to be very well discounted and as a result, I will be back!

Colours in nature are sometimes the best inspiration for textile and other art work and your tourist-y photos can also become great references and sources of inspiration.

We finished the day at nearby Castlerigg stone circle. We visit this after every Woolfest. I have never seen the Lakes this time of year with the heather on the hillsides. It is so beautiful, I’ll return soon.



All Images: CREDIT: Nat Hunt


6 replies on “Lakeland Colours”

I’ve been to Keswick (20 years ago) and loved it. Sadly, we didn’t know about the pencil museum. I loved colored pencils and crayons and pastels and still do. Ours didn’t come in beautiful tins though. Oddly, coloring with pencils has become a big thing in the U.S. With 20 something young women. My niece and her sister-in-law are big fans.
I also love Castlerigg. The scenery is spectacular and when we were there we were all alone. It gave me goose bumps.

Liked by 1 person

I envy you the being alone up at Castlerigg! This is one stone circle we have never managed to get to ourselves, for some reason – going different times of day and different times of year! We hung on quite a while this time, hoping to get it to ourselves. But every time one lot of people went, another lot was on their way! We have visited many stone circles in the Midlands and Cornwall as well and usually have managed to get them to ourselves at some point (because then they feel very different).


I have also been to a pencil museum and had a great time – in Ticonderoga, upstate NY. The bright yellow Ticonderoga #2 pencil was a mainstay of my childhood – I can smell the graphite just thinking about it.


It sounds like a fun day! And thank you for ID’ing a background photo my husband downloaded from the internet. We both really liked the photo of the stone circle but had no idea where it actually was. Now we know!


For the Brits, Castlerigg is handily close to Woolfest. ;o) We saw the sign the first year we went to Woolfest and went out of curiosity but have re-visited every year since. Stunning view of Helvellyn and the mountains/hills all round and especially this time of year with the heather in bloom. I am so making visiting it a September tradition from now on!


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