TODAY I have a mission. This is no ordinary walk into the Pennine hills. This is a voyage of discovery to a lonely place where ingenious and industrious men built wondrous machines. And ingenious men they certainly were. The Brunels, the Stephensons, Telford and Trevithick might well have hogged industrial revolution glory and claimed immortality. But the unknown men of Green Hurth were no less inventive and ambitious. It’s just that their legacy has all but vanished from the face of the earth . . .
The blue touchpaper for this mission was sparked by an email from Graham Vasey (see his photography blog here), who had read my May 9 post about the old lead mines north-west of Cow Green reservoir, above Teesdale, in particular the long-abandoned Green Hurth Mine. He asked if I’d seen the “giant waterwheel pit”, which I hadn’t.
So I glanced at the satellite view on Bing Maps and there it was, a giant waterwheel pit as viewed from space – Cow Green’s answer to the Great Wall of China. What immediately struck me as intriguing was that the waterwheel was not positioned anywhere near the mine workings and their associated machinery. It was hundreds of yards away, at the foot of the moor in the middle of a bog. Why did those ingenious and industrious men build a giant waterwheel pit in the middle of nowhere? I was hooked, I must admit. I had a Miss Marple moment.
I studied the satellite image. A very faint line of disturbed ground could be discerned running from the waterwheel pit up the fell in the direction of an old shaft, many hundreds of metres away. Was this evidence of an elaborate haulage system or chain of timber “flat-rods” installed to pump water from the shaft? I packed my rucksack – not quite feverishly but pretty sharpish. A visit was required. (Click images for high-res versions)
So that was last night. This morning I’m clumping up the track from Cow Green reservoir with a hot sun on the back of my neck. The midges are biting. I knew they would because I left the mosquito repellent at home thinking it would not be needed.
In the meantime I have learned some interesting facts about my destination, courtesy of the Durham Mining Museum website. The mine agent and manager at Green Hurth during the 1890s – and about the only name that can be gleaned from history – was a Mr J Polglase. That’s a Cornish name, Polglase.
Because of its vast and ancient tin and copper mines, Cornwall was the world’s greatest producer of mining engineers. It was said you could shout down the shaft of any metalliferous mine anywhere in the world and a Cornishman would answer you.
I like stuff like that. It’s history mixed with tradition mixed with folklore. Similarly, it was said you could shout down the engineroom hatch of any ship in the world and a Scottish engineer would respond. We don’t have to look farther than the USS Enterprise to witness this tradition being borne into the future. “Jim. The engines winna take no mair.” Good old Scotty was a projection of an old institution.
Shall we venture into New York police officers all being Irish or shall we leave it at that? Okay. Moving on. But don’t forget, the boys of the NYPD choir weren’t singing Galway Bay for nothing.
Green Hurth Mine, I discovered last night, has been scheduled by English Heritage under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. A comprehensive archaeological survey is available on the internet. I’m dead chuffed because my theory of the waterwheel being linked to the distant shaft by a series of timber flat-rods has proved correct.
If all this sounds a bit technical and bizarre, do not give up because I’m about to explain this arrangement with words and sketches – a bit like John Noakes making a Chieftain tank out of egg boxes and toilet rolls. This really is an ingenious set-up at Green Hurth, so don’t click over to eBay to see how your shares in BAE Systems’ Russian export division are selling.
It’s a pleasant walk to Green Hurth. I follow a track a couple of miles across undulating moorland with the nascent River Tees sparkling at the foot of the slope and Cross Fell – the highest peak in the Pennines – standing dark on the horizon. This is one of those places where a person can walk and walk and walk without a care in the world.
It strikes me that the average 19th Century lead miner would not appreciate the grandeur of this location with the same enthusiasm. In this stark environment he lived and toiled with very few comforts and an average life expectancy of about 45 years. The work was cold, wet, hard and dangerous. The pay was poor. The rewards were more of the same to keep his family above the starvation threshold. It was a bit like life under George Osborne only without Cheryl Cole and a continuous stream of major sporting events to deflect attention.
Hot, sweaty, and legs peppered with midge bites I arrive at the first feature, which is the flooded shaft I visited back in May. This is Swan’s Shaft, and it was this shaft that was served by the waterwheel, which was situated out of sight and more than half a kilometre down the fell. The pump, which kept the mine free of water, was situated at the foot of the shaft, 231ft (70.4m) below. So how did the distant waterwheel work the pump?
Basically, it was a waterwheel, Jim, but not as we know it (sorry, that’s an Irish doctor not a Scottish or a Cornish engineer). The wheel’s axle had a crank shaft attached to a big lump of timber resembling a roof beam or a ship’s spar. When the crank revolved, the end of the timber fastened to the crank turned in a circular motion, but its free end moved in a reciprocating motion. Got that?
The only analogy I can think of is an old-fashioned sewing machine with the wheel moving the needle up and down. Simple, isn’t it? So the revolving motion of the waterwheel has been transferred to a big lump of wood which is moving backwards and forwards over a distance of, say, a couple of metres.
Our big lump of wood is called a flat-rod. It is linked to an entire chain of flat-rods that runs up the fell to the shaft. The rods are suspended on pivots and rollers. The end of the last flat-rod sticks out above the top of the shaft. Can you picture it moving backwards and forwards – a bloody great unstoppable wooden beam like a giant saw blade? In, out, in out, perhaps ten times a minute. Don’t lean your mountain bike against it, for Christ’s sake.
Here’s more ingenuity – how to turn your horizontal reciprocating motion through ninety degrees and transfer it to the pump at the bottom of the shaft. The pump is connected to another series of flat-rods (or pump-rods or spears) that runs the entire 231ft of the shaft and pokes out at the surface. These rods are connected to the waterwheel flat-rods through a device called an angle-bob, which I am not going to attempt to describe. I have drawn a rough picture instead.
So the waterwheel revolves, the flat-rods move backwards and forwards, the angle-bob bobs up and down, the pump-rods slide up and down, the pump mechanism pumps up and down, and countless gallons of oily black water are lifted in stages up a cast-iron pipe (a rising main) and discharged on the surface with a bit of a wet belch.
Now the more mechanically-minded reader might be asking himself or herself: “Hang on minute. The weight of all those solid timber rods must be colossal. How on earth does one waterwheel move all that apparatus and lift thousands of gallons of water from a depth of 231ft?”
The weight of the rods is offset with counterbalances. According to the English Heritage survey there were counterbalances located at either end of the waterwheel pit. There would also have been a counterbalance on the angle-bob – simply a huge box of rocks or scrap metal – to offset the pump-rods. In effect, the weight of the timberwork was neutralised. Once it was moving it would have been a bugger to stop.
What an incredible feat of engineering. But my description is over-simplistic. The actual system at Green Hurth was more complex because the flat-rods running up the fellside actually turned a corner before they reached Swan’s Shaft.
And it doesn’t stop there. The English Heritage survey reckons a second set of flat-rods might have sprouted at right-angles from the first set just east of the waterwheel to deliver motion to an ore processing mill. I can’t get my head around this one. It’s just too much on a blazing hot morning. I’ve midges to contend with as well, don’t forget.
There was also a steam engine situated at the top of Swan’s Shaft, possibly for hauling ore from the mine. The engine foundations and anchor bolts are still in situ. Perhaps it replaced the waterwheel at a later date. Or, here’s something intriguing: perhaps the waterwheel superseded the steam engine because that’s exactly what happened a mile or so to the west at Tees Mine.
The Green Hurth waterwheel system is fascinating but not unique. A similar arrangement operated in Red Dell at the head of Coppermines Valley, at Coniston, in the Lake District. Wander up there now and the only visible evidence, other than an impressive waterwheel pit, is a raised causeway that runs up the fellside to Kennel Crag.
This causeway was built for flat-rods. At the top, the rods disappeared into a tunnel and after a few metres arrived at the lip of the Triddle Shaft. There is still an angle-bob complete with its huge box of rocks languishing in the darkness.
SO I’m at the waterwheel pit taking pictures when I receive an edifying lesson in why you shouldn’t poke about these places on your own. I set the camera self-timer, dash onto the walls, trip up and nearly fall headlong into the pit. The wheel had a diameter of about 35ft (10.6m), so I would have had a rough landing.
What the hell. Worse things have happened.
There are masses of nettles at Green Hurth Mine. I once read that nettles are a sign of human activity. Men disturb virgin ground and nettles spring up. I have no idea where they come from. But here they are, the only patches of nettles on this vast open moorland. There are nettles in the old powder house, nettles around Swan’s Shaft, nettles growing in the waterwheel pit, and nettles thriving among the ruins of two bothies English Heritage refers to as being “used by the mine manager and the washing master”. There are no dock leaves, by the way.
I leave the waterwheel pit and trudge across the bog to the huge spoil heaps of the main mine. Green Hurth was two mines in one, a bit like those treacle puddings you used to buy in a tin and open both ends. The north mine was Swan’s Shaft. The south mine was worked from a horizontal tunnel. The two were not connected underground but were linked on the surface by a tramway bringing ore down the fell from Swan’s Shaft to be processed.
The processing floors at the main mine are largely undisturbed by time and elements, many of their original wooden features remaining. Of particular interest to me at least are the outlines of two circular buddles. Okay, I’m about worn out through describing stuff like this and I’m sure you’ve reached saturation point. Buddles can wait for another day. Pretty clever stuff though, if you’re into the specific gravity of processed minerals and water separation. Blimey, I bet that’s perked you up.
Green Hurth Mine has its origins in 1799, but significant work did not get under way until 1828. Flooding forced the mine’s closure in 1902, by which time it had produced about 18,000 tons of lead. The richest ore also produced 12oz of silver for every ton of lead – so if the average was about 9oz per ton we are looking in the region of 9,000lb (4,082kg) of silver produced during the working life of the mine.
It dawns on me at this point that every last nail, every sliver of metal and every piece of salvageable timber and slate has been removed from this site. Besides the spoil heaps, the scars on the landscape, the tumbled walls and the nettles, there is nothing here. Everything of worth has been carted away and either recycled or sold.
I return to the car park in the hot afternoon sun. The midges are still biting. At Cow Green reservoir people are relaxing in deck chairs and admiring the Pennine views. It’s a far cry from the days when Mr Polglase trudged along here or trotted past on his horse. Or those unrecorded Victorian engineers watched wagonload after wagonload of flat-rod timber roll along the track; and cast-iron sections of waterwheel; and ponderous crank shafts; and steam engine parts; and boilers; and tub metal and rails; and countless loads of coal. How times change. How the big wheel turns.
So that’s Green Hurth Mine. Like most Pennine lead mines it’s nothing more than a few humps in the heather, a scattering of spoil and old walls. And like most Pennine lead mines, it’s a forgotten monument to British ingenuity, determination, and engineering at its absolute finest.
- To read the full English Heritage report into Green Hurth Mine click here.
- Information on Green Hurth Mine on the Durham Mining Museum website.
- Teesside Mining Company worked Tees Mine and Metalband Mine, which were about a mile from Green Hurth. For an insight in the haphazard life of a Pennine lead mine, read NA Chapman’s Teesside Mining Company, published by the Northern Mine Research Society in 1991.
- Fancy a glance at some excellent pictures of the waterwheel and flat-rod arrangement at Cwm Ciprwth Mine in Wales? Click here.