Saturday, March 02, 2013

On the Trail of the Keswick Curlers

A personal tale of 'curling research' by Bob Cowan:

'The Scotch game of curling, for which it would be difficult to find a nobler area, is also pursued with much zest'. This excerpt, from The Times of January 31, 1870, on page 12 in the News in Brief section, is evidence that our sport was played on Derwentwater in the north of England's Lake District. It is a common misapprehension that curling was exclusively a Scottish pastime within the British Isles in the nineteenth century, but this is just not true. More and more evidence is coming to light documenting where curling was played throughout England. The Historical Curling Places website now has a dedicated map for England, with much research to be done. Perhaps you can help with Lindsay Scotland's efforts? This is the story of my own attempts to clarify the location of one spot on the map!

This painting of 'Skaters on Derwentwater' is by local artist Joseph Brown. Note the group on the bottom right of the painting engaged in a curling match (click on the image to see it larger). This oil on canvas measures 7.1 x 11.8 cm and is in the collection of Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. It has been made available online through the BBC's YOUR PAINTINGS project, see here. Keswick's museum is currently closed for refurbishment but I look forward to being able to see the painting close up at some point in the future. It is suggested on the website that it was 'painted at the later end of the nineteenth century, possibly during the Great Freeze of 1895'.

By that time, the curlers of Keswick had formed themselves into a club (in 1874), and the Derwentwater Curling Club was admitted to membership of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1876. (There was no separate English Curling Association back then.) The Annual of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club lists members of the Derwentwater CC from 1876 right up until the mid-1960s.

It can be assumed that for a curling club to have been active over such a long period, its members must have had a place to play. Derwentwater itself, being a large mass of water, would freeze over infrequently. Was there a shallow water pond near Keswick?

My interest in Keswick curlers had been stimulated by the discovery of twelve photographs of curling in the Joseph Hardman archive in the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry in Kendal. You can find these online here. You can read about Hardman here. He photographed Lakeland life from the 1930s through to the 1960s. He died in 1972 and his collection of some 5000 glass negatives was given to the Museum by his widow.

The curling photographs show two games being played on a pond, with caravans in the immediate background, and distinctive mountain slopes as the backdrop. The photos are not dated, and James Arnold, the curator of the collection, notes that, "The glass plates that we hold in the collection do not have any of Hardman's original catalogue information with them so there are no accurate dates for the images." Nor was there any information on exactly where they were taken, other than near Keswick. He suggests that the curling photos date from the 1940s or 1950s. What do you think? Study them here.

I felt that I might be able to identify the spot by visiting Keswick town. But my first visit in January was unsuccessful. It had been a clear and bright day when I left Scotland, but by the time I reached the Lake District National Park it had clouded over. The Information Centre in Keswick was closed for refurbishment, as was the Museum and Art Gallery. I had printed out a low resolution copies of a couple of the Hardman photos and a helpful assistant in a local outdoor pursuits shop identified the mountain in the background as Skiddaw. He suggested that the pond might have been in Crow Park, near a present day caravan site. A further suggestion came from a local photographer's shop that the curling pond might have been in Fitz Park, beside the River Greta. By this time the rain was coming down heavily, and the mountains completely obscured, so it was time to journey home, no nearer to knowing the whereabouts of Keswick's curling pond.

Last month I mounted a second 'expedition', this time better prepared with an OS map, and a large Hardman photo, purchased from the Museum of Lakeland Life. The weather forecast was good for the whole day. And this time I could not have been more successful!

This time the Information Centre in Keswick's historical Moot Hall was open. Two extremely helpful assistants listened patiently to my story and looked at the photograph. After some discussion, one of the women (Bridget) seemed convinced she knew where the pond was, and pointed it out on the large map on the Centre's wall. Burnside, just north of the town, had at one time been a caravan site, and was nearer Skiddaw than the two previous suggestions. This was now the favoured location!

The suggestion was made that I look in at the office of the local newspaper, the Keswick Reminder. I decided to do this before heading for Burnside. The counter assistant said she would ask the Editor, and a few minutes later Jane Grave appeared ...... carrying a curling stone! I was (almost) rendered speechless! The last thing I expected to find on my Keswick adventure was a curling stone whose provenance was known.

Here's Jane, holding my Hardman photo, and a photo of her maternal grandfather, Percy Watson McKane. Jane remembered him curling at Burnside, and indeed he is listed in the RCCC Annuals as a member of Derwentwater CC in the 1940s and 1950s. The club had fifty-five members in 1948. George McKane, Jane's great grandfather, had founded the Keswick Reminder in 1915 and Jane confirms he was also a curler. The stone is one of a pair which belonged to him.

Enthused by this discovery I made my way to Burnside which lies just off the A591. The geography of the area is complicated somewhat by the (new) A66 which was not built until the 1970s. However, I was able to match the slopes of Skiddaw with the background in some of the Hardman photos. Burnside is in the shadow in the dip in the foreground of this pic.

The caravan park is now a collection of timber lodges.

A marshy low lying area of a field to the south of the lodges, and flanked by a stream, is all that remains of the curling pond today.

But that's not the end of the story.

I subsequently found this photo online (here) of curling at Burnside at an earlier date than the Hardman photographs. Two, possibly three, games are taking place. It was posted by davidhume100 in his Flickr Photostream of family photographs. The caption states, "Burneside [sic], Keswick. John Hume (b1880) keen on curling, as was his father Francis. Stones at Woodend, Threlkeld. John (b1922) one of the lads at far right." This last information puts the date of the photo no later than 1930, probably a little earlier.

Knowing the location of a pond at Burnside allowed study of old maps of the area using this website, and sure enough, on the OS 1:2500 map of 1899 a 'curling pond' is indicated. However, tracing the history of the area and coming forward in time using all the available maps, it seems that there were TWO ponds at Burnside. The one shown on the 1899 map was built over when the area became a caravan park. A second pond, immediately to the south of the caravan park, is the one in the Hardman photos. The photo above may well be the earlier pond.

Of course, if the minute books of the Derwentwater CC have survived all might become clearer. I wonder if they exist somewhere. Perhaps someone reading this may know?

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