It may come as a surprise – it certainly came as one to me – but the term ‘black market’ is a Cumbrian invention.
Today, ‘black market’ is the trade in illegal goods. Several centuries ago in Cumbria it was the same, except it referred to the region’s most valuable mining commodity: graphite, known as ‘black lead’. It was the trade in illicit ‘black lead’ that gave rise to the term ‘black market’. Who knew?
I know this little-known fact because I visited the Abbot Hall Museum in Kendal, which had a whole display on the mining industry in Cumbria. Its a small museum dedicated to the history of local life, but it has some genuinely fascinating displays. I didn’t realise how intensive mining was in the region from the sixteenth century onwards.
Nor did I realise that Cumbria was a major producer of bobbins to the cotton mills of Lancashire. The word ‘bobbin’ sounds ludicrous, but they were an integral part of the manufacture of cotton cloth. At it’s peak, in the mid-nineteenth century, the cotton industry supported sixty-four bobbin mills in Cumbria and employed thousands of people. This sort of information is why you should visit your local museum. Although you have to read the heritage plaques to discover that Kendal is host to the largest church in Cumbria…
Kendal is the largest town in southern Cumbria, it serves as the tourist gateway to the Lake District National Park. Its nickname, The Auld Grey Town, comes from the grey colour of the local limestone used in most buildings – although I always thought it was a reference to the grey skies and constant rain that seemed to accompany my childhood.
Strolling around Kendal requires effort – the town is built on hills – but it’s worth it to suddenly find yourself in a small seventeenth century alleyway; or going under an arch to the gardens of a former hospital built 1606; or standing in Colin Croft, one of the few surviving ‘yards’ preserving a unique architectural heritage in Kendal. Legend has it that they were constructed with narrow entrances to defend against Scottish attacks, but that’s a myth. They housed various industries and workshops, the reason for their unique design remains a mystery. Kendal also has a castle.
Kendal Castle was the home of the Parr family, and it was Catherine Parr who became Queen of England as Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. I’d say that makes Catherine Kendal’s most famous former resident. Sadly by the mid-sixteenth century the castle was already in bad repair and was abandoned shortly afterwards. Things haven’t improved since – only a few sections of the walls and buildings remain, but the site of the castle is still impressive, on top of a steep hill with panoramic views over the town.
Catherine Parr, however, isn’t the most famous thing to come from Kendal. If you were to ask people today what Kendal was famous for, they’d probably say Kendal Mint Cake – the teeth rotting bars of peppermint infused sugar made famous as the snack of choice when Edmund Hillary climbed Everest in 1953.
A closer look at Kendal’s coat-of-arms gives a clue to the origins of the town’s greatest claim to fame. Teasels and bale hooks, both important tools of the wool trade, are represented on the coat-of-arms. The town motto reads “Cloth is my bread” because Kendal was famous for producing a hard-wearing woollen cloth known as ‘Kendal Green’.
‘Kendal Green’ was worn by Kendalian archers who played a critical role at the Battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War between the feuding French nobility who ruled both France and England. ‘Kendal Green’ is also mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV because it was traditional for foresters to wear it – and is probably why Errol Flynn wore green (including those fabulous tights) when playing Robin Hood.
More infamously, ‘Kendal Green’ formed one side of the triangular Trans-Atlantic slave trade: cloth from Kendal was bartered for slaves on the coast of Africa, who were then exchanged for sugar and tobacco produced by slaves in the Americas, which were shipped back to Kendal via the ports at Lancaster and Whitehaven. Alongside other exotic commodities from the Caribbean, these two products became the raw materials of two major Kendal industries – tobacco manufactured into snuff, and sugar to make Kendal Mint Cake. Even in sleepy little Kendal, its impossible to escape Britain’s role in the slave trade.
The River Kent bisects Kendal as it flows towards Morcambe Bay and the Irish Sea. Thanks to the unnaturally high rainfall in the hills surrounding Kendal, the river historically flooded vast areas of the town. As a child I remember seeing the water burst the banks of the river but, thanks to a river widening scheme, that is now a thing of the past.