The High and Mighty Mines of Lújar

lujar 1LET’S recap. Five minutes ago I blundered into a herd of wild boar and seriously scared myself. That’s history, but if you’re interested you can read the account here. Now the clock is ticking. It’s 7.20am and a whole day lies ahead. My original excursion disrupted, I opt for Plan B – a long, hot trudge to the ancient mines of Sierra de Lújar, in the south of Spain. It turns out to be a Plan B with knobs on. And more wild animals . . .

Ancient and modern is a more appropriate description. Worked since Phoenician times for galena (the ore of lead), silver, and an assortment of associated minerals, and comprising about 145 kilometres of tunnels on a multitude of horizons, the mines of Sierra de Lújar closed in 1989 and were in a state of dereliction at the time of my first visit, back in 2009.

But the following year the mines reopened for the exploitation of fluorspar for use in the Basque steel industry. The highest productive workings lie at an altitude of 1,255 metres – 895 metres above the main road between Orgiva and the Andalucian coast. This presents the prospect of a hot and dusty ascent of just under 3,000ft.

It’s the equivalent of climbing Scafell Pike from Wasdale Head by the steepest route and repeating the last bit for good measure, while carrying three litres of water because Lújar is a dry mountain in a very dry environment. I’ve been caught out on the water front before and vowed never to be caught again, so three litres is a belt and braces quantity.

By the way, did you see what I did with the measurements? I’m using a mixture of metric and imperial. I’m ahead of the game here, in full anticipation of post-EU Britain reintroducing rods, perches, poles, chains, ells, palms and peppercorns. You people need to get your heads round all this stuff. And when the Tories re-adopt the Julian calendar that’s really going to mess up your holiday arrangements. Be prepared.

lujar 3Plan B isn’t merely a visit to known places. Several months ago, through binoculars from the comfort of my house roof, I spotted a flat ledge in the centre of Lújar’s northern crags. It looks manmade and worth exploring. Also, things have changed since 2009. New tunnels have been blasted into the mountain, new roads carved and old tracks widened. But what I expect more than anything is that mighty Lújar remains a rocky wilderness separating the Sierra Nevada – Spain’s highest mountain range – from the Mediterranean, a wilderness rich in wildlife and peaceful, scented places. (Click pics for high-res versions)

The Miners’ Path has been in use since ancient times

The Miners’ Path has been in use since ancient times

The town of Orgiva nestles on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. During the heyday of the mines, the population was 9,000 – 3,000 more than today’s total. The blue mountain standing alone to the right of the picture is Mulhacen, which at 3,479 metres is mainland Spain’s highest peak

The town of Orgiva nestles on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. During the heyday of the mines, the population was 9,000 – 3,000 more than today’s total. The blue mountain standing alone to the right of the picture is Mulhacen, which at 3,479 metres is mainland Spain’s highest peak

The tiny white farmstead on the ridge in the centre of the picture was to have been my destination for today, before I strayed into a herd of wild boar and revised my plans. Funny how things work out

The tiny white farmstead on the ridge in the centre of the picture was to have been my destination for today, before I strayed into a herd of wild boar and revised my plans. Funny how things work out

lujar-aI follow the rough, steep and at times indistinct miners’ path up the front of the mountain. This ancient track, which is waymarked in places, is reputed to have been the original route to the mines. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and mediaeval Christians trod this dust. Soon I am gazing down at the neighbouring ridge and the remote farmstead that was to have been my destination for today – before the wild boar played havoc with my plans. Another breathless slog up a few fathoms of steep ground and across several cubits of patchy scrubland and I’m standing on the modern mine road.

Soon I find a vague track that leads across the crags to the flat ledge I spied through binoculars. And yes, indeed, it is manmade – it’s a stone-built terrace leading to a tunnel, now long-abandoned. What a fantastic place to work. What an incredible, panoramic prospect from this lofty location. Did the workers appreciate their exceptionally wonderful circumstances? Perhaps the novelty wears off if you have to climb the mountain every day in blinding heat and winter squalls.

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After 200 metres the tunnel ends in collapsed ground. Strange how so much wet mud can be found in such a dry environment

After 200 metres the tunnel ends in collapsed ground. Strange how so much wet mud can be found in such a dry environment

The view from the terrace down to the valley, with the Rio Gadalfeo winding across the picture and the main road just visible among the trees

The view from the terrace down to the valley, with the Rio Gadalfeo winding across the picture and the main road just visible among the trees

Returning to the road, I pass tunnel after tunnel, all gated to bar the public from the mountain’s innards. Ruined buildings from previous eras stand open to the elements, shutters hanging on rusty hinges, wild mint and butterflies among the rubble. I have seen scenes like these before, among the slate quarries of northern Wales and the lead mines of the north Pennines; places where wealth has been won – by the few – while the many have been obliged to pack their goods and move on when fortune changes. It’s the same the whole world over.

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A core sample from a core drilling rig

A core sample from a core drilling rig

An air shaft at the side of the mine road. How deep is anybody’s guess

An air shaft at the side of the mine road. How deep is anybody’s guess

Living quarters, complete with fireplaces and laundry facilities

Living quarters, complete with fireplaces and laundry facilities

The low structure on the right is a lavadero – a series of washing tubs for scrubbing your clothes. These communal washing facilities are common in Spanish villages. Looks like the miners had them as well

The low structure on the right is a lavadero – a series of washing tubs for scrubbing your clothes. These communal washing facilities are common in Spanish villages. Looks like the miners had them as well

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Socavon de San Luis is one of the main levels of the mine

Socavon de San Luis is one of the main levels of the mine

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Socavon del Nivel 70 is one of the highest of the modern workings

Socavon del Nivel 70 is one of the highest of the modern workings

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I was quite pleased to find this old core-boring rig. Peter Appleyard, of Torver, and myself spent several months using a similar rig to take core samples up at High Gawthwaite Quarry, and behind the Rightway and in the Deep Level at Burlington Slate Quarry, Kirkby-in-Furness, back in the mid-1980s, looking for fresh deposits of slate. The rig was borrowed from Honister Slate Mine but belonged to the Penrhyn company, in Wales, if I remember correctly. It was cold, wet work. Got some old slides somewhere

I was quite pleased to find this old core-boring rig. Peter Appleyard, of Torver, and myself spent several months using a similar rig to take core samples up at High Gawthwaite Quarry, and behind the Rightway and in the Deep Level at Burlington Slate Quarry, Kirkby-in-Furness, back in the mid-1980s, looking for fresh deposits of slate. The rig was borrowed from Honister Slate Mine but belonged to the Penrhyn company, in Wales, if I remember correctly. It was cold, wet work. Got some old slides somewhere

Slogging higher, beyond the upper reaches of the modern workings, I cross one the great shoulders of Sierra de Lújar to gaze down into the head of the neighbouring valley. More ancient mine-workings cling to its slopes – and on a scale I did not expect to see. This remote location, it appears, was once a thriving place. But it lies beyond the limits of today’s expedition. It’s mid-afternoon and I’ve only one litre of water left. That’s about seven gills, incidentally.

lujar 32I follow the mine road down the mountain, passing the main office and workshop complex (an excitable mechanic prevents me entering) and a lorry being loaded with crushed mineral for its hair-raising journey to the main road. I watch with admiration as the driver embarks on his descent in a very low gear, the lorry’s suspension grating noisily.

Me, I’m content to walk in its wake, plodding through the almost-liquid dust and around the many hairpin bends in the afternoon sun, listening to birds singing and watching ibex flit among the shadows. Among the debris of industry the wildlife is thriving.

The main administrative and maintenance centre of the mine, where the laboratories and fitting shops are located. One of the main tunnels is situated behind the buildings

The main administrative and maintenance centre of the mine, where the laboratories and fitting shops are located. One of the main tunnels is situated behind the buildings

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A scalopendra, crushed beneath the wheels of a vehicle. This centipede is a nasty piece of work and can deliver a really painful sting

A scalopendra, crushed beneath the wheels of a vehicle. This centipede is a nasty piece of work and can deliver a really painful sting

It’s been a strange day. Wild boar, dark forests, altered plans; glaring sunshine and cool airs issuing from deep underground; new horizons and unexpected sights; ancient history colliding with the demands of modern metal markets; choking dust, dancing butterflies and the scents of wild herbs.

And Lújar has lived up to all my expectations. It remains a wilderness despite man’s tamperings. Tonight I’ll sit on my roof and raise a glass to its toweringly majestic bulk.

lujar 39bFURTHER READING:

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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.
This entry was posted in Caving, Climbing, Environment, Footpaths, Geology, Hiking, History, Industrial archaeology, Mountains, Potholing, Quarrying, Ruins, Slate quarries, The Romans, Walking, Weather, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The High and Mighty Mines of Lújar

  1. Rob Vernon says:

    Hi Alen — good write up – one of those mines I have always intended to visit – more about it in ‘Minas y Mineros de Granada’ by Aron Cohen. 2002. Did you know that we are holding the 11th International Mining History Congress in Linares (not too far away from you) in September 2016. Still time to register if you are interested – 80 papers on world mining history and archaeology and daily field trips to Linares mine sites over five days. See: http://www.mining2016linares.com/
    Regards
    Rob Vernon

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Rob. Good to hear from you. I’ll have a look for that book because I could do with some decent information. And I didn’t know about the mining congress. I’ve been out of the loop for a few years regarding CATMHS, NAMHO and the world of the underworld, and I’m beginning to feel a bit out on a limb – and not just geographically. I’ll take a look at Linares.
      Cheers, Alen

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  2. All looks wonderfully mountainous, historic and sunny on this sopping wet day in Derbyshire…

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  3. qdant says:

    Superb (envious) write up, have a Virtual pint

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  4. I knew it was just a matter of time before you’d be mooching round some old mine workings. They all have similar layouts regardless of their location in the world. Some are higher and dryer than others. And some of the photos looked like Lee van Cleef might walk round the corner at any minute.

    If you ever tell us what the daytime temperatuers are will you use fahrenheit, celsius or some British scale we’ve all forgotten exists?

    Liked by 1 person

    • McFadzean says:

      I can see trouble brewing over the reintroduction of the Fahrenheit scale because, unlike old English measurements, it is named after a Polish-born German scientist. And Celsius is named after a Swedish astronomer. So where does Britain go from here? A completely new method of measuring temperature is needed, I think. It could be called the British Imperial Temperature Recordings (known affectionately as Bitter) and be divided into four sections under the headings Starvation, Nithering, Luke Warm and Hosepipe Ban Zone.
      On the day I went up the mountain, which was last Wednesday, the valley temperature was supposed to have been 29C. But when you’re nearer the sun you’re warmer, aren’t you? Or doesn’t it work like that?
      Cheers, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s a great journey you’ve narrated there. I’ve been known to peer through binoculars and then go off and find routes on mountains hitherto unknown and unused possibly for centuries!

    I’ve never come out of the imperial system of measurements – I’ve always refused to. Every time someone quotes something in ‘metres’ or similar, I convert it and correct them! 😉
    Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • McFadzean says:

      There’s an old signpost at a roadside in Kirkby Stephen that points to somewhere (can’t remember where) and it gives the distance in miles and furlongs. Those were the days. I always meant to take a picture of it but never did. Do you get your wages paid in guineas, Carol?
      Old tracks are fascinating. To think that you’re putting your feet where others have put theirs for hundreds of years is really humbling some times.
      Cheers, Alen

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      • Guineas as a currency were pretty much before my time (although I know what they are) but I was perfectly au fait with £sd – we even have a card game at home called ‘Summ-it’ with the old style monetary values.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating plan B Alen. I’d give a few groats to be out there now.

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    • McFadzean says:

      Ah, the days of groats, crowns, half-crowns, florins, farthings, half-farthings, third-farthings and quarter-farthings – when life was so much simpler. A trip out here would be worth every groat indeed, John.
      Cheers, Alen

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  7. Hanna says:

    Good to see you on the trails again, Alen even if it is among bears and wild boars. You should probably avoid the wild boar with cubs :-)…although wild boar casserole with many herbs are incredibly delicious. An experience from Corsica!
    The view from Lujar is magnificent!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • McFadzean says:

      Hi Hanna. Now I like the idea of wild boar casserole with herbs. I would imagine a fine red wine would go nicely with it. I feel quite hungry just thinking about it.
      Yes, I intend to get out a bit more. I’ve been inactiive lately and need to regain some fitness. Running from wild animals will improve my health no end.
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  8. South Shields calling. Still on the park bench but following your adventures. Went to register with local GP. He asked if any of my family suffered from insanity, I replied ,they seemed to enjoy it. (Back rapidly to the bench). pip pip Peter.

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  9. rthepotter says:

    While conning over different units, don’t forget to count your income in marks (= 13s 4d, if I remember correctly). Now there’s a handy number for mental arithmetic.
    Beautiful photos, too.

    Like

  10. Inger says:

    I always find it fascinating to visit old mining sites like this one. We hiked into an old gold mine in Alaska once. All lot of the equipment was still there for our exploring which was very interesting.
    Seems your plan B was not a bad idea 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • McFadzean says:

      Hi Inger. I’ve been visiting old mining sites for many years and always find them fascinating. I would imagine that old gold mines in Alaska would raise the bar to new levels of fascination, certainly for me. I might get there one day!
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  11. South Shields calling. The bloke,one bench down from me,has gone. The PC on park patrol asked me if I knew anything and showed me an inside photo of his old abode. Well, I replied, there’s bright coloured kettles,warm woollen mittens,brown paper parcels tied up with string, looks like the blokes favourite things ! He walked on! pip pip Peter.

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  12. Steve B says:

    Hi Alen,

    Do you drop stones down air shafts? However tempting, I never do…in case I hit a wandering something.

    Great story. Thanks

    Steve

    Like

    • McFadzean says:

      Hi Steve. The first time I visited the mines I lugged a rock down. But the mines weren’t working in those days. This time I controlled the urge. But I must admit, it was certainly a Father Dougal and the big red button moment.
      Cheers, Alen

      Like

  13. Hi Alen, A really enjoyable post…heck, all your posts are enjoyable, that’s fitted as standard. So this one was fascinating, because of the mines and the wonderful atmosphere you conjure up with your writing. It has the added gravitas that you know what you are talking about. I see I shall have to get over to Spain next year and do some exploring…and the measurements will all be sensible metric ones, which as a modelmaker I prefer. How clever of you to migrate to Spain and escape all that Brexit nonsense 🙂

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    • McFadzean says:

      Hi Iain. Good to hear from you. Yes, it’s great over here, but I must admit I feel the occasional pang of homesickness when reading other people’s blogs about the Lakes and the Highlands. But you can’t do everything at the same time.
      I wish I had escaped the Brexit stuff, but it’s still one of the main topics of conversation over here and will remain so for some time, I think.
      Get yourself to Spain and have a great holiday.
      All the best, Alen

      Like

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