NB: More specialised notes on the geology will follow closer to the event. The following will, I hope,
whet the appetite of the non-specialists – for whom there is no excuse not to join us!
This year’s geology programme, has been designed around the theme of ‘minerals’ (lead, fluorspar,
baryites, iron) putting the spotlight onto the ‘T’- Teesdale element of our ‘DTNFC’.
Our first outing will look at the lead mining industry which, over the last two millennia, has been so
important to Teesdale. Its impact on the built, social and rural environment of Teesdale is unavoidable
to even the casual observer. That its ‘capital’, Middleton in Teesdale, became a thriving lead company
town in the 19th century is evident in the many impressive buildings constructed by the London Lead
company in what is today a relatively small, remote market town. The volume and impact of mining
on the surrounding fells remains visible in the many spoil heaps and ruined structures in areas such as
Pike Law above Newbiggin and Coldberry Gutter above Middleton. Millions of tons of rocks and ore
were removed, processed… and dumped! Fortunes were made by the owners whilst, at the same
time, very hard lives were endured by the lead miners themselves, some of them perhaps your own
Teesdale’s lead mining history, is believed to stretch back at least as far as the Romans for whom
Britain’s mineral treasures were a large motivating factor in their invasion. Pliny remarked that
production in Britain was so plentiful that it should be restricted in law. The Roman Empire’s lead
processing was so extensive across Europe that it is evidenced today by the presence of lead dust in
ice cores from Greenland.
Early Roman exploitation was probably driven by a primary aim of extracting silver from the lead ore
with deposits in the upper Dale, towards Alston, having a higher silver concentration than those lower
down the Dale. The lead itself was, of course, also enormously useful and therefore valuable in itself.
It has always been used extensively in plumbing work [‘plumbum’ = Latin for lead] but also in roofing,
pottery glazes, glass making, ammunition, paints, toxic toys and later in petrol – this latter used some
time after the Romans! The occasional discovery of Roman ‘pigs’ [large ingots] of lead on the Pennine
hills confirms a Roman presence but there is also botanical evidence of other, early, foreign miners.
Colonies of long-naturalised trees and plants from continental Europe around some older minestestify
to exploitation by Scandinavian and other early workers, not just the Romans.
One controversial theory that may – or may not – account for the puzzling ‘Castles’ archaeological site
near Hamsterley, was that it served as a prison camp for defeated British tribesmen enslaved to work
in the Roman lead/silver mines. Those of you who are readers of Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels will have
been introduced to Roman lead mining in Britain by the first in that series, the ‘Silver Pigs’ …perhaps
a slightly more entertaining read than a geology text book! Another controversial theory is that toxic
levels of ubiquitous lead rendered many Roman men, including Julius Caesar, infertile…but this is
probably a digression too far! Back to Teesdale.
Historic records, actually begin in the 12th century with exploitation rights awarded to the Prince
Bishops and linked to the extraction of silver. At that period significant exports of lead were already
being shipped through Yarm, much of it from Swaledale, where large workable deposits also existed.
Over the next few centuries, production expanded. The construction of great medieval cathedrals in
England, France and elsewhere created demand for lead for roofing and malleable strips to hold
together stained glass windows. For the rich, it provided cisterns, tanks, gutters, statues, ornaments
and, finally, their coffins. ‘Sugar of lead’ was used to sweeten wine and other foods…which no doubt
helped that thriving coffin industry. With the later technical advances in extraction and processing
methods introduced by the industrial revolution, vast swathes of Teesdale and neighbouring
Weardale, must have become a black, noisy, smoky, smelly industrial landscape from hell populated
by hundreds of hard worked men and ponies.
Today is very different. The spoil heaps have generally been covered over the mosses, lichens and
calaminarian grassland. The ‘leadwort’ (spring sandwort) of the miners, previously valued for
indicating where lead could be found, now entrances botanists along with mountain pansies, alpine
pennycress and other specialised plants. A number of the old reservoirs act as remote but valuable
refuges for our fragile water vole population and other wildlife.
Whilst there are many interesting sites for us to explore in Teesdale itself our initial visit is going to be
to Killhope Mining Museum in Upper Weardale which provides an exceptional introduction to the local
industry. Here, you can see how a working lead mine functioned. We will start by actually going
into the mine itself – a fascinating experience. Unlike coal mines, lead mines were usually exploited
by levels rather than shafts. They followed narrow ore veins along geological faults into the hillside.
19th century miners walked for up to 2 hours underground to get to the ore but we will only go a few
hundred yards in with one of Killhope’s excellent and expert guides. The museum will provide hard
hats and lamps but we will need to bring our own wellies as we shall be plodging – as did the miners
and their ponies – through several inches of water. Water is also likely to be dripping from the roof
so, even if we are lucky enough to have a sunny day for the trip, bring a waterproof jacket for the mine
trip. Small children cannot go down the mine but this trip is perfect for older children with 12” high
wellies. Those of you over about 5’6” may have to stoop for a few seconds in a couple of places but
this shouldn’t be a problem. It is not cold. In addition to an exhibit showing how the miners worked,
you will also see an extraordinary underground 24ft water wheel.
After entering the mine itself, there is a fascinating mineral exhibition inside the reception building a
wash floor outside on which you can do a bit of ore processing, the mine’s blacksmith shop, a
recreation of the barrack type room where the miners slept cheek by jowl in fetid conditions and the
manager’s office. At the reservoirs above the mine you will have a good chance of spotting water
voles, goldcrests and other wildlife. There are red squirrels in the car park. Crucially, there is a good
café and toilets. So don’t miss this outing.
NB: ENTRANCE TO KILLHOPE IS CURRENTLY FREE OF CHARGE this is because part of the site is still
undergoing restoration. Since a day wouldn’t be enough to time to take in all that Killhope has to
offer, this should not reduce the experience in anyway.