is a beautiful place whether you are
interested in the mining heritage of the area or not.
The history of the coppermines
go back over 400 years but extraction of copper will go back much further
than this, probably to Roman times or even earlier. The most
prosperous period was the 1850s and by the 1870s the mine went in decline.
For most of the mines history only gunpowder was used, hand drilling, and
only tallow candles as light. The country rock is volcanic so progress
would have been painfully hard and slow. Getting to the copper veins at
depth could only be done by descending wooden ladders and stagings. Some
of the workings were over 1100ft below the surface and around 500ft below
Anyone interested in a history of the coppermines should read books by
Eric Holland or Cumbria Amenity Trust which are available at the museum.
No one should enter these
mines under any circumstances without a experienced guide
and even then your safety cannot be
guaranteed. There are many unstable areas and a large number of rotten
false floors over large voids. You have been warned!
The Mines Today
(Photographs by Jeff Wilkinson, Ulverston)
Although over 1000ft of the mine workings are now under water it is still
possible to descend over 500ft through the complicated vein systems. It
is like stepping back in time. As well as a good knowledge of where you
are going it is necessary to be fully competent in Single Rope Techniques
and be fit. Ascending a 180ft vertical pitch at the end of a long
day underground can sometimes not be put off !
The primary copper ore that was mined at Coniston is called Chalcopyrite
(Copper/Iron/Sulphide). This is a yellow brassy colour similar looking
to Pyrite or "fools gold" as it is often called. Since the mines closed over 100
years ago a considerable amount of post mine mineralization has taken
place (Supergene). For a long time it was assumed that these were the
copper carbonates Malachite and Azurite but it is now known that the vast
majority of the stunning blues and greens are copper sulphates. These "supergene"
minerals have a much higher copper content than Chalcopyrite. There are a
number of these stunning formations in the mines and luckily they are in
quite difficult places so have remained relatively undamaged.
The miners followed the veins
down and would put in false timbered floors to tram the ore to the engine
shafts. At various points a man-way would be built so the miners could
descend ladders to other parts of the workings. These false floors are one
of the major hazards to mine explorers today. They are covered with rubble
and sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are on a false floor or not.
When you are in new ground and you suddenly realize you are on one, with a
big drop beneath your feet, it can be a sobering experience!
Contrary to what you would
expect there are not many artefacts to be seen in the mines. This is
because most were sold off for scrap as the mines suffered the slow
decline and inevitable money problems, however some areas of the mines
suffered from collapses due to the unstable nature of the ground and it is
in these areas, where it was not worth tunnelling to retrieve them that
you can find the odd mine wagon, jack roll, tallow candles and other small
items. The museum has a Kibble, clay pipes and boring hammers amongst it's
Exploring the mines can not be
recommended but there is a much safer way to see what it is like. Cumbria
Amenity Trust Mining History Society has produced a CD-Rom with over
300 superb images of above and below ground in the copper mines. It can
be viewed in the Coniston Gallery or purchased at reception, price £9.00 or
£11.00 including post & packing.