It was summer’s end. Across the land, shop-fresh school shirts were being slipped from the cellophane and given an inaugural airing in public. Oversized blazers were being shrugged onto shoulders while sensible black shoes were given an artful scuff via an intentional kick to the kerb. Within minutes of leaving home, ties were being tugged and top buttons twisted undone. It was autumn-term entropy in action – a million school uniforms being nudged into early-onset decay.
However, if we’d have been able to peer inside all those casually slung school bags, we might have found an item holding out against the headlong rush to disorder. Lurking in a darkened corner, cuddling up with ring binders and PE socks, we would have discovered a gleaming metal tin snapped shut to defend its treasure. Inside, we would have met geometry’s holy trinity of ruler, protractor and set square, along with a pair of compasses, a rubber and a pencil.
Maybe it’s something about the steely clench of that compact container that has always excited a protective urge, but each September, school kids everywhere – usually so quick to affect indifference – make a silent vow that this year, they will keep their geometry set intact. The ruler won’t get snapped, the protractor won’t be frisbeed across the room. And at the heart of this private conviction lies the pencil. They won’t lend it or nibble the end. This time, things will be different. This pencil will serve them till the end of its days.
Or maybe that virgin pencil fantasy was mine alone – though judging by the faces around me at the Cumberland Pencil Museum a couple of weeks ago, I don’t believe it was just me. As I said, it was summer’s end and I had decided to give the holiday season a pencil-point full-stop at this famous Keswick tourist trap. Everywhere I turned there were noses pressed against glass cases, with pairs of eyes gazing in rapture at pristine pencil regiments standing to attention. Uniformly sharp and safe from doodlers’ demands, the pencils and their vintage packaging triggered memories of birthday mornings and Christmas unwrappings, and the thrill of arranging the pointy-headed warriors in a rainbow sequence and then snapping the lid tight shut.
The Cumberland Pencil Museum opened in 1981, occupying a small site next to the hulking modernist edifice that is the old Cumberland Pencils factory. Manufacturing moved to a purpose-built site 20 miles away in 2008, but while the factory building now lies empty – its steel-framed windows offering only glimpses of graphite-tipped ghosts – the museum remains in its original location, maintaining Keswick’s connection to an industry that has made a global mark.
I occasionally used to wonder why my tins of pencil crayons often featured Lake District landscapes on the lid. Well now I know. The pencil-making industry that grew up in Keswick was a consequence of the discovery of graphite in the nearby Borrowdale valley. Originally used for marking sheep, this soft form of pure carbon was soon being cut into rectangular lengths for other mark-making purposes and, with no equivalent graphite deposits known anywhere in the world at the time, the area was soon being extensively mined. By 1580, according to a museum display, the Michelangelo School of Art was using Cumberland graphite pencils (though let’s not assume the Master himself was using a piece of Lake District rock to sketch out the Sistine Chapel ceiling as he died in 1564), and at its peak during the 17th century, Borrowdale graphite was more valuable than gold.
If you can’t quite imagine what it must have been like to mine graphite all those years ago, the museum brings the experience to life by forcing all visitors to enter via a rock-effect tunnel complete with shop-window mannequin going hard at it with his hammer and chisel. I dare say that stooping through a fibreglass passageway doesn’t quite capture the authentic atmosphere of mining for the original black gold, but funnily enough it does exactly capture the vibe of Buster’s nightclub in Coventry in the late-1980s, a venue that was inexplicably decorated like the inside of a cave. So as a recreation of history it definitely works – just not necessarily the right bit of history.
Once beyond the tunnel though, the real pencil knowledge kicks in. The museum is dense with detail about the inventing of them, the making of them and the selling of them, not to mention the many revolutionary innovations of the Cumberland Pencil Company and its more recent Derwent-branded descendants. While the Borrowdale mine closed well over a century ago, and graphite is now imported from Sri Lanka, Korea and China, the Lake District remains the pencil case of the world. More than a million pencils are produced there every week and though you don’t see them stuck behind workmen’s ears so much these days, there clearly remains a market for a wooden stick that confers the power of scribbling.
When you tell people you’re visiting a pencil museum, they generally tend to snigger. I understand the reaction – the venue sometimes seems to play on the fact that it lines up alongside other eccentric British attractions that delve into subjects the general public profess to find ‘boring’ – but as I made my way round the exhibits, I began to wonder quite why this should be.
Our nation has spent the past half century turning its industrial history into a heritage trail that sanctifies the steel works, weaving mills and coal mines that generated two centuries of wealth. Wherever fire and power and speed were involved, we are happy to stand grim-faced and full of wonder in front of smoke-blackened relics – the forges and drop hammers and looms that shaped the modern world.
This place, however, seems to be regarded as a Lakeland curiosity, a little corner of kitsch to visit for a laugh before gorging on authentic natural beauty. I indulged in it myself before my visit, and I could sense it in others even as I walked round. The pencil, it seems, is too ubiquitous, too throwaway, to warrant the reverence afforded to other industrial-era inventions. Via smirks and barely suppressed giggles it is implied that a pencil museum might be… drumroll please… a bit pointless.
But if I entered the museum ready to indulge in a little absent-minded mockery, it wasn’t long before my preconceptions were rubbed out. Think about it: graphite was virtually unknown before they found it here. Prior to that, people’s expressions of thought were muddied by the smudgings of charcoal and the blottings of ink. But from this corner of Britain came a mark-making instrument that was unparalleled in its neatness, its tidiness, its handiness. With the addition of different quantities of clay, its marks could be as faint as a web or as black as the night. It was cheap to buy and easy to carry, and was as well-suited to shopping lists and recipes as to masterpieces of art.
Beyond the local manufacturing history, of which it is justifiably proud, the museum is eager to make pencils seem even more remarkable, and it does this by exhibiting a selection of freaks and aberrations. There’s the world’s longest coloured pencil (a pocket-busting 7.91 metres), a Diamond Jubilee pencil presented to the Queen (topped by a crown of 60 diamonds rather than a somewhat more practical eraser), and a secret Second World War pencil designed to assist in prison breaks – it contained a tiny compass and map of Germany.
For me though, it was the everyday implements that provoked by far the most pleasure – the pencils arrayed in once-commonplace packaging, whose Edwardian curlicues and 1960s sans-serif typefaces spoke eloquently of the sensibilities of their age. And it was as I gazed at these ordinary pencils galore – both graphite and coloured, ancient and modern, all unused and unbroken – that I realised it’s the everyday object which is truly exceptional.
A pencil is all about potential. Within its graphite core there are ideas, thoughts, imaginings, and whatever our age, whatever our social standing, every one of us has the power to set them free. So keeping your pencil to yourself, unchewed and unspoiled, is… misguided. Simply add the back of an envelope and who knows where that lo-fi black line could take you?
While I still felt that involuntary tingle of pleasure at seeing those simple yet versatile devices imprisoned in virgin formation, I realised that my response – the same urge I had as a kid when I pledged to keep my new geometry set intact – was misplaced. For a pencil, there is no glory in being locked tight inside a tin, forever sharp and unworn. Having spent time at the Cumberland Pencil Museum, I realise that the faster those new-term school kids get scribbling, the better. Inside every pencil is the potential for something spectacular, but only by being used can it ever break out.
There are other sights worth seeing in Keswick of course, from the lapping shore of Derwentwater to the world’s highest concentration of people wearing Karrimor fleeces (I just made that up, though the evidence seems overwhelming). But I would suggest that the Cumberland Pencil Museum should also be on the itinerary of every school field-trip too. The tunnelling shop-window dummy might not thrill the touchscreen generation, but an intimation of the pencil’s enduring power could be enough to unleash something great. While the pen may be mightier than the sword, if you run out of ink you’ll always be glad you packed a pencil.
And that sword will be handy for keeping it sharp.
The Cumberland Pencil Museum is at Southey Works, Main Street, Keswick. More information: www.pencilmuseum.co.uk