As soon as I returned from the Arran field trip, I went away for a weekend’s walking in the Lake District; staying at the top end of Borrowdale. As my walking companion was not up to a big summit we caught the bus down the valley to Grange and walked back, arriving not very long after lunch. As the weather was good, and improving, and no-one else wanted another walk, I decided it was a good opportunity to visit a local geological landmark: the famous graphite mine. Many people know that the graphite deposit is there (usually because they have been to the pencil museum in Keswick), but rather fewer have actually visited the mine. Many walkers will have noticed the spoil heaps on the valley sides, even if they have not investigated them in detail. I took this photo of the mines from the other side of the valley, and made the sketch the next day.
The mines are easily accessible; I took the path from Seathwaite, crossing the river Derwent, to the foot of Sour Milk Gill. I then turned right as if to walk down the river Derwent, crossing a little footbridge. Although accessible, there is nothing done to interpret the site for a visitor, so I recorded where I went on the day, and did some research afterwards on what I had seen. (English Heritage have some useful information, and there are interesting plans and descriptions in this BGS memoir from 1876). Immediately after crossing the bridge there are some ruined buildings. I learned afterwards that these are the remains of a graphite grinding mill and a saw pit. At the time, I didn’t know if they were anything to do with the mine at all, so I headed straight up the hillside for the first visible spoil tip.
It is remarkable how little infrastructure remains at the surface compared to many mining sites. I think that there are several reasons for this. Firstly, the deposit is all above the valley floor, so the mines could be drained by gravity; there are none of the waterwheels, steam engines and so forth that one finds at deeper mines. Secondly, the graphite was usable as it came out of the mine; it did not require much refining, smelting etc. (The grinding mill is the only exception) Thirdly, it was a high-value product (much higher in value per kilogram than the slates extracted elsewhere in the valley) so it did not require any additions to the local transport network.
The first part of the mine that I arrived at was Gilbert’s Stage (marked A1 on my sketch). The word “stage” seems to have been used at this mine for an adit or level. You can peer into the level, but it is very wet. Gilbert’s stage was the lowest part of the mine (apart from the un-connected Robson’s Level, which I found later) so most of the water would have drained out here.The entrance is now under a tree, with a ruined building in front of it. When the mine was working, the entrance was inside the building; this was a security measure, used to prevent unauthorised access to the mine and to allow the miners to be checked over to ensure that they were not stealing the valuable product. The spoil heap at Gilbert’s stage contains very little graphite.
I pressed on up the hillside, passing some small spoil heaps (A2 on the sketch) which I subsequently learned came from some of the older parts of the mine, whose entrances are now covered up. After a stiff (and rubbly) scramble, I arrived at Farey’s Stage (A3 on the sketch). The mine entrance is easily accessible, but I took notice of the “Danger Deep excavations” sign and didn’t go in far. It seemed surprisingly light inside; this is because there is a vertical shaft entrance (Bill’s shaft) only a few metres further up the hillside which connects with the adit. The shaft follows a large, almost vertical, ore body called the “Grand Pipe”.
Still further up, I found two entrances (A4/5) tucked away in the gorge of Newhouse Gill; one of these is the Gill level (or Gill’s level — I can’t work out if it is named after its location or a person). Harrison’s level (A6) is just before you get to a stile over a wall. It is almost blocked up: A rabbit could get in, but I wasn’t going to try.
The workings continue once you have crossed the wall. I found a large depression in the ground with the mysterious remains of a wooden structure. I suspected there had been a shaft here, and English Heritage’s web page describes this spot as the “Upper Wadhole”, noting that it was the place where the graphite was first discovered. The spoil heaps around Harrison’s Stage and the Upper Wadhole contain far more graphite than those lower on the valley side. I found this very splendid specimen and photographed it, but I left it behind; the mine is an SSSI and you are not really supposed to collect specimens without permission. It looks similar to photographs in the published literature, e.g. figure 3 in this paper. I wandered around the moorland above the Upper Wadhole for a while. There are quite a lot of old workings here, mostly very small and overgrown so that it is hard to tell what might be hidden under the grass. I had intended to cross the moorland and return to the valley via Sour Milk Gill, but I could not find how to cross the wall. I therefore had to return to the stile above Harrison’s Stage and descend via the mines. In the process, I found a further adit (A7 on my sketch) below the Gill Level; I am not sure what this level was called. Passing Gilbert’s Stage again on the way down, I tried to follow traces of a path which I suspected of being the original miners’ access route. It fizzled out before I reached the valley floor, so I followed my nose almost back to the starting point. In the process, I discovered one further spoil heap; I had missed this on the way up because it is in trees and is much more covered with vegetation than the other spoil heaps. I subsequently learned that this is called Robson’s level and that it is the newest part of the mine. It was started in 1845 as a drainage level for the rest of the mine, but was never connected up with the other workings.You can not see into Robson’s level, but it has the remains of a building of some sort where the level was.
So, it was an interesting afternoon’s exploration. I would like to go back and explore the inside of the workings, but this would require the right equipment and a guide who knew what they were doing; the inside of old mines is no place for a bungling amateur. I’ll finish this post with a map of where I went (little purple dots from the GPS) and some of the main things that are there to be seen (locations partly mine, partly from English Heritage). The letters in brackets are the notation on my sketch.