ON the plain beneath the northern slopes of Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains lies the redundant iron mining community of Alquife. It’s a quiet, almost jaded sort of place that reminds me of the redundant iron mining community where I grew up – one road in and one road out; a scattering of shops; a few pubs; and an abundance of dull red spoil heaps on the outskirts standing as a reminder that something once took place here.
I suppose that in Alquife there are grandfathers who walk their grandsons along the abandoned railway lines and tell them stories of when things were different and perhaps more prosperous, just as my grandfather took me around the overgrown and decaying industrial remains of Askam-in-Furness when I was a child. Iron will be in the blood in Alquife. It’ll be under the finger nails and ingrained in the soul. I know this.
Alquife’s backdrop is the hazy Cerro de Piedras Blancas and the foothills of the high sierra. Askam’s backdrop comprises fells that stretch west from Coniston Old Man to Crinkle Crags, Scafell Pike and the dark bulk of Black Combe.
Alquife is a little dustier than the village of my childhood, and its climate is preferable to one that’s battered by gales from the Irish Sea and blizzards from the north. But Alquife has been, for many years, a place I’ve longed to visit for it shares more than a few coincidences of fate with the distant Askam. It has a historical link.
From 1899 to well into the 20th Century, the Alquife mines were owned and worked by the Millom and Askam Heamatite Iron Company. Millom is a redundant iron mining and smelting community on the west bank of the Duddon estuary, in Cumbria. Askam is all those things but on the east bank of the estuary. Millom’s sole claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the poet Norman Nicholson. Askam’s sole claim to fame has yet to emerge, though it once featured in a Hairy Bikers series (Si and Dave cooked Thai curry, would you believe) and its most southerly signal-box made a fleeting appearance in the 1970 film version of Samuel Youd’s The Death of Grass.
So with thick cloud hugging the Sierra Nevada and a weather forecast that offers little hope of climbing mountains, I’m having a couple of hours wandering Alquife’s dusty streets, trying to feel at home and looking for links to Askam and cultural similarities.
According Christopher D Jones, an old mining friend of mine who has visited these parts, the recently demolished co-operative store still carried its Millom and Askam Heamatite Iron Company motif above the door. Alas, “recently demolished” means another link sundered. This community produced 40 per cent of the iron mined in Spain, and all that remains is an ore-tub memorial, a couple of plaques – and a vast wasteland of mining buildings that’s fenced off behind barbed wire to prevent enthusiastic people like me killing themselves in abandoned workings.
Does Alquife have a silver band like the mining village of my childhood, I wonder? Do geese chase strangers along the street? Is there a decent chip shop? Where’s the rugby league pitch? What about whippet and pigeon racing? Do men fight with shovels outside the pubs? Alas, these are questions that will never be answered. Not today anyway, because it’s Sunday and everywhere is shut. Bugger. At least Askam Co-op’s open on a Sunday. Even though there’s no company motif above the door.
It’s a long drive back to Orgiva over the mountain passes. But as the rattly car descends the winding road towards Laroles the cloud begins to break and the sun shines through. Goodbye dusty plains and long-buried links to the past. Goodbye fellow people of the red earth. Mountain-climbing weather has returned.
- Alquife iron mining links: