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Cumbria: Lead astray in the Lake District

Andrew Alderson finds himself drawn to an unusual museum.

A visit to Keswick's pencil museum makes for a surprisingly engaging day out. Photo / Thinkstock
A visit to Keswick's pencil museum makes for a surprisingly engaging day out. Photo / Thinkstock

Ah, the Lake District in England's northwest. Hiking in the hills, scoffing cream teas, settling into quaint B&Bs, marvelling at the world's largest pencil.

Pardon? Well, for anyone headed to Keswick, a prime chocolate-box village, you'd be remiss not to fork out £4.25 to sample the pencil museum (£3.25 for a concession and £11.75 for a family of up to five).

Mrs Alderson and I guffawed when our B&B owner suggested a photo with the world's largest pencil as a tourist treat. Guffaw turned to awe upon arrival (perhaps it was a slow day on the OE).

The pencil museum must rank among the world's best tourist attractions on the anticipation versus reality index. The least we could do was reach for the camera in the presence of the town's star attraction (until Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit emerges from the Cumbrian Mountains).

The visit highlight was the green "pencils" secretly made for RAF pilots in World War II.

If pilots ejected behind enemy lines they simply cracked open their James Bond-style 2HB, dug into the hollowed-out tube, and pulled out scrolled silk with the relevant region of occupied Europe printed on it. The team from the so-called "Ministry of Supply Clothing and Textile Department", led by Q-prototype Charles Fraser-Smith, also thoughtfully slipped a brass compass under the eraser. Ingenious.

The humble pencil's history extends to the 16th century. A storm in Cumbria led to the discovery of graphite underneath uprooted trees. Shepherds, being practical but suspicious chaps, immediately used the graphite to mark their sheep.

A child stands next to a<BR>very tall pencil at the<BR>museum in Keswick.
A child stands next to a
very tall pencil at the
museum in Keswick.

Pencil graphite originated as the offcuts from what was known as "wadd", a substance transported to London by armed stagecoach to make cannonballs. The museum's website describes how a cottage industry developed, culminating in the UK's first pencil factory in 1832.

It became the modern-day Cumberland Pencil Company in 1916. The museum was built in 1981 and it apparently receives 80,000 visitors a year.

Perhaps the pencil's most famous strut on mankind's stage was when it was revealed Soviet cosmonauts were using them in space; this after Nasa had spent millions developing a gravity-defying pen.

The company has added another chapter in space-age technology: In 2002 it received a Queen's Award for industry after reducing the drying time of paint on the outside of a pencil from an hour to one-third of a second through the use of ultraviolet light; a useful innovation when you consider the factory makes around 60 million pencils a year.

At visit's end, you can relax in Sketchers coffee shop while children shade themselves silly in the art studio.

The souvenir store also does a roaring trade. In fact, we're reminded of our visit almost daily in the kitchen. It hangs, always game for a scribble, next to the weekly shopping list.


Getting there: There are daily flights to England from New Zealand on several airlines. From London you could fly into Manchester or Carlisle.

Further information: See

- NZ Herald

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