A history of the mintcake mine railway by Ben Valentine

The Mintcake Mine Railway

The Beginning

For hundreds of years Mintcake has been mined in what is now known as the Lake District. In fact it has even been a cause and also an objective in many of the historical battles and wars fought in the North West of England as armies sought to obtain Mintcake for their own use and to unlock its secrets!

Thankfully, the locals have managed to keep its secrets just that and it has been carefully mined by only a small few who knew about its properties.

It was during the mid to late 1800s and the coming of the railways that allowed Mintcake to be distributed around Britain and also for export too. The French and German aristocracy enjoyed the delicacy using favoured after supper when the Counts and Barons would entertain guests and Mintcake was given with a glass of Brandy when one had finished their meal.

Some say that the power of the Mintcake contributed to the Great War as the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was also known to enjoy this Lakeland treat. It is said that he quite often would boast about its fabulous refreshing taste and smooth qualities. He was also known to become selfish as the 'White Myst' overcame him and he upset many guests. At one such dinner party a high-powered Serbian minister was so outraged at the Host's actions that he ordered, on the quiet, the assassination of the Arch Duke! It was very unfortunate that Germany and Britain were to become opponents during this brutal and bloody war as Germany certainly enjoyed Mintcake.

The submarine attack on Barrow-in-Furness and the airship sheds in 1915 was seen as a preliminary to a small invasion by the Germans in their attempt to head inland to try and capture the mines. Thankfully this came to nothing but it did cause Britain's Generals to set up a small force to repel any possible future attack.

But the 1800s were the boom years for the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the railway was to play a huge part in the transportation of raw materials and finished products.

Railway lines and companies sprang up across the country as they strived to offer the best service to factories and mills and collieries and other businesses. Some became no more than mineral lines while others were used for both passenger and freight services.

In many places Narrow Gauge railways played a huge part in moving raw materials with Wales being the best example where this took place. Slate was a huge commodity and many mines were founded in North Wales that were rich in slate veins. The cost of laying Standard Gauge lines to these areas was too prohibited so many companies turned to laying railway lines at 1' 11 " instead of 4' 8 ". Horses were employed to begin with but steam soon appeared. The Ffestiniog Railway led the way in using steam locomotives that were powerful and could fit through some of their tight cuttings and tunnels. Some of these engines can still be seen running today.

The slate quarries of both Dinorwic and Llanberis didn't require engines to the same size and they turned to a firm Hunslet of Leeds. Many of these engines are still active today near to where they worked in the quarries.

What's this to do with Mintcake?

Well today only one Mintcake mine is open though it is believed that three or four others do exist, although their locality is a jealously guarded secret. Not only that but it is dangerous to go into a mine without a proper guide or equipment!

This mine at High Wray on the left bank of Windermere Lake has been a source of Mintcake from the late 1800s. This particular site was found almost by accident and allowed a rival firm to form the British North Western Mintcake Company.

The BNWMC set about transporting Mintcake across Britain but mostly to London and they sent the 'Get Lumps' to Windermere station for transporting across the country. The BNWMC expressed an interest in linking with the line at Ambleside being the nearest town to the mine. Alas there was a considerable amount of opposition to the planned railway from Windermere to Keswick through Ambleside and Grasmere, the resistance coming from followers of William Wordsworth and the railway never got beyond Windermere.

Unperturbed the company kept up with transporting the Mintcake slowly across the lake and up to Windermere station.

In 1865 the Furness Railway expressed an interest in building a branch line to what is now Newby Bridge halt. This was backed by the Midland Railway and the purpose of the line was to be mostly tourism although the Backbarrow Ironworks would also generate much freight traffic too. The BNWMC heard about this proposed link and kept an 'eye out and an ear open' as the saying goes on the developments of this plan. Due to the narrowing of the lake at the southern end the Furness Railway decided to move their terminus to Lakeside to allow the trains to connect to boats on the lake. The FR was to acquire shares in the Windermere United Steam Yacht Company to help generate revenue from the lake services.

During the construction of the line the BNWMC decided to open negotiations with the FR in building a line from the mines down to Lakeside so that they could then be able to transport the Mintcake by rail almost straight from the mine and also to export the Mintcake from the commodious docks at Barrow-in-Furness.

The BNWMC set about finding an engineer to survey a route from Lakeside to the mines at High Wray. The man they found was unknown to most but had been successful in building forts and surveying routes in Africa for the British Army. His name was A. P. Hipps and he set about the task very quickly. After all, Mr Hipps was heard to say that the only thing he feared in Britain was getting soaked to the skin and getting a cold. In Africa he was more worried about not being able to run fast enough from a lion or a Zulu spear!

Mr A. Hipps was to be a thorough worker and he did make a number of suggestions to the Mintcake Company with regards to the planned railway. The report read:

Dear Sirs,

After having carried out your request for a proposed route for a railway to be built linking the planned terminus of the Furness Railway at Lakeside and your main Mintcake mine at High Wray I must advise you of several points.

1 :) The line from Lakeside to Hawkshead could be done using Standard Gauge equipment and remain inside the budget you have set. It is from Hawkshead towards the mines where the problems will begin.

2 :) A Narrow Gauge Railway line could be built and link the mine with the Standard Gauge Railway at Hawkshead. Without a doubt Hawkshead is an important town for these workings as it may prove to be a good source of labour for you.

3 :) Due to the huge Iron Ore industry that the Furness area supports I would recommend that spoil from these workings be used for the use of your company to produce the track bed. This would help to keep total costs down.

The report then went on to describe the line and earthworks required to reach the town of Hawkshead. It spurred the Directors into setting up a meeting with the FR to discuss the possibility of joining to their branch line.

The meeting took place in September 1868 and proved to be what the BNWMC had hoped for. The FR agreed with their plan for a spur off their line as long as the Mintcake Company would run a small passenger service to Hawkshead. The FR Company were happy to provide the coaches for this. The FR having never had plans to build to Hawkshead were only too happy for someone else to do the work for them! In return they would happily work Mintcake mine rolling stock over their lines to Barrow-in-Furness and elsewhere. They also helped to source rail and ballast for the BNWMC too.

Once the meeting was over the Mintcake Company decided to look for their own locomotive to run their trains. They turned to Hunslet of Leeds, not only for their Standard Gauge locomotive but also the Narrow Gauge engines too. The BNWMC had heard from reports about Hunslet locomotives working high in the Welsh Mountains and wanted the same reliability that the slate mines received.

The Lakeside branch was opened on June 1st 1869 and the second stage to Hawkshead was started straight away. This took just under a year to complete, with most of the work being done by many of the miners. The Mintcake company had, at this time, taken delivery of their own engine and rolling stock and this also helped to finish the line quickly. At Hawkshead an unloading wharf was built using much of the stone removed by miners at the Mintcake mines and spoil from the iron ore workings also contributed to this.

The line from Lakeside to Hawkshead was a five mile single track line which followed the side of Windermere Lake for the first two and a half miles. It then swung left and headed for Near Sawrey. A small halt just one coach long was installed here and then the line headed for Hawkshead. Once the line was finished it was passed for passenger traffic just three months later by Parliament. The line opened in August 1870. A short spur was then added from Near Sawrey to Far Sawrey allowing short trains to run to the Lake edge. Two Mintcake vessels were used to transport small amounts of Mintcake across to Bowness-on-Windermere for transport on the Windermere branch line. Although during several winters this was halted when Windermere froze solid! The BNWMC had a distribution centre at Kendal where their Mintcake was wrapped before being shipped away. A second distribution centre was opened in Ulverston on completion of the railway. This closed when the Lakeside branch line closed in 1965.

The narrow gauge line was started on completion of the standard gauge route and was completed in a short space of time, opening to traffic, freight only, in January 1871.

The Mintcake Company was soon busy now that it could move a considerable amount of Mintcake. The relationship with the FR proved fruitful and they were allowed to run their loco down to Ulverston and also Barrow as and when necessary. For this to happen the engine was worked by an FR crew who were paid by the Mintcake Company. In return the Mintcake Company operated a small passenger service and freight service for the people of Hawkshead, with most of the rolling stock being owned by the FR but occasionally a Mintcake Company wagon or coach would be used if needed. It was never destined to make money with regards to either the passenger or freight service it ran but it did well during the spring and summer months with the tourist traffic. Several tours were set up and ran around the Lakes with the Hawkshead to Lakeside section being very popular indeed.

The Mintcake Railway had a small shed at Hawkshead to keep their standard gauge loco in and built onto this, was the shed for the narrow gauge locos. There was also a small workshop for all but the heaviest repairs. Anything serious was sent to the FR workshops in Barrow-in-Furness. For many years the Mintcake Company operated just one standard gauge loco but, over time they realised that having a second engine would help them in case of a failure. Their standard gauge Hunslet had proved reliable but there were times when it needed an overhaul and the Mintcake Company borrowed a loco off the FR. This continued until 1912 when they, at last, bought a loco from the firm Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock.

The narrow gauge railway was run by three locomotives but this was extended to four by 1914. This was seen as fortunate as the demand for Mintcake increased. It was used for ration packs for the troops of the British Empire. It is also believed that the French troops were upset that their government wouldn't supply them with this secret weapon and a mutiny at Verdun nearly caused the allies to lose the war! Thankfully the British fought hard and the French were soon back in action when they were given extra rations of Brie and other favourite cheeses.

It was in early 1915 that several other possible sites for Mintcake were discovered but they were in difficult areas and several inclines had to be built to reach them. These didn't last many years after the end of the war.

Both railways were kept running after the war but the Depression of the late 1920s into the 1930s meant that demand was low. During this time they ran only one standard gauge locomotive and the other was leased for other duties to the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company for use as a shunting locomotive at Barrow docks or to some of the mineral lines still in existence in the Furness area. The Second World War saw an increase in demand once more but things became bleak in the 1950s. The line was closed in 1965 and the narrow gauge railway also stopped running the same year. Road transport took over and then railways were pulled up for scrap.

Ben please get in touch!