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.



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.

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