ON BIRKRIGG COMMON
manufacture of stone axes was quite probably the first industry
ever undertaken in the British Isles and it is possible,
although not proven, that bronze axes were also manufactured
in the area.
the past, the Common would have been more extensive than
it is today. In the 18th century, if not earlier, the practice
of enclosing the best land with walls for more intensive
agriculture began. This would have restricted the free use
of the grazing available to tenants to the higher areas
that were not suitable for ploughing. In order to do this
numerous small quarries were developed and the Common is
now completely enclosed by dry stone walls constructed almost
entirely from this stone and pieces of limestone collected
from the enclosed fields.
craft of stone walling is therefore centuries old. On the
east side the boundary wall shows the typical "through-stones"
that were used in a middle course to give the wall stability
and prevent it from bowing (wind pressure from the west
can be tremendous on the Common).
band of limestone to the east of the Common has supported
a number of small quarries, in some of which seams of green
copper ore (malachite) were discovered. It is therefore
a little known fact that Birkrigg once had a copper mine,
although it had been worked out by the beginning of the
19th century. Furness copper was exported to Liverpool,
as copper goods were extensively used for barter in the
slave trade between 1750 and 1807. The same limestone band
continues through into Sea Wood and there were attempts
to mine copper there in the 1850s. The remains of the entry
shaft to a seam are still visible on the Common and pieces
of limestone can be found coated in green powder (copper
carbonate), as in the centre of the image below. But copper
mining could be much older than this; we do not know whether
the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Appleby Camp had discovered
the copper that existed in the limestone less than a quarter
of a mile away.
of the bands of limestone has a different composition, colour,
hardness and weathering characteristics, leading to different
uses. Throughout the 19th century, industrial scale quarrying
took place on the north-west and south-east sides of the
Common, with royalties being paid to the Crown. The south-east
quarry provided the best limestone for building and this
stone lasts almost indefinitely (the Ulverston Savings Bank
shows no sign of wear after 180 years). John Bolton, a local
Victorian geologist argued Birkrigg limestone should have
been used for the ornamental parts of the new Houses of
Parliament predicting, correctly as it now turns out, that
the stone that was used from Yorkshire would crumble.
of the Birkrigg limestone is very similar to marble (another
form of calcium carbonate) and has been used for carving
and sculpture, as on the armorial bearings on the Sir John
Barrow Monument. Quarrying of stone for such pieces in the
19th century required a more carefull technique. A fault
line was selected and several holes made, often with a hand
turned augur or an iron bar and heavy hammer. If the block
still did not come away a small amount of gunpowder could
be placed in the hole and lit with a fuse. Evidence of this
technique still remains in one area on the Common...
the last quarter of the 19th century the north-west quarry
was exploited by the newly-formed North Lonsdale Iron Works.
This limestone has a high degree of purity, making it ideal
for use as a flux in the blast furnaces. In the early 1970s
this redundant quarry almost became a refuse tip.
the strangest use of the Common was in 1957 when Lindal Cricket
Club was given permission to take enough sheep-grazed turf
from Birkrigg to relay their pitch. This caused much criticism
in the local press as the club chose to take the turf from
the area next to the trig point, but it just proves what Birkrigg
could be like with more careful management!