eric robson's ennerdale...
It's the Lakeland Valley that's being returned to the wild. The dark ranks of forest that so offended the great fell wanderer Alfred Wainwright are being stripped away. The River Liza, liberated from its cloak of Sitka spruce, shimmers again rather than skulking in unremitting shadow.But what many a passionate re-wilder perhaps won't know is that this was once an industrial valley; a valley serviced by Britain's least well known railway - the Rowrah and Kelton Fell. I first came across it because of a street sign in the little village of Kirkland at the mouth of the valley. BAIRD'S CROSSING it said.
But who was Baird and why was he crossing?
It turned out that the Baird in question was the famous Glaswegian iron master. Attracted by West Cumberland's high quality haematite ore, he took an interest in some of the local mines. Three of those shafts were at Kelton Fell and Knockmurton on the northern shoulder of the Ennerdale valley. Originally the iron was hauled out by horse and cart to a railhead at Rowrah but in 1877 a standard gauge railway was driven round the contours of the mountain and the Baird company agreed to operate it, supplying locomotives and rolling stock. There was a brief boom time. Scores of miners came from as far away as Cornwall. The little mission hall built to offer them a spiritual welcome to Cumberland is still there in Kirkland. The heart of the village is still its rows of miners' cottages.
But the Klondike days were soon over. By the 1890s the mines were worked out. Yet the railway survived because of the huge limestone quarries in the area which supplied the blast furnaces of Workington. To give you an idea of the sheer scale of the industrial operation, the biggest of those holes in the ground now houses one of Britain's premier go-cart circuits.
To this day if you walk out along the line of the old railway you can still find the remains of its bridges and cuttings and even the humps and hollows left when its sleepers were torn out of the trackbed in the 1930s. Along the way are the spoil heaps of the abandoned mines, the shadows of an age of industrial bravado when, on a Saturday night, this really was wild Ennerdale.