The Black Abyss (Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine)

Hopegill Head from Grisedale Pike

ALICE BAUER is singing Salty Dog. Pavel Klikar is blowing his trumpet. The entire Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra rattles the dashboard. And there’s an early-morning smudge of slush on the A66 and a scattering of snow across the bleakness of Stainmore.

The Cumbrian fells rise in the distance, shrouded in a mass of black cloud and grey curtains of falling snow. Only Blencathra stands out from the darkness like a great white ship. It’s going to be a cold one, and perhaps a dodgy one.

I pull into the little lay-by above Braithwaite, at the start of the Force Crag Mine road. As I brew up on the stove in the back of the Wagon, a God-almighty shower of snow and soft hail scythes out of the west. In a matter of seconds, the greyness of my surroundings is transformed into whiteness. A very cold whiteness.

According to my records, I’ve climbed Grisedale Pike (summit ridge above) only once, and that was in 1982. But I’ve been underneath it many times – for the mountain is riddled with the thousands of feet of tunnels, shafts and workings of Force Crag Mine.

A little delve into history here. Just a peek into the black abyss of times gone by. The English Lake District was one of the great mining areas of the past. It has produced copper, lead, silver, zinc, iron, slate, graphite, and any number of lesser and associated minerals from deep in its volcanic heart – and on an industrial scale since Elizabethan times. Force Crag was the last mine to be worked commercially, finally closing down in 1990 after producing various quantities of galena (the ore of lead), sphalerite (the ore of zinc), and barytes. The mine was worked for lead from 1839 to 1865, and for zinc and barytes from 1867.

I count myself lucky and privileged because I had a certain amount of involvement with the final operation. Several of the partners of the New Coledale Mining Company were friends of mine. And because at that time I was employed as a tunneller for Burlington Slate, and because I was totally obsessed with mines and mining history, I spent several weekends at Force Crag along with other like-minded people, clearing roof-falls, filling tubs, and generally struggling to get the workings into a productive state.

When I say “lucky”, I accept, of course, that not everybody would consider themselves lucky to be sloshing about in knee-deep water and shoring up rotten timberwork to keep half a mountain from crashing on their head; then spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist. But that’s what happened. And for several years Force Crag limped along like the last wounded animal of a doomed species before lurching into extinction in 1990. It was a sad but not inglorious end. The mine went the same way as most mineral adventures. And it will be remembered, by me at least, with more than a degree of fondness.

So, history lecture over for now. The wind’s blowing from the west and bringing snow showers with it. After a brew and a bite in a stone shelter just below Grisedale Pike’s summit cairn, I set off for Hopegill Head.

I have a sort of rough though flexible plan to traverse the ridge from Hopegill Head to Whiteside (above right) then back again, but I find the going slow because of ice and the thin layer of snow. There is no danger of falling off – or perhaps  falling far – it just becomes such hard, slippery work. About two-thirds of the way along the ridge I utter a silent “sod it” and turn back, skirting below the summit of Hopegill Head and making for Coledale Hause and the track down to the mine.

Force Crag Mine, Coledale, near Keswick

In a pensive frame of mind I sit on the step of the bothy-type building that once served as mine office, bait cabin, changing room, sleeping quarters and meeting place. This brings back memories. Somewhere I have a 35mm slide of Haig Colliery pit deputy Ronnie Calvin RM sitting in the same spot, one warm summer’s day, with mine executives Peter Blezard and Anne Danson. That was in 1984.

Christ, where does it all go? Time? Your life? Other people’s lives? It just gets sucked into a hole at the speed of light. Into the black abyss of history.

Head thick with memories, I plod steadily down Coledale to Braithwaite from the silence of Force Crag. The snow has long finished falling, and I do believe it is disappearing from the lower slopes of the mountains. It hasn’t lasted long. It has come and gone almost as swiftly as the past 25 years.

FOOTNOTE: Force Crag Mine was last worked by the New Coledale Mining Company. The mine is now a scheduled ancient monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Like a lot of monuments, it was, in its glory days, just a place where ordinary people earned a living.

Peter Blezard, Anne Danson, Ronnie Calvin RM – summer 1984

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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8 Responses to The Black Abyss (Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine)

  1. chris walker says:

    Hekllo, great report and Iwondered if you would join us and share your images with us at aditnow.co.uk ?

    Like

    • McEff says:

      Hi Chris. By all means. I reckon I’ve got about 1,000 mining images on slides that were taken between 1979 and 1990, and once I get organised I’ll upload them. They’re mostly in the Lakes, taken with the Cumbria Amenity Trust, but there’s also a load of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

      Like

  2. Thanks for pointing this post out to me, again it’s very interesting and I wish I’d known more before I took a visit to it. I reckon I was here just before you were on this trip but I had a bit more snow when I made this image:

    http://colingriffiths.blogspot.com/2010/01/force-crag-mine.html

    It’s a very atmospheric place in spectacular surroundings which before I’d only ever looked down on from the “tops”.

    Like

  3. George says:

    I did this very walk a couple of weeks ago, though I was lucky to enjoy warm October sunshine for some of it (low hanging cloud for parts). I visited the mine so it is fascinating to read your beautify written account of its last days.

    Like

  4. George says:

    Alen,

    This is my blog of the same walk. Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve quoted you and linked to your piece here as I think your first hand account of the last days of the mine bring it very much alive.

    http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk/grisedale-pike/

    Liked by 2 people

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