Lime Kilns in Cumbria

Lime Kilns in Cumbria

Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed largely of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate: CaCO3).

Lime Kiln near Howgill Castle
Lime Kiln near Howgill Castle. Photo by Simon Ledingham.

The Romans developed the burning of limestone to make lime for use in building as a mortar, although there is little evidence of their kilns in the country. During the Middle Ages, with the increase in building, the demand for lime again increased. However until the middle of the eighteenth century most lime kilns were temporary structures near to the site where the lime was required. These were either left to collapse after use or dismantled.
Lime has long been an important material in the Cumbrian Fells and Dales. Apart from its use to bind and render stonework and decorate walls, it has been invaluable for improving the fertility of acidic soils. Limestone was burnt in kilns wherever fuel and raw limestone could be brought together easily.
Burning limestone, which is calcium carbonate, gives you quick lime, calcium oxide. Mixed with water this produces slaked lime, calcium hydroxide. When slaked lime or quick lime was added to the land it raised its pH and so improved its fertility. Slaked lime was also used as lime putty for building. This is soft when first mixed, but with time absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hardens as it reverts back to calcium limestone.
Lime kilns were used from medieval periods right through to the 18th and 19th centuries. They were used in earlier times for the production of mortar for building purposes, and sometimes, as during the 18th and 19th centuries, for the production of lime for agricultural purposes.
Lime Kiln Near Smardale Viaduct.
Lime kiln near the old NER Smardale viaduct. Photo by Ann Bowker.

The building of the kilns boomed after the arrival of coal on the Lancaster to Kendal canal and the railways. Kilns sprang up along the main bands and outcrops of limestone near Kendal, Penrith and the Coniston Limestone band.
There are remains of hundreds of lime kilns – both large and small around Cumbria [See list]. Typically the kiln was set into the side of a shallow hill, so that carts could deliver limestone and firewood to the top. After burning slowly for at least 24 hours, the calcinated limestone, quicklime, was removed at the bottom, mainly for use on local fields.
Four excellent and easily accessible examples are at:

  • Aughertree Fell, near Caldbeck (NY 268381)
  • Mungrisdale – a good explanatory board at the site (NY 363302)
  • Long Sleddale – a ramped kiln from the 18th century (NY 492054)
  • Broad Oak, near Crosthwaite – a classic kiln (SD 435895), easily accessible from the road.

In July 2009 the Greenside Lime Kiln in Kendal, a scheduled ancient monument, was preserved to prevent dereliction, and to show visitors the link between the lime burning industry and the Kendal canal, by which the town prospered in the 19th century.
A free leaflet on lime kilns is available from Lake District National Park Centres. Alternatively, visit Rheged on the A66 at Penrith (just west of Jct 40). This is one of Cumbria’s newest visitor attractions, built into an abandoned limestone quarry. The remains of an old limekiln lie at the heart of the centre along with a fully illustrated explanation of how it functioned. The main entrance to Rheged has been designed to resemble a limestone kiln.
Lime is still produced in Cumbria at the large quarry near Shap for use as a flux in the steel industry. Shap Beck Quarry, north of the village, produces the limestone, which is supplied to the Shapfell works just south of the village.

Lime Kiln near Orton
Lime kiln between Orton and Ravenstondale

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