Treacle Mines

  • Fact or fiction?
  • Can the reality be separated from the myth?
  • What scientific evidence is there?
  • Could there be more than one origin for the legend?

  • explores the topic
  • identifies several possible sources
  • considers the likelihood of substantial underground caves, and
  • puts forward a remarkable suggestion!











Natland Treacle Mines

Ask a Natlander about the Treacle Mines and the reaction can vary from a look of blank puzzlement to a wry smile and knowing wink.  A few view the subject as an embarrassment whilst others regard it as a good bit of harmless fun to be enjoyed at the expense of curious visitors.  

But perhaps there are those who know rather more?

Ask for directions if you will but do not expect a simple answer.  One theory is that the secret is known only to a few village elders; another is that they have all died and the knowledge is lost.

Walking round Natland, the only visible reference to the Treacle Mines is in a garden on Oxenholme Lane where a small cart is on display, painted in the livery of the Natland Treacle Mines Ltd of Westmorland.  Also in the garden is a replica of a delivery bicycle, as used to carry the treacle to the customers.

A Treacle Mine cart

Internet references to Natland Treacle Mines exist but generally add little to what was recorded in Whin Inglesfield's book Natland & Oxenholme; the Story of a Westmorland Village. She records the legend that in the year 1211, a man searching for Roman treasure in a cavern near Natland saw an ancient pot apparently filled with gold, guarded by a snake.  Recklessly he seized it, the snake bit him, his hand began to swell and throb and he fainted, breaking the pot.  But what was in his hand was a golden syrup that cured him at once.  Realising that this was more precious than any coins, the man explored the cave and found a spring of treacle.  For centuries this has brought health and wealth to the villagers, but no outsider is ever told where the golden spring may be.

Whin is dismissive of the legend and speculates that the origin of the long-standing rumour might be related to an accumulation of sticky resin in the old sawpit on the village green opposite Compton House, near Green Tree House.

A variation on this theme is that there is a layer of bituminous tar underneath the Green that has the appearance of treacle.

Robert Gambles, in an article in the magazine Cumbria circa 2003, also tells a version of the same treasure legend and explains that the word "treacle" derives from the old French word "triacle" which in turn came from the Greek "theriake" (other sources, say Latin "theriaca") meaning an antidote against poisonous bites.

He, too, goes on to debunk the myth, pointing out that the suspiciously precise year 1211 is, in Roman numerals, MCC XI- a term well familiar to cricketers- and that the reference to "Golden Syrup" suggests a much more modern origin!

Mr Gambles puts forward a totally different theory, that in 1983 contractors for the North West Water Authority were excavating a trench for a new pipeline across a field near Natland when they broke into a subterranean cave.  Two experienced speleologists investigated and discovered a large cavern with a stream flowing through it.  A full exploration was not possible in the time available but most of the usual features of limestone caves were found.  

Exploring the cave


Of especial interest were several clusters of helictites and a pocket of cave pearls which one of the cavers, Jeff Clegg, photographed.  Jeff has kindly allowed to reproduce his pictures.

Regrettably, the water authority did not permit a complete survey of the cave and permanently sealed the only known entrance.  Further investigation has been denied.

Robert Gambles goes on to question whether this natural feature was known to earlier generations?  As the cave is only a few feet below the level of the fields, the watercourse must have an outlet not too far away.  Earth movement or some other activity may have blocked an entrance once well known in the locality.  The underground waters were clear and pure, ideally suited for the concoction of home made "treacle" with the herbs that grew abundantly in the surrounding woods.


Cave Pearls

Long ago, in the early eighties, not long after I first moved to Natland, I did hear rumours of a cave to be found along the road toward Sedgwick, near the railway lines. I confess I approached the subject with scepticism.  Although this is a limestone area, I had not heard of any other caves locally.  However, with modern technology, an internet search quickly identifies the existence of at least two nearby:

  • Helsfell Cave at Helsfell Nab, just west of Kendal, near the golf course.
    John Beecham excavated this cave, on the outskirts of Kendal, in the 1880s.  His collection was bought by Kendal museum in 1888 and in 1960 sold to Liverpool Museum.
  • Whitbarrow Bone Cave on Farrer's Allotment, Whitbarrow Scar

And then, whilst preparing this article, I was presented with a document that forced me to suspend any remaining disbelief.  Keith Bradbury, Natlander and Secretary of the Kendal Caving Club, sent me an article that he wrote a few years ago about the club's search for caves around Natland. Entitled Natland Treacle Mines, he describes the article as "accurate but somewhat flippant!"  It makes fascinating reading; it is not really about the treacle mines at all but a speleological description of the area and the challenge of trying to understand where water flows once underground.

Keith had been in touch with Jeff Clegg and obtained more of the story.  The original exploration had been reported in Descent, the Magazine of Underground Exploration, edition number 55 November 1983.  Subsequently the club has made some progress in identifying the location of the cave (near and possibly under the railway).  

Keith added that KCC has a current dig opposite the lay-bye next to the Helm but this doesn't appear to be very promising at the present time. A lot of infill has been removed from a small natural cave system but current progress is in a spoil-filled chamber with no obvious way forward. Digging is extremely laborious so he does not envisage caverns measureless to man in the near future!

However the likelihood of a substantial cave in the area seems real.  But whether this is the elusive treacle mine remains speculation.










Perhaps the clue to the real story of the Treacle Mines lies within the village, in the obvious place, with the owner of the aforementioned treacle mine cart and bike. The cart has now achieved international exposure, having been posted on the internet- visit Google Earth and zoom into to Natland and you will find its photograph.

Its owner, Jim Cannon, had also heard about the NWWA discovery when putting in the new water pipes although he understood its location to be close to Hawes Bridge (near which Keith Bradbury identifies a small muddy chamber). 

A replica treacle delivery bicycle

However his memories of the Treacle Mine long predates that excavation. Jim explained that when he moved to Natland in 1935 he learned about the Gunpowder Works and the Treacle Mines.  He was able to discover the remains of the Gunpowder Works but the location of the Treacle Mines eluded him.  He discussed it with an old farmer, Johnny Wilson, who told Jim that he used the treacle on his farm for his animals due to its healing properties.  He explained that it is not like Tate & Lyle but is solid but would liquefy if heated.  Jim asked where the mines could be found but was told, "Can't rightly say!"  Couldn't or wouldn't?  He did give a clue that they were "Up Helm way."

A lump of treacle like rock

Jim's explorations led him to the old quarry on Helm and the discovery of rock quite unlike the predominant limestone- a sort of ruddy brown colour.  He showed a sample to the late Pearson Charnley who recognised it as the same as the somewhat brittle stone out of which a couple of cottages on Helm Lane had been constructed.  

Could this perhaps be the origin of the legend?  Or could there be more than one type of treacle contributing to and confusing the story?

Jim has several more observations on the subject, some dating back to his scouting days:

  • The 1st Kendal Scout troop, at a jamboree on the Isle of Mull, presented the Chief Scout with a block of Kendal Mint Cake and a block of Natland Treacle.  The wrapper was bright yellow and printed in black with the words "Natland Treacle as supplied to 1st Kendal Scouts and used on its expeditions."
  • Trevor Hughes, member of the Civic Society and well known authority on Kendal's history, was also a Scout leader.  He used to illustrate the stories told about the treacle mines at jamborees with a pair of treacle miner's shoes that he had made- special moccasins with soles made of lamb's wool impregnated with candle wax to cope with the inevitable stickiness of the mine floor.
  • The Rainbow Hotel in Kendal used to have a sepia photograph hanging on its walls showing an old bus heading up Highgate Bank, its destination clearly shown as Natland Treacle Mines.
  • A group of Natlanders, believing the Treacle Mine cave lies between Long Meadow Lane and the railway, are hoping to force the water authorities (now United Utilities) to publish the record of its excavations as clearly any further development of the village on top of such unstable ground of historic importance would be quite inappropriate.

The evidence is at best confusing and contradictory with at least three different types of treacle being involved- rock, resin and edible food or medicine.  But maybe, just possibly, could this confusion be deliberate and serve to protect a different secret known only to a few initiates?

There is another explanation and might it be significant that Jim Cannon failed to mention it?  

In amongst the whimsy and myth on the Treacle Miner website (where there is reference to a number of treacle mine locations including a brief mention of Natland plus a passing reference to the Kendal Mint Cake quarry), there exists a quite different postulation.  It suggests that the Treacle Mine legends were deliberately propagated as a cover for an underground defence system in anticipation of invasion during the First World War.  And of course such a system would be worth keeping secret for future potential use in times of need.  So maybe someone in the village really is the guardian of a secret of much greater national importance than mere treacle, no matter how great its medicinal qualities?

When I put the suggestion to Jim Cannon, he became unusually silent and refused to comment.  I may be barking up the wrong tree but, if you want to know the truth about Natland Treacle Mines, my recommendation is that if there is ever a national emergency, keep a tight watch from a discrete distance on Jim Cannon's whereabouts and all may be revealed.

Don Shore, 23rd May 2008



For more about the Natland's Caves and Treacle Mines, see:
 The Natland Pipeline Cave
Helm Gate Cave
The Barrows Green Cave
Natland Treacle Tours!



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