Friday, 29 June 2018

Nostalgia at the Derwent Pencil Museum, UK

Guest blogger this week is author Narrelle M Harris, whose new book is A Dream to Build a Kiss On: a contemporary Sherlock Holmes/Watson romance told in chapters of 221 words. 

I love a one-note museum – a space dedicated to one just one idea or one thing.

I’ve tasted the peculiar delights of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, the fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a sulphur museum in Poland, and on one memorable occasion, a Hungarian salami museum.

Basically, I can’t resist an oddball museum. When I found I would be near the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District, you bet your best set of coloured pencils I went to see it.

Pencils, whether grey graphite or brightly coloured, have a more intriguing history than you might give them credit for, and this museum in Keswick is all over it.

A special HB Derwent Pencil Museum pencil is yours on paying the entry fee of £4.95.

It's rather a lot for a pencil, admittedly, but my heart still beats a little faster in the presence of a pristine new writing implement, never before pressed to paper.

Visitors can also get a quiz to fill out during their exploration of the museum, which charts the history and social impact of the pencil.

Among the things I learned was that the term ‘black market’ originated with the trade in stolen graphite in the 1700s, when the stuff was worth more than gold and used in munitions as well as writing.

Notorious graphite thieves with names like ‘Black Sal’ and ‘The Dandy Wad Stealer’ are surely deserving of some great swashbuckling novel by a latter-day Robert Louis Stevenson.


I also found that the real-life 'Q', Charles Fraser-Smith, liaised in World War Two with the Cumberland Pencil Company to devise a pencil containing a hidden compass and map which was otherwise indistinguishable from a regular pencil.

The program was so secret that, decades later, Derwent pencil makers had to reverse-engineer how it was done, in a technique that was not as simple as you’d think.

There’s a giant pencil in the museum which holds a Guinness Book of Records award.

There’s also one of only two special pencils made for the Queen’s Jubilee (Queen Elizabeth II has the other one) and case upon case of pencil sets in all their deliciously bright, charming glory.

The Derwent Pencil Museum may appeal to kids, but I can’t help feeling the greatest allure is for adults.

We grown-ups are the ones soaking in the nostalgia of our childhood days of carefree colouring and untrammelled creation, before anyone pronounced judgement about whether we were any good.

The back room of the museum is adorned with beautiful drawings done in Derwent – of animals, landscapes and flora.

Tubs of both ordinary and watercolour pencils sit on tables, along with squares of art paper, inviting all to travel back to the creative days of our youth.

Using a photograph I’d taken of a forbidding looking swan at Windermere the day before, I succumbed to the urge.

I took up my colours and didn’t care that I’m no artist. I drew my little swan and I was happy.

The Derwent Pencil Museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, UK. Find opening hours and other details at its website.

You can also support Narrelle’s fiction (and get rewards!) at her Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/NarrelleMHarris.