Dangerous, dark and very, very scary
Ever wondered what lies beneath Coniston Old Man? Trail delves below the surface of one of Lakeland’s most renowned fells, so you don’t have to…
Trail is taken on a journey into the heart of Coniston’s Old Man.
“It was messy. He was missing two, maybe three, fingers and had suffered a broken pelvis too. Despite being extremely disorientated he somehow managed to get out alive.” The harrowing words of Rob Ingham, team leader of Coniston Mountain Rescue, reverberated in my ears as we fastened the chinstraps on our helmets and strode into the dark, wet gloom of Moss Head mine. The aforesaid casualty was a Lakeland fellwalker who had ventured into one of Coniston’s slate mines one afternoon, took a fall and came out splinted to a stretcher after a mountain rescue operation that involved 18 personnel and lasted over three hours. It’s fair to say the disused slate mines on Coniston Old Man are no playground.
The village of Coniston in the south Lake District is inextricably linked with the mining industry. Indeed, if you have ever set foot on the Old Man mountain that stands sentry above Coniston you will have seen the extensive molehill-esque spoil tips of waste rock that punctuate the hillside. There are as many as 12 slate workings on the north-east face of the Old Man – most of which have long since ceased to operate – and it is suggested the earliest have been worked since the 13th century when rudimentary surface quarrying began. Eventually, Coniston would become a powerhouse of the English slate industry and the village’s families have ties with the mines that span generations. During the 1950s and ’60s a good many Coniston families earned their crust from the local mining sector and even today it remains an important employer in the community.
It was late in the afternoon when I met Rob Ingham who, along with two mountain rescue colleagues, had kindly agreed to show me the Old Man’s labyrinth of slate workings. I’d always been beguiled by the underground world, despite being more than a little claustrophobic. So, the chance to delve deep within the body of the Old Man came with mixed emotions. But with my safety relatively secured given my company, it seemed too good to miss.
From the rescue team’s HQ just outside the village centre we set off on the popular path that pulls up the east side of the Old Man. As we begin to climb, Rob tells me we’re headed for a clutch of underground slate mines, or ‘closeheads’ as they are known in Cumbria, called the Moss Head workings. These mines, the last to be worked at Coniston’s quarries, are split across three sections – high (or upper), middle and low – and sit between roughly 580m and 670m. While many of the slate workings on the 803m Old Man are now inaccessible due to roof collapses blocking the entrances, the Moss Head mines are among a few that remain open.
Following the signs
Very soon evidence of the bygone industry became unavoidable as we stepped over discarded metal cabling, collapsed ropeway pylons, rusted machinery and broken tramways. All such artefacts have been in situ since at least 1959 when the Moss Head mines were abandoned. Whether these relics represent a fascinating insight into Coniston’s history or a scattered mass of detritus detrimenting the landscape will depend on your perspective.
“THERE ARE AS MANY AS 12 SLATE WORKINGS ON THE NORTH-EAST FACE OF THE OLD MAN”
“WE SPLOSHED AND SHUFFLED ALONG THE DARK, EERIE PASSAGEWAY BEFORE BEING CONFRONTED BY A TWO-WAY JUNCTION THAT DIVIDED OUR PATH”
Rather than a mine, the first site we explored was a plateaued level, at about 450m, that was formerly Saddlestone Mill. This platformed area, unmissable off the right-hand side of the tourist path going up, contains the derelict ruins of the major processing site for the miners’ extracted slate. Here the raw slabs of slate, which would have been winched down from the upper mines in tubs via a network of aerial ropeways, were cleaved into thin veneers by quarrymen in the mill. These exhibits of the locally-famed silver-grey Coniston slate, a specific and particularly coveted bed, were then shuttled down to the Coppermines Valley ready to be exported. Though the Moss Head workings were in operation centuries ago, by wandering around this dilapidated mill it became remarkably easy to conjure a vivid image of what this entire mining site might have looked in action during its heyday.
Not a great distance further up from the old mill site is the first of the Moss Head mines, Low Moss Head. Running from the entrance shaft, or adit, is a narrow-gauge railway track that, like an infinity pool, seems to course straight off a precipice on the Old Man, sending its carriage plummeting into the midst of Coniston Water on the horizon. This ledge tip offers a superb lookout but we decided to press on for the higher of the Moss Head workings.
On the way we passed an intentionally collapsed mining chamber resembling a huge bomb crater, such was the depth of the rocky abyss. With a lack of safety railings around its perimeter it wouldn’t be difficult to mis-navigate in clag, slip over its edge and plunge to an uncomely death. Common sense is thus an invaluable virtue when exploring this quarried hillside.
Into the underworld
We deviated from the main footpath and after gaining a little more altitude reached the adits of Middle and Upper Moss Head. As I secured my safety helmet and fixed my headtorch Rob informed me these two mines run into each other underground by way of a colossal cavern, which we’d be exploring from its floor. And so Middle Moss Head would be the first mine I ever stepped foot in. “Be careful with your footing as we go in,” Rob called back as I followed him into the darkness, “there will be loose rubble, rock and debris everywhere.” With my headtorch angled down to illuminate the way, I tiptoed over various longdeserted mining objects with caution. Corroded water valves, splintered air pipes, fractured tramways, frayed copper roping. Litter is perhaps too critical a term, but these artefacts – many of which are sharp, exposed and hazardous – have remained unmoved since the last miner departed Moss Head simply due to the isolated location and its inaccessibility. It’s the same reason hilltop plane wreckages, such as that on Bleaklow, have never been ‘cleaned up’ either.
As we ventured further into the mine, I was struck by just how big the space was. It was truly awesome. Water drops from the cavern’s ceiling seemed to fall for an eternity before they splashed at my feet. I splashed my torchlight up and down the immense walls in an effort to help my brain make sense of the mine’s enormity. We were flyspecks in a mass underworld. My other observation was how cold it was in the mine compared to outside – so cold in fact an ice structure had accumulated on the periphery of a protruding rock. Eventually we backtracked out and returned to the real world. Like when exiting a cinema, I was surprised to see there was still daylight outside.
I kept my helmet on as the next mine we would be entering was only a short distance away. Spion Kop was first worked at the turn of the 20th century, and the mine was named after the defeat of Britain’s General Buller during the Boer War in January 1900. Football fans will also recognise the term ‘kop’ as in the celebrated terrace at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium. Kop is a term for stands at UK sports stadia that resemble the steep hill in South Africa that was the scene of the Buller’s ill-fated Battle of Spion Kop.
The entrance of Spion Kop mine was considerably more damp than the last, with huge pools of water flooding the opening. We sploshed and shuffled along the dark passageway before being confronted by a two-way junction that divided our path. Rob led us down the right-hand branch, which inclined slightly as it followed another set of cart railway tracks and featured the remnants of a delightful Hobbit-like wooden door. The tunnel led onto a shelf that landed us at the very top of the fantastic cavern that we had stood at the bottom of in Middle Moss Head. If it looked big before, now it was just mind-bending. From this upper perch, the immensity of the hollow amphitheatre was almost unfathomable. An audible scream would likely echo in here for the rest of time. Frighteningly, this exposed shelf offers just a slender single-rail barrier at its edge to prevent a drop of at least 100ft into the abyss. While there is a lack of health and safety signage outside these mines that’s because they are found on a mountain – not because they are without danger.
Dangers in the depths
We departed Spion Kop and made the obligatory short ascent up to the Old Man’s summit. As we begun our descent, Rob, who estimates he has climbed Coniston Old Man about 1000 times in his ten years with Coniston MRT, gives me his standpoint for those who may be interested in seeing the mines. “While we wouldn’t like to discourage people from exploring, accidents and fatalities can happen and the mines should only be investigated by experienced people with the correct equipment,” says Rob.
It is true that people can and have lost their lives within the caverns of the UK’s abandoned slate mines. They can be fascinating yet perilous places, and if you’re unsure about visiting, perhaps this feature will be just enough to satiate your intrigue. It’s worth remembering the walker who escaped from Coniston a number of fingers light, with a shattered pelvis and fighting for his life – he was one of the lucky ones.
■ Trail would like to thank Rob Ingham and the Coniston MRT for making a visit to Coniston’s slate mines possible, and accessible.
Cover photograph: Looking back to Table Mountain, Brecon Beacons.
The enormous cavern in Middle Moss Head mine.
The scars of mining are still starkly evident on the slopes of The Old Man.
A tramway outside Low Moss Head looks to run into Coniston Water on the horizon.
The tunnel into Spion Kop mine splits in two.
A collapsed ropeway pylon lies across the footpath.
Entrance shaft of Middle Moss Head mine.
A collapsed mine chamber.
Aerial ropeway system.