Our Lakeland scenery is slow to change. Only the relentless burrowing into the earth for quarry slate and stone, and the resulting new buildings which pimple the landscape make any changes at all. Forests grow and eventually disappear; smaller lakes such as Hawes Water and Wythburn have been flooded to become new reservoirs; but to see any real changes, an observer might have to watch throughout the course of an ice age or two before any aspect of our familiar landscape changed its shape.
In other areas of Britian, many towns and cities this century have changed shape entirely, due to the ravages of bombing and war. As close as Barrow,a mere fifteen or twenty miles away, whole streets simply disappeared over night.People were forced to adapt to loss and drastic change, and perhaps the bigger happenings and tragedies of such times wiped from folk memory the smaller accidents and disasters of a district.
Not so in Westmorland and the Lakes; so many of us will have heard elderly people start a story with the words, 'I'll never forget the day when...' This month, "The Way We Were" listens to some of those stories, many of them first hand accounts of various unforgettable mishaps and how these accidents of long ago were dealt with, both by early ambulance teams and pioneer mountain rescuers.
Accidents on the scale of Lockerbie or Hillsborough they were not; nearly all would have been well documented in editions of the "Westmorland Gazette" at the time. But eye witness accounts tell us more than facts. They colour the black and white, and add the sort of tiny details that often go un-noticed.
Before she died at 101 some twelve years ago, one lady described the day, probably in the 1890s, when Cropper's mill chimney at Cowan Head collapsed on top of the house where she lived. Although not in the house at the time, she arrived soon after.
"Mother and Father always went to Kendal on a Saturday morning on the nine o'clock train and then came back at dinner time and they had left Sally and Fred and my younger sister and the farm man...well, it was awfully stormy and they heard that the mill chimney was blown down and that it had come onto our house and they were awfully worried because they had to wait for the train, it was the quickest way to get home, and they didn't know what they would find.Well, it was against the biggest window and all the top of the tree - it darkened the kitchen but there wasn't a pane cracked or anything. It was a wonderful thing for the ones left at home, but three girls were killed at the mill.
"They were waiting, there was a tram, a horse tram, it used to bring up all the slack and take paper down, I have ridden down on it many a time...but those three girls, one of them had been for potatoes at our house, she had the bag in her hand when they picked her up. They picked them up and there was an office there, they laid them on the table...
"...they were buried in one corner of the church yard, all in one grave... and there was another man, he was an elderly man with a family and he was under a beam, I don't know how, but he was lying under and they were digging and they hardly dare, they didn't know how safe it was to get him out. But he had black hair before it happened, and his hair was white when they got him out! But he was alright, it was wonderful how they got him out."
The toppled chimney and great gales had less impact on that young observer than the man whose hair changed from black to white within hours - and similarly, it was the flying knitting and tangles of wool that immortalised a disaster at Langdale School during the First World War, rather than the flash or the bang of a terrifying explosion:
"This boy had pinched a lot of little pellets that he was poking - when they're going to blast, they have a lot of little blast pellets, and they look as if they've nothing in. Well, this boy had stolen these things out of this quarry hut, and he divided them out amongst the boys at school, and they were just pulling and poking the powder out with pins. Well, one went off, and this lad had his hand blown off. That was at school. The girls were knitting, knitting with wool, and all around the place was knitting, all blown out, and the girls ran out when this bang came and they carried their knitting with them and left the wool behind them and it was all a network of wool!"
A blast in the Corning House at Langdale Gunpowder Works in 1917 left four men dead, and an extraordinary sight to one small boy:
"We went over the bridge there by the Langdales Hotel (now The Wheelwrights) and down behind the beck, and the roof of the corning house was right up in the top of a tree. It had blown it right up, it was a terrible blast."
The appearance of the first motor cars, motor bikes and steam traction engines not only revolutionised transport; they also increased the likelihood of accidents, despite the rarity of vehicles on the road. A circus pulled by traction engines travelling from Keswick to Ambleside one summer lost a runaway wagon which ended up in Thirlmere, and one of the first steam engines seen in Ambleside in the early 1900s did little to impress onlookers:
"Did I tell you about the first steam engine that came to Ambleside? Mr Bennett, a local contractor, bought one and I think they came from Windermere with some stuff, and turned down Church Street to go to St Mary's Lane. Clark and Gibson's had a little bicycle shop there, and there's a little wall, and as it came down it got out of control and went clean through the wall and the shop window!"
Near misses are just as memorable as disasters themselves. Only the speedy action of two Westmorland cricket elevens on one occasion prevented the Windermere to Oxenholme train from ploughing straight in to trouble:
"I was sitting in the signal box having my tea, and across the line a cricket match was in progress. There was a train due and as I ate my meal there was a crash which made the signal box shudder. I looked out of the window to see a tree across the line, but I couldn't open the box because the tree had broken the telephone and signal wires...I could only phone Windermere, so I did, meanwhile the train was due. Happily the cricket team pulled the tree clear just in time!
"It could have been worse. If these cricketers had not been there the train would most certainly have ploughed right into it and might have been de-railed. I hadn't even time to put detonators down to warn the train. The cricketers were given lunch and commended for their good work."