TWO chaps from an ICI depot near Kendal used to deliver explosives to a limestone quarry where I worked as a rock driller. They’d park their wagon in the quarry bottom, have a quick smoke, then I’d give them a hand chucking Iregel, Anfo and Opencast Gelignite into the quarry magazine. I would look forward to their visits. When you’re stuck on a well-boring rig on the top of a quarry, week in and week out, with no one to talk to but yourself and a growing band of imaginary friends, the arrival of two blokes and a tonne of explosives is the equivalent of the circus coming to town.
So we’d unload the gear. And when we’d finished there would usually be a few boxes left in the wagon – black powder for the slate quarries up in the fells and a few packs of gelignite for Carrock Mine. Carrock was on borrowed time in those days. The veins were getting thin, the ICI fellas used to say.
One day, when we’d finished unloading the explosives, there was only black powder left in the wagon. Black powder for the fell quarries. Nothing else.
“Nowt for Carrock?” I asked.
The fellas shook their heads.
“Nowt for Carrock.”
That was the end. Autumn 1981. And now I stand on the deeply-rutted tarmac road that shoots up the side of Carrock Fell to the place where the mine buildings used to stand.
Carrock was Lakeland’s only wolfram and scheelite mine – the minerals being the principal ores of tungsten. Galena, the ore of lead, was also mined here. Carrock was a large operation, dating from the 1850s. Like all Lakeland mines, prosperity came in peaks and troughs. But mainly troughs.
Things took off in a big way in the early 1900s. But in 1919, after the First World War ended, the price of wolfram collapsed and the mine fell into a period of disuse.
The fall of Burma – a source of tungsten – in 1942 brought another period of prosperity. The Ministry of Supply commandeered the workings and employed a company of Canadian Army engineers, who were later replaced by local miners, Spaniards who had fled Franco’s brutal fascist regime, and Italian PoWs. The mine flourished until the Nazi threat diminished, when it sank once more into inactivity – thus reinforcing the Billy Bragg lyrics:
“War. What is it good for? It’s good for business.”
Not that they need reinforcing. But if further proof is needed, the outbreak of the Korean War – Korea also being a source of tungsten – in the 1950s heralded another period of interest in Carrock. But moves to reopen the workings were opposed by various conservation groups, and by the time the wrangle was sorted the price of tungsten had fallen – so the mine remained closed.
I’ll pause there just in case that last point slipped by unnoticed like a lady’s fart in a Keswick trinket shop. Here it comes again. Britain was at war and needed resources. Entrepreneurs attempted to reopen a mine. The move was opposed by people who believed that mines had no place in a newly-formed national park.
The British casualties in Korea totalled 710 dead, 2,278 wounded, 1,263 missing in action (which sounds pretty dead to me), and 766 captured. My father, who was an aircraft handler on the carrier HMS Theseus, was out there along with thousands of others fighting a load of blokes they didn’t know from Adam. Meanwhile, on the home front, various organisations with a vested interest in keeping the countryside free of hard-working country folk were thrusting their polished ebony spokes into the wheels of industry. Some people didn’t know there was a war on.
In a less-challenging world it would be convenient to accept that the Lake District was shaped by Wordsworth, Wainwright and Beatrix Potter. But it wasn’t. It was given its identity by people with spades, picks and grit down their trousers – blokes who smelted iron, sheared sheep, coppiced woodland, produced charcoal, mined the earth, and risked life and limb to work the green slate. Lakeland is a product of its native industries: principally agriculture, quarrying and mining. The towns and villages evolved around those industries. The economy was based on those industries. It’s ironic, then, that in the name of conservation and the preservation of a unique environment, one of those industries should get it right in the neck.
Carrock Mine’s final phase came in the late 1970s. But the price of wolfram tumbled and the last 30 miners were laid off in 1981. Big shame that. If they’d held out another few months the Falklands War might have brought a welcome burst of prosperity. It was good for business, apparently.
And now there’s nothing left except a few concrete blocks and a busted tarmac road. With a disregard for industrial heritage and history, the authorities had the site landscaped and the workings sealed up. A visitor walking up Grainsgill Beck today might be forgiven for thinking that nothing more interesting than a council gritting depot had occupied this remote and haunting place.
Anyway. Tea break over, back on your heads. I’m here to do a circuit of Carrock Fell, High Pike, Knott and the Calvas before darkness closes in. I’m in a bad mood, which is good from a walking point of view because it means my legs will move faster. Nothing gets my back up more than institutionalised vandalism. But there you go.
From the mine, I steam straight up the gill to the ridge, and in just over an hour am on Carrock Fell, where the remains of an Iron Age hill fort encircle the summit.
The first and last time I climbed up here, which was May 1979, I didn’t take much notice of the ruined fort because, to be quite honest, there isn’t much to see. But today I skirt the perimeter wall and find a section of original stonework still in place. This fort was built by Britons, or Celts, as a defence against the Romans. But it was never completed because various conservation groups and socially-advantaged vocal types stepped in and blocked it. Just kidding. Sort of.
From Carrock Fell I follow grassy ridges to High Pike and Knott, pausing only for a flask of jasmine-flavoured green tea in the Lingy Hut before climbing into the mist. I reach the summit of Great Calva as the gloom begins to gather.
I make my descent along the line of a fence and hit the Skiddaw House track as darkness falls. I have my Petzl headlamp burning and visibility is good. It’s a pleasant plod back to the mine in the dark.
As I warm a pan of home-made red cabbage soup and sip a billy of tea, I reflect upon the generations of men who shaped this valley and these fells – from the industrious Iron Age stone-wallers to the miners who toiled beneath the ground.
Now there is a lifeless feel to the place. It has been sanitised from afar by people who have never had segs on their hands. History has been crushed beneath the blade of a bulldozer. A unique corner of Lakeland has been wiped off the map and replaced by a landscape that masquerades as natural but is nothing of the sort.
Thirty years on, that Kendal fella’s words ring hollow and prophetic: “Nowt for Carrock.”
- The historical details of Carrock Mine reproduced here have been largely gleaned from an account written by an old friend of mine, the late Dave Blundell, in Beneath the Lakeland Fells (Red Earth Publications, 1992). An abridged version can be viewed here.