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Killhope's great wheel of fortune keeps on turning.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

In the second part of his exploration of the North's lead mining landscape, Environment Editor Tony Henderson goes underground.

Only a handful of people live today in Upper Weardale, which shares the quiet and remoteness that characterises much of the North Pennines uplands.

But in 1871 in the highest part of Weardale west of Cowshill, the population numbered around 1,000.

The vast majority worked for WB Lead, the mining company of the Blackett-Beamounts who had dominated mining in Weardale and the Allendales since wealthy merchant Sir William Blackett obtained major leases in the area.

And the miners have left their mark on the North Pennines landscape, including what is now Killhope Lead Mining Museum in Upper Weardale.

Its boast is that it is the best preserved lead mining site in Britain.

At the heart of the centre is the Park Level mine and the Park Level mill, where the lead ore was crushed and processed.

It is just three miles ( and barely over the border into County Durham from Cumbria ( from the 200-acre site of the Nenthead Mining Heritage Centre.

The award-winning Killhope attraction is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

The mine opened in 1853 and in the 1870s, when it cut into the ore-rich Killopehead vein, it was among the top 10 richest lead operations in the country.

But by the end of the First World War the Killhope mine was deserted and slid into 70 years of dereliction.

Machinery was moved elsewhere and the scrap men combed the site. Remarkably, Killhope's great iron water wheel survived.

The wheel, which powered the ore processing work, is more than 38ft in diameter and was built by the Tyneside works of the industrial baron William Armstrong.

In 1968, Durham County Council leased the remains of the Park Level mine and what was left of its buildings.

It carried out minor repairs and laid out a picnic area. Twenty years go the council opened a small interpretation centre in the old mineshop building.

In 1991 the big water wheel was restored to working order and a new visitor centre was set up. Eight years ago part of the Park Level mine re-opened.

Now visitors can don hard hat and wellies and with lamps and a guide enter Park Level ( the tunnel leading into the workings.

They plodge through the water which flows through the tunnel, draining the workings deep within the hill.

They can experience part of the original mine, which has been extended and reconstructed for safety reasons.

The trip gives a vivid impression of what working life was like for the 19th Century miners.

They did not have the benefit of rubber wellingtons to keep their feet dry and because they had to pay for their own tallow candles, they lit them only when absolutely necessary.

Instead they would walk the tunnel in darkness, flicking the sides and roof with sticks to keep them on course.

The tunnel was built to be just wide enough to take the horses which dragged the tubs of ore.

The dry stone arching of the first stretch of the Park Level is a tribute to its creators who constructed it without cement or mortar. At the junction of tunnels the masons' arches are almost church-like.

The mine intercepts 14 ore veins at right angles, with a network of tunnels and workings branching off the main level.

The nearest vein, Himer's, is 300ft from the mine entrance. The most distant, the Killhopehead vein, is a mile away and took 20 years of burrowing to reach.

Inside the mine are 19th Century date and name carvings left by the workers.

A replica water wheel shows how the lower workings were drained and there is a timber platform of the type the men built as they worked upwards along a vein. And all done by spluttering candlelight.

Danger was ever-present. In 1864 Thomas Rowell and Graham Peart were working high up in a rise when a rock fall carried Peart to his death.

Rowell was trapped for three days and nights before rescue came, with the only sound being the crashing of stones flying past him. He sustained himself by eating his tallow candles and catching falling drops of water. Outside the mine are the remains of hushes ( channels created by the release of dammed up water to sweep away earth and boulders above a vein, which could then by exposed by pick, shovel or gunpowder.

The biggest of the hushes in the valley is the Cowhaust Hush, which is 3,000ft long and 90ft deep.

The patterns of small fields, stone walls and small houses of the farmer-miners dot the landscape as do their schools, chapels and reading rooms.

Lead mining was more or less at an end by the start of the 20th Century, although a few mines like Boltsburn at nearby Rookhope continued until the early 1930s.

But the legacy of the industry and its miners is still pervasive and Killhope is keeping that story alive.

Next week: the final leg of our lead mining journey.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 25, 2004
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