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Bringing historic mill back to life.


IT wasn't only on Tyneside and Wearside that industry operated at full throttle in past centuries. Some places which today are quiet, rural locations were once part of the North East production powerhouse - such as the Allen smelt mill in what is now the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The lead processing factory, near Allendale in Northumberland, started up in 1692 on the south bank of the River East Allen and continued until 1896 as the centre of the lead industry in the Allen Valley.

Now volunteers who have worked to uncover the remains of the factory and turn the site into a heritage asset have been shortlisted for a Historic England Angel award.

What also drove the volunteers on was the aim of preserving this nationally-important part of the cultural heritage of the Allen valleys, which was on the brink of being lost.

The smelt mill must have been an astonishing sight. An 1847 document lists five roasting furnaces, ore bunkers, eight ore hearths, a refining furnace, two reducing furnaces, two calcining furnaces, two reverberatory furnaces, a slag hearth and a separating house with 18 pots.

Much of the flue system - one of the best preserved in the country - survives in mounds up to eight metres wide. The flues dealt with the noxious fumes from the furnaces and run for more than two miles up to open moorland where they end in two chimneys. The deposits which formed on the flue inside walls were removed to recover lead and silver. The site was one of the largest producers of Northumbrian silver at more than 16,000 ounces a year.

Power for the mill came from a water wheel, driven by supplies from 10 reservoirs which began in Weardale. The volunteers' involvement began in 2014 when the North Pennines AONB Partnership was preparing to investigate the mill as part of the PS2.7m Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

An appeal went out for help to clear rubble and vegetation which had buried the remains of the factory, which is a scheduled monument. The volunteers responded with hard-graft weekends to reveal the ruins and a number returned to carry on working, which enabled the AONB to win funding for a wider scheme than originally planned.

Lead volunteer Helen Wilkinson said: "When we first arrived on the site there were just a few bits of masonry poking out from the vegetation. But as we started to clear the ground, everyone was so amazed by what we were finding.

"What we've achieved together so far is something to be really proud of, but we're not about to stop now. I'm really excited about plans to restore a working water wheel on the site."

The AONB Partnership has made the site safe for public access and has installed physical and digital interpretation to show how it would have looked when in use.

Andy Lees, programme development manager for the AONB Partnership, said: "This nationally significant and rare example of a lead smelting factory has been saved by excellent teamwork."

This involved Hexham-based Doonan Architects and Heritage Consolidation Ltd.

"Volunteers, specialist contractors, architect and site owners worked hand in hand. The skills and labour of the volunteers allowed us to secure further funding from Historic England and for more of the site to be worked on," said Andy. "There is now an exciting project under way to repair the water wheel pit and to install a replica waterwheel.

The smelt mill originally belonged to the Bacon family. During the 18th century it was leased from Sir William Blackett by Lancelot Algood who used it to smelt ore from his Alston Moor mines. From 1786 the mill was owned by the Beaumont Company becoming one of the largest in the country with the capacity to process over 2,000 tons of lead ore annually.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of tons of lead left the Blackett and later Beaumont smelt mills for Newcastle, to be transported to the rest of the country, or exported overseas. In 1854, the Beaumont family were reported as producing one fourth of the lead in England and about one 10th of that of the whole of Europe. Between 1725 and 1870, their mills produced three million ounces of silver. The 2.5-hectare site is owned by artists Christopher and Anne Bacon, who moved to Allendale in 1996.

Christopher was an art teacher, printmaker and painter and Anne worked as head of picture conservation at Northumbria University. They saw the potential of the onceabandoned site for arts, heritage and business development which would boost the Allen Valley economy.

Restored buildings now house nine businesses. Allendale Brewery and the Spice Mill restaurant are on site, which also features sculptures by eight internationally-known artists, while a sculpture trail is part of the riverside walk to Allendale.

Two other heritage buildings have been saved as part of the Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme. Ninebanks hearse house was gifted to the people of the Allen Valleys in the 1850s by local philanthropist Isaac Holden but was falling into disrepair. It has now been restored as a shelter for walkers.

Restoration work has also taken place at the Barney Craig mineshop near Carrshield in the West Allen Valley, which accommodated miners between shifts.


An aerial view of Allen Smelt Mill prior to the completion of the project, and right, after completion
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 21, 2018
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