Lime burning

by Graham Brooks

Townhead limekilns (G.Brambles)

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. In some places the limestone was simply burnt in clamps or pye kilns, in which coal slack and limestone were burned in an enclosed heap.

It was the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth century, when vast areas  were enclosed for farm land, that created an enormous demand for lime which would reduce the acidity of the soil and make it more fertile. Vast numbers of lime kilns were built and many farmers had their own. Elsewhere large blocks of kilns were built and run commercially so that farmers could buy their lime. These were usually situated next to canals or railways to make transport easier.

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.

The central volcanic mass of Cumbria is surrounded on most sides by outcrops of limestone. Most of these areas have been used for the production of lime, and it is in these areas that the lime kilns can be found. The majority of these are small farm kilns which were used intermittently to produce sufficient lime for the farmer’s own needs. They were all based on the simple draw type kiln in which the fuel and limestone are placed in the kiln in alternate layers. As the fire moves up the kiln burnt lime is drawn out at the bottom. Examples of this type of kiln can be found throughout the county, most dating from the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century.

Some of the larger estates and commercial companies built larger kilns which were run continuously. This involved holding the burning zone in the middle of the pot by adding coal and limestone at the top and withdrawing the burnt lime at the bottom. These were usually either in banks of two or more kilns or had large pots with more than one drawing arch. They were worked commercially with the products being sold over large distances. Fuel was usually obtained from the local coal seams which are associated with the limestone outcrops.

Lime is still produced in Cumbria at the large quarry near Shap for use as a flux in the steel industry.

Limekilns and limeburning: Richard Williams, Shire Album 236
Lime kilns in Processes: Jack Bainbridge, Basil Blackwell
A traffic in lime: A Harris, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society LXXVII
Agricultural lime burning – the Netherby example; D.J.W.Mawson, Transactions of the CWAAS LXXX
Lime burning on Kendal Fell: Tony Keates, The Cumbrian Industrialist, Volume II
Lime burning and the uses of lime in the historic county of Westmorland and along the Pennine Edge of Cumberland : David S. Johnson, Transactions of the CWAAS, Vol XIII, 2013
Limekilns of The North Pennines: Alastair Robertson, North Pennines Heritage Trust, 1999
The Cumbria County History’s article on Limekilns in Westmorland
Limekilns – history and heritage : David Johnson, Amberley, 20187

Kendal Fell (article)


Foresthead, Brampton NY584577 A huge bank of four massive kilns. The pots have been filled although the fronts are open. Accessible from Foresthead.
Askham near Penrith NY508243 Within walking distance of the nearest road, a typical late 19th century kiln with oval pot characteristic of the area.
Smardale Gill, Kirkby Stephen NY724067 Two very large commercial kilns, alongside the disused railway line over Smardale Gill viaduct, with their own siding. Remains can be seen of the large inclined plain and engine house used for hauling wagons to the kiln head
Yewdale, Coniston SD309989 A very old kiln of unusual design, on the Coniston Limestone band. On the  A593, close to the road.
Levens SD485854 Probably the best known kiln in South Lakeland, prominently situated at the side of the A590 near Levens village.
Baycliff Haggs, Ulverston SD281727 Just beside the road and in very good condition

Click here to see a complete (?) listing of limekiln remains in Cumbria

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 05/04/20)