Back to the iron age

At a restored ore mine in the north Pennines tourists get a flavour of what life was really like during the industrial revolution. Joe Gilbert reports
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The Independent Travel
Weardale in spring: the wind sweeps across a wild panorama of peat and heather. You can see exactly why local celebrity David Bellamy christened the area England's Last Wilderness. But 100 years ago, this rugged valley was a hive of industry at the heart of the North Pennines orefield.

Today, it is no longer the pre-industrial era that nostalgic Britons hark back to, but the industrial one. In the North Pennines, industrial heritage draws as many tourists as the promise of wilderness. Durham county council has spent 10 years restoring the 19th-century lead mine at Killhope, eight miles from Alston on the A689. Here, 1,500ft up, the harsh life of the Pennine leadminer has been lovingly recreated.

The complex stands across a ford over Killhope Burn. The aroma of a peat fire draws visitors into a candlelit room just 15ft square. This was the lodging-shop where the lead men spent off-duty hours. No bigger than a parlour, a staggering 32 miners once slept here, four to a bed.

Today, bewhiskered models sleep in the bunks while an unfortunate boy- worker sleeps across their feet. A standing figure completes the tableau, sporting the traditional dress of the Weardale miner, a checked plaid worn like a cloak over a waistcoat and collarless shirt. Already, you wonder at the strength of these giants who worked by the light of candles glued to their felt hats.

Nearby, the plush mine office presents a stark contrast to the squalor of the lodging-shop. Here there are oak desks and bookcases, framed prints, ledgers and quills under the flickering light of Victorian oil-lamps. This is where the mine agent and surveyor earned small fortunes from the labours of the lead men. Today's tourists try their hand with the quill-pens, splattering black ink across a ledger doubling as a visitors' book.

I strolled on to the stables, a cavernous timber-framed barn full of antique equestrian equipment. On the walls, the hapless mine-ponies are immortalised in sepia. These hardy beasts were bred to carry ore to the smelting-mills. Later, they worked underground at Killhope, hauling tubs full of rock to the surface.

The blacksmith was kept busy, his smithy still strewn with vintage hardware, tools and artefacts. Three-foot "jumpers" - steel chisels - were sharpened here on the ancient anvil, then used as punches at the ore-face. The beauty of Killhope is that punters are allowed to participate: a team of information assistants encourage you to touch and use the objects on view. Outside, children put on Victorian costumes while their parents take turns to sharpen a jumper. But to really test your powers, try operating the huge bellows used to fan the 6ft-high blacksmith's fire.

By far the busiest scene is the washing-floor, where the ore was separated from the surrounding rock. Today, armies of enthusiastic visitors enjoy the tasks once endured by the child-labourers of the leadmining era. Whole families get stuck in, wheeling the "bouse", or unseparated mineral, on to a grating area. Here it is washed by a convenient stream, allowing some lead to sink to the bottom of wooden troughs.

More stubborn hunks are carried on to a harder surface, the "knock-stone", where youngsters pound them with the traditional "bucker", or flat miner's hammer. Other people work an old-style "hotching-tub", swinging a 10ft- long arm to shake ore loose in a barrel of water. The scene is a blur of joyous activity against a backdrop of Pennine splendour. You wonder what the ghosts of the lead men would make of it, or the 10-year-old washer- boys who slaved here in winter.

Above it all turns the symbol of Killhope, the magnificent water-wheel built in 1870 to provide power for the crushing-mill. Fully restored, the great grey disc is driven by water from dammed ponds which pour from the fell-top down a 90ft chute.

But the star attraction has to be the underground trip into the mine itself. Opened by local boy Tony Blair in 1996, the Park Level Mine is a stunning recreation of a bygone world. Kitted up with hard hat and over- shoes, your guide leads you through the old arched portal. Before you stretches a dark tunnel illuminated only by the beam of your cap-lamp.

Now the Killhope experience really comes alive. Dripping sandstone walls give way to working areas where fibreglass rock faces blend seamlessly with the real thing. Here, life-sized models toil by candlelight, swinging pickaxes, hammering jumpers and wheeling the bouse into rusting tubs. Around you, the precious ore glistens like silver in the gloom, while the eerie underworld is furnished with iron ladders, oak buckets and jagged timber-saws.

Splashing along time-worn sleepers, you see why ground-water worried the Killhope worthies. In the reconstructed engine-room is their solution - an 18in water-wheel turns slowly in the light of a dozen cap-lamps. The massive hoop powers pumps drawing water from the lower levels. Girded in cast-iron, these lumbering giants protected the lead men from the danger of flooding.

Back on the surface, you drink in pure Pennine air, ready for some home- cooking in the cosy Killhope Kitchen, followed by a comfortable bed. Four in a bed might have been a crowd even back then, but after an exhausting day at the ore-face, you wonder if they even noticed.

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