Keswick, Cumbria: The Pencil Museum

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After my successful trips to the Pen Room and the Museum of Everyday Life (the latter had a special exhibit on pencils), I was very keen indeed to visit the Pencil Museum in Cumbria.  I love the quirkiness of museums that focus intensely on one mundane object (and I was planning on seeing the Lawn Mower Museum as well, but it was closed without warning on the day I attempted to visit), so I had high hopes for this little museum.  However, I was instantly irritated when we pulled into the extremely full carpark and were met with a hefty £4 parking fee from a machine that didn’t take notes or cards (do people really just travel around with that much change at all times in this day and age? I sure don’t), so we had to backtrack to a supermarket to get change before we could even park (in retrospect, we should have just left the car in the supermarket parking lot and walked to the museum, but I was too annoyed at the time for logic).  The museum does refund £1.50 of the parking fee with admission to the museum, which I guess they don’t have to do since they don’t own the carpark, but it still seems ridiculous to have a flat parking rate that high in a random village (on top of parking, it’s another £4.25 for admission).

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The museum is not large, as you can probably tell from the first picture, and about half the space is taken up by a gift shop + cafe, leaving the rest of the museum crammed into one large room.  You do enter the museum via a reproduction of a graphite mine, which I appreciated, but there were no authentic smells or anything.  The museum covers the history of pencils, in particular their connection to Keswick, and explains the details of pencil manufacturing.  Basically, the first graphite pencils were made in Keswick because of a large graphite mine discovered in Cumbria, in nearby Borrowdale; until the advent of artificial graphite in the late 18th century, that mine was the sole source of this material.  Over the years, the factory has changed hands (and names) several times, and is actually no longer in Keswick, having moved to Lillyhall in 2008, but the museum remains.

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Besides the history lesson, there were of course lots of pencils.  They actually had the same decorative display cases as the Pen Room, containing artistic arrangements made of pencils, and even one made of pen nibs (exactly like the one in the Pen Room).  The Cumberland factory seems to be mainly known for their Derwent line of coloured pencils, so there were a lot of sets of those knocking about the place (oddly, even their regular pencils appear to be made without erasers, which makes it strange that they included the famous saying about mistakes being why pencils have erasers, in a wall of pencil quotes at the start.  They gave us a free souvenir pencil with admission, which was also sadly eraserless).

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The world’s largest coloured pencil, in yellow, was hanging on the wall, which I guess is notable if you like giant versions of things, but one of the most fascinating exhibits was the one about wartime pencils, and the special ones created with a hollow space inside that could be used to hide maps or compasses.  Thousands of pencils were produced that contained maps of Europe, and distributed to troops during WWII, though only ten sets of them are currently known to remain in existence, one of which was of course in the museum.

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They also had a very luxe pencil (a sexy pencil, I’d say) that was created for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a few years ago, with a top shaped like a crown that was made of diamonds (I still think an eraser would be more useful, but what do I know?).  In keeping with the extremely British theme, there was a model of Tower Bridge, made (naturally) of pencils.

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And there was a collection of pencil carvings, made by a man who was somehow able to sculpt the pencil tips into amazing tiny figures.  The museum provided a magnifying glass for studying them in depth, but you might be able to make out a man lifting a barbell and a tiny elephant in the picture on the right.  The museum of course also included the almost obligatory Mr. Rogers-esque video on pencil production, which was kind of mesmerising, and a clip of the Snowman, which was drawn using Cumberland brand pencils (I’ve always hated the Snowman because of that horrible song and also because it’s sad, but I know it’s a Christmas tradition for a lot of British people).

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I should confess that I hate using pencils, particularly the normal, non-mechanical variety, as the sound of the wood rasping against the paper if the tip isn’t perfectly sharp sets my teeth on edge, and the metal bit on the end scraping when the eraser gets worn down is even worse, but I don’t think my dislike of the central subject of this museum has influenced my opinion of the place (after all, I loved the Pen Room, and I suck at using a proper pen with a nib and everything).  I think part of my problem with it was that it was so crowded, which was perhaps to be expected on a bank holiday weekend, but still, it was out of hand for such a small space.  Even if it had been empty, however, it just wasn’t really big enough, and a lot of the items in it had scanty labelling, or no labels at all, so you were just looking at a bunch of generic pencils with no explanation of how they were different from every other pencil.  Plus the whole parking thing was super annoying.  It’s not worth making a special trip for, but is something different to do if you’re bored of just walking around in the Lake District (and there are some spectacular views of Windermere if you drive back south from the museum, so that’s a bonus).  But it’s no Pen Room, and certainly no Museum of Everyday Life – it’s probably best for children, as there’s lots of stuff they can draw or colour, and they get to do a special scavenger hunt.  2.5/5