For the past three weeks, The Way We Were has been remembering some of the most memorable misadventures and mishaps to have befallen our area. Fortunately, wartime bombings never scarred our towns and villages, which perhaps made it even more noteworthy whenever a disaster, even on a small scale, took place.
Personal memories have recalled the time when Cropper's Chimney at Cowan Head crashed to the ground in a storm one Saturday morning in the 1890s, leaving three girls dead; then there was the Langdale Gunpowder Works explosion during the First World War in the Corning House, which killed four workers, and a classroom accident at Langdale soon after which seriously injured a child and terrified many others.
Even before the first motor traffic, Lakeland's roads had their fair share of mishaps; their steepness often gave rise to accidents with coaches and carts, and many a time, the elderly recalled occasions when horses would slip out of control, their hooves skidding on stoney hills, and carriages over-turn with passengers spilled out on the road. One such accident happened near Cringlemire on the Troutbeck road near Holbeck Ghyll, and perhaps passengers were often asked to disembark and walk up or down steep hills as much to save their own lives and limbs as to spare the horses.
Individual accidents have been recalled in horrific detail by many; often they took place in a quarry or mine now long since closed. There were freak accidents people never forgot, like the quarry worker who survived a rock fall, only to die impaled on a spiked fence, blown off the back of an open lorry by a sudden wind while one his way to work; or the pianist at Ambleside's first silent cinema, who added the musical sound effects for a whole generation of film-goers before the talkies arrived. Nobody could play the piano quite like he did, they said; yet he was eventually immortalised more by his violent and unlucky death than by his musical skills, when he was killed in a local garage by an exploding compressed air pump which severed his leg.
Motor cars and motor bikes, rare at first though they were on empty Lakeland roads, soon brought a new brand of mishap and accident to local lives. Even steam traction engines could be wayward, as we recalled, and the Thirlmere Circus wagon accident was remembered by several people. However, car and bike smashes on narrow bendy roads soon replaced bolting horses on hills, and even in the 1920s, with relatively little traffic, motorists and passengers were killed hitting stone walls, bridges and other cars with amazing frequency.
There were coach crashes, like the Shap incident already recounted; and the unforgettable horror of the Greenside Mine explosion at Patterdale,but gradually, our most dangerous industries have either disappeared or become more safety conscious. Gone are the Elterwater Gunpowder Works; almost all the mines are closed now, though the deep shafts still claim the odd unwary walker; and though people still die on Lakeland roads, the accident and safety record has certainly improved, considering the millions of people who now visit us.
Has life, therefore, become safer? What mishaps in more recent history, perhaps in the last thirty or forty years, will go down in folk memory? There's always the weather:
"Coronation Year wasn't entirely a good year. I know they climbed Everest and Stanley Matthews won a cup medal, but there was a plane came down in Grasmere, it was an ordinary biplane that ran out of fuel and came down in a field - and there was the thunder storm, the real torrential rain that flooded the Troutbeck Valley. A person was drowned in Troutbeck. But I will say this, when I think about it, that if it had come down the other way, half of Ambleside would have been wiped out. The buildings might have been standing but the water would have come down all the main streets, and down Stock Ghyll. But the thunder storm seemed to go down the Troutbeck side.
"It was a flash flood, and do you know, there were hail stones two foot deep, a foot to two feet thick in the back lane of our house. And I'd to shovel it all away before I could get the car into our garage. You see, the hailstones were big ones and they couldn't get down the grids. Such a lot happened that year, it wasn't a very good year, really. I know Everest was good, and the Coronation, but a lot of other things happened. My brother nearly lost his life in Rydal Water, too."
Personal memories often become entangled with events in history, as the last account demonstrated. Here is another account of the same historic thunder storm, memorable to this lady for another reason completely. For her, not only was it her son's birthday but the very last time the beck burst and ran right through her house:
"This house never had anything on the floors but flags because there was a beck at the end tha used to wash over, come through the back and out the front. And it never had a carpet or oilcloth, it was never any good putting anything down... of course, you put oilcoth on the floor, and you like your house to be nice, but Grandma never bothered, it was flags and they could just brush it through.
"And the last time the water came through was when my son was a year old and there was a big flood, a cloudburst on Wansfell. So that was 1953, June 26th. I always remember it. And we were going to hve a party outside because it was so terrible hot before the storm broke. And I put him down in his pram, and everything down below, and the deck chairs out because these people weren't young people, they were just coming for their tea. And all at once this thing happened, and do you know, there were hailstones the size of golfballs, I've never seen anything like it, and the beck came over and there was the baby kicking his legs and crying in a chair, and the neighbours were all here with brushes, brushing through...the beck just came in the back and through the house."
People never forgot the sight of the big black cloud hanging over Wansfell that preceeded that storm; but for a third witness, it was the floating henhouse that was etched on his memory for ever:
"It had been very hot weather and then suddenly at midday there was this thunderstorm and a cloudburst and luckily half came down this side and half came down the Troutbeck side. And it did really wash down the Troutbeck, and there was a man washed away. Like in the middle and all round Stoney Lane there was one mass of water, and there was a chap had hens in the field there, and most of the hens and chickens were just washed away."
Perhaps it tempts providence to say that there are fewer mishaps nowadays than there seem to have been in years past. Certainly danger lurks, and the potential for disaster on a grand scale must be greater with the possibility of a Lockerbie or Chernobyl at least a theoretical threat. Only history will decide whether its good luck or good management which keeps us all safe today.