Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kilve, Somerset

Scotch from the rocks

In 1851 the scientist James (‘Paraffin’) Young realized that oil could be distilled from shale, a kind of rock that could be found in, among other places, West Lothian and Fife. Once mined, the shale had to be heated in a retort to extract the oil. The resulting products included naphtha, lamp oil, paraffin, paraffin wax, motor spirit, and black tar of the sort used on roads. Scottish shale mining peaked in 1913, but the business carried on in other parts of the country, declining after World War II. Between the wars, with a nod to motor fuel’s origins in Scottish shale, petrol pumps were sometimes labelled, rather ambiguously, ‘Scotch’.

Kilve, not far from Minehead in Somerset, is one place where shale abounds in the coastal cliffs. In 1916 it was discovered that the rock contained oil and in 1924 the Shaline company was set up to begin oil production here. This small brick building housed a retort. It was probably the first to be built here in a rush of optimism in the 1920s, an optimism that now seems to be mocked by the rusty, plant-grown chimney.

Oil production on the Somerset coast was not profitable and the industry failed to take off. As a result, the landscape along the coast at Kilve is far from industrial. One can still admire the dramatic layers rock formations of the shale, and, rich in fossils, the cliffs and beach draw palaeontologists as well as those who come simply to admire the view. Rock pools, ammonites, and cream teas are more likely than oil to bring people to Kilve today.

Ammonite, Kilve


Peter Ashley said...

What a stunning pic. I have to go there immediately, hoping the tree 'smoke' is still belching out. Kilve always brings to mind Edward Thomas's In Pursuit of Spring, where The Other Man tells him that Wordsworth's son was right to say "At Kilve there is no weather-cock...".

CarolineLD said...

Thank you for a fascinating piece of history - I went horseriding in Kilve for years as a child, but never knew about its would-be oil industry.

Anonymous said...

Oil industry in Somerset? Never knew that.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well, the industry didn't really get off the ground, so it's easy to miss.