Carbide bombs, bee orchids and rabbits


The picture above is of the view from the back of the house where I was born, and continued to be the view until 1968. Then, the view changed to what you see below with an iron ore mine employing hundreds of villagers being replaced with a caravan park and a jet ski lake employing a handful of villagers.


Hodbarrow Mine contained the richest vein of haematite iron ore on the planet at Haverigg in South Cumbria. It supplied local Ironworks with ore for almost 100 years until flooding from the Irish Sea and the cost of extraction overwhelmed it. My grandfather worked there having migrated from Cornwall where he had been a tin miner. I have few memories of him but a few which include walking around the sea wall he had helped build to stop the mines from flooding, and The Hollow, a sunken area of land near the mine which was a wonderland of plants, insects and small animals. He also gave dire warnings of NOT going into The Hollow because of the risk of subsidence. Totally ignored of course!

“Hodbarrow Flooded” is a poem written by Norman Nicholson, the Cumbrian poet from nearby Millom; here is the first verse:

Where once the bogies bounced along hummocking tracks,
A new lake spreads its edges.
Where quarried ledges were loaded with red mould ore,
Old winding towers
Up-ended float on glass.
Where once the shafts struck down through yielding limestone,
Black coot and moorhen
Lay snail-wakes on the water.

My childhood was a relatively wild affair, not in the modern day sense of the expression, but in the sense of a great freedom to roam in the wild of nature at weekends and school holidays. Forests, mountains, sea shore, sand dunes, river banks, cycling, fishing, making hides, dens, soap box carts, bows and arrows, lighting fires, bird watching, seeking out plants, stones, flotsam & jetsam. And then there were carbide bombs, bee orchids and rabbits …… all in The Hollow, a place we were never supposed to go!

My grandfather and my dad were good at catching rabbits for the cooking pot using wire snares. They would go out during the day, set the snares to leave overnight, then return in the morning to collect a rabbit or two from maybe a dozen snares. They were simple contraptions, just a loop of thin wire with an end securely banged into the ground. No skill needed at all …… except in the choice of where to place the snare. Throughout my entire childhood I placed hundreds of snares in The Hollow near the mine risking “capture by the area watchman and either life imprisonment or a severe beating from him then from our fathers”. Thankfully we were never captured, but nor did I ever snare a rabbit, and to this day I have no idea why!

Flower and insect identification was a serious game for us all, taught to us at primary school and reinforced by our parents. We all had I-Spy books to help us. We never picked flowers either except daisies and bluebells, we understood and respected our environment even at that age and all those years ago. The Hollow was once again like a magnet to us, and of all the species in that marshy area the one that fascinated us the most was the Bee Orchid. Never has a flower been so aptly named; we would sit down and stare at it for ages, sketch them too, but never show them at school because there would then be an inquisition beginning with “have you been down The Hollow”? This was almost as bad as coming home at the end of a long day, stinking of smoke, faces as black as soot to be met with “have you been setting fire to them woods again”? There was no way out!

The apparent danger from entering The Hollow was more an ethereal threat rather than the “in yer face” threat of playing with discarded calcium carbide and pop bottles half full of water! It was a typical schoolboy prank, but somewhat unsafe. First find a cache of discarded calcium carbide which looks like gravel chips and is used in miners lamps. Next, cram a handful of the chips into a dry empty pop bottle. Now half fill the bottle with water leaving a decent air gap and screw the top back on. Finally, try to calm down your elevated heart rate and throw the bottle into the sea from the old sea wall, crouch behind a rock and wait for the inevitable explosion and jet of steam/smoke erupting from the surface of the sea. I apologise now to all of the environmentalists, friends of the earth, Greenpeace, and The Green Party. I was very young at the time.
Let me explain the chemistry. In words, the chemical equation is Calcium Carbide + Water = Calcium Hydroxide + Acetylene. In miners lamps the creation of acetylene gas is slow and controlled, set alight, in front of a reflector, and bingo you have a lamp. However, large amounts of carbide and water confined in a sealed bottle creates a hell of a lot of acetylene gas, which in turn leads to a massive pressure build up and ….. an exploding bottle!

Isn’t it amazing what a short poem written by an unsung poet, Norman Nicholson, has the power to bring to the front of our minds? Whatever next!

Categories: Industrial Rides

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3 replies

  1. Nice one


    Liked by 1 person

  2. … a chemist from the start …


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