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Lake District Rivers:
The Crake

The River Crake must be one of the least known rivers of Lakeland, and yet it flows out of one of the best known lakes.

It is short, flowing only for just over five miles south from Coniston Water to the sea at Greenodd. On its short journey it passes Nibthwaite, Wateryeat, Blawith, Lowick, Spark Bridge and Penny Bridge.

At several of these points along the river the iron industry once flourished, the Crake providing not only water but power and in the lower reaches transport. There were furnaces at Penny Bridge and Nibthwaite, and there were quays for the transport of haematite ore at Greenodd and Penny Bridge. (In addition to iron this was where Coniston slate was shippped out to the wider world). The Nibthwaite site, developed in the 1730s, was particularly ambitious as it included furnace, foundry and forge - effectively, for its day, an integrated ironworks - which continued in operation for more than a hundred years.

Not much remains of the structures relating to these industries of two and more centuries ago by the Crake. However, not far away by the Duddon the Lake District National Park Authority has preserved buildings of the most complete charcoal-based iron works in England.

In addition to iron ore, readily available from the Furness haematite mines, 18th century production of steel demanded substantial quantities of charcoal. This in turn required the growing of trees. Although it has often been assumed that early industrialisation led to the destruction of forest areas there is in fact evidence that the opposite was the case around the Crake.

A Heaton Cooper - Coniston Charcoal Burners
Charcoal Burners, Coniston Lake
by A. Heaton Cooper, 1908

The development of coppiced woodland gave a much improved livelihood for local farmers compared with their previous marginal sheep farming. Areas around Coniston were especially productive. Charcoal burning was a major seasonal occupation among the local people. Thorstein of the Mere by W. G. Collingwood; ISBN 0947992499

A fascinating record of life along the Crake in past centuries is to be found in A. P. Brydson's book, Two Lakeland Townships, published in 1907. (This is now becoming rare, and when it is found can be quite expensive. My own copy was given to me in 1989 by my aunt, Eva Fishwick. She and her husband Ernest were tenants of the author when they farmed at Stable Harvey, above Blawith, in the 1930s).

In fiction the Crake features strongly in W. G. Collingwood's historical novel, Thorstein of the Mere, a story of the settlement of this part of the Lake District by the Norsemen more than a thousand years ago.

Today the industry has gone. All is green, and this is beautiful walking country.

For more comprehensive coverage of the history and archeology of the local iron industry see the following:

Furness Iron, ed. Mark Bowden; English Heritage, 2000; ISBN 1873592477.
  • Furness and the Industrial Revolution, J. D. Marshall; Michael Moon, 1958, reprinted 1981; ISBN 0904131262.
  • The Industrial Archeology of the Lake Counties, J. D. Marshall and M. Davies-Shiel; David & Charles, 1969.

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