Friday morning I was up early and after breakfast loaded my rucksack, booted up and set off for a walk up through Coppermines Valley and on to the fells.
Coniston used to be a centre for copper mining and slate quarrying (some quarrying still goes on today) and the industrial heritage is very obvious for a good part of the climb up to the Old Man by this route.
Mining for copper in the valley took place from around 1590, right up until the 1950’s. In the early days German miners had to be brought to Coniston and other parts of the Lake District to develop the mines as there were no English workers with the necessary skills. Al this activity has left it’s marks and scars on the landscape and there is plenty of Industrial archaeology to explore. I’ve always been interested in industrial history and having seen the exhibits on local mining in the Ruskin museum the day before I’d planned my route to take in both the fells and the remains of the old mines.
The Coniston Copper Project, funded by at £450,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has worked on repairing and conserving ten historic copper-mining structures and they have an excellent website with lots of information on the history of mining in the Coniston area.
The Countrystride podcast (always worth a listen) also visited the valley recently with Mark Hatton, an expert on the history of mining in the Lakes.
As I climbed the steep “tourist path” I passed through the remains of former slate workings. Slate has been extracted up here since at least the 13th century.
There’s two types of slate – green and black. The attractive Coniston Green Slate was formed by volcanic activity over 400 million years ago and is found high in the fells. The Black slate originates from the sedimentary rocks lower down the valley.
I stopped to take a few photographs
Life up here was tough. The work was hard and conditions up on the fell were not exactly comfortable! There was little attention to workers’ safety – it was dangerous work – and inhalation of the dust from splitting the slate caused serious lung disease including silicosis and lung cancer.
After making my way past the mine workings I reached Low Water, a small tarn in a glacial bowl with the summits of the Old Man and Brim fell looming over.
I stopped for a rest. I’d hardly seen a soul since I set off but a couple of walkers were coming up the path behind me (they’d parked on the Walla Crag road car park). We exchanged a few words and it turned out they were from St Helens (8 miles from where I live and where I used to work many years ago). Besides walking we had another interest in common – Rugby League. They were Saints fans, of course so a little banter was in order given that they’re our local rivals! Fitter and younger than me they set off up the steep path towards the summit while I took a rest and had a bite to eat. Then it was time for me to follow in their footsteps.
It’s a steep pull and I took my time, but the views looking back down to Low Water and Wetherlam were pretty good!
Eventually the summit came into view
Coniston Old Man is a popular fell and there’s usually a stream of people making their way up the “tourist path” from Coniston or (more often) the Walla Crag Road car park. Today, I’d hardly seen anyone on the way up and had the summit to myself – a new experience! I stopped for a while to take in the extensive views.
After a short while I set off along the ridge, heading to Brim Fell and then on to Swirl How
Reaching the summit there were a few other walkers around, but it was still quiet. I decided to head over to the nearby summit of Great Carrs which I hadn’t been up before. It’s an easy walk over from Swirl How
I could see the weather sweeping over the fells across Langdale and had my fingers crossed they’d stay over there. I’m not usually so optimistic!
I didn’t stop long on the top of Grey Carrs,
and taking the path back to Swirl How I diverted to look at the monument to the Wellington bomber that had crashed on the fell in 1944.
And then the weather arrived. The summits suddenly became covered in low cloud and the wind was picking up. Visibility deteriorated and for a while I was a little disorientated.
The walkers I’d met earlier had also been on Great Carrs and I’d passed them on my way to the summit. They told me that they were going to retrace their steps back down the Old Man. I’d intended to descend back into Coppermine Valley via the Prison Band down to Swirl Hawse and on to Lever’s Water. That can be a tricky descent and would be trickier if the rock was wet, but reaching Swirl How summit the rain seemed to have eased off, so, hoping the rain had passed over, I decided to make my way down. It didn’t quite pan out the way I’d hoped.
The cloud and came whipping across from Little Langdale over Swirl Hawse, hitting me side on as I descended down what was now wet and slippery rock and I was getting soaked – I was wearing my waterproof coat but hadn’t bothered to put on my overtrousers. Not a time to take photographs as both hands, and other parts of my anatomy, were needed to make sure I didn’t slip and fall down into the abyss!
I eventually made it to the hawse and took the much gentler path down towards Lever’s Water. The fells were now providing some shelter from the wind and rain., which eased off as I carried on down the path.
I carried on down the valley and eventually reached the village. After a quick call to the Co-op to pick up some supplies I returned to the hostel. It had been a long walk and I was ready for a shower and a rest!
A great day on the fells and some interesting history and industrial archaeology too.
Ah me. My last great walk was the entire Coniston Range, an anti-clockwise circuit of Coppermines Valley, spinning off to include Great Carrs and Grey Friar. Anti-clockwise so that Dow Crag was at the end, figuring that after a day like that I’d be far more inclined to go ‘off-route’ in the opposite direction for that than i would for Grey Friar. Perfect weather throughout, sunny, warm, perfect visibility leading to one of those golden sunlight evenings as I tramped back to the Village, and my car. I stopped at the shops to buy myself two Ice-Cream Mars Bars, only the second of which I actuallytasted – the first just slid down my throat offering much needed cooling!
That was a great route you took. I’ve done the whole horseshoe the other way round to you in the past but missed out the outliers. When the weather turned this time I wouldn’t have fancied carrying on over Wetherlam but I’d planned to head down Coppermines Valley in any case
I’d climbed them all before then, though in three separate expeditions – didn’t go up the Prison Band first time but then this was only the third walk I’d done alone and the first two were two small individual fells – and apart from the sheer fun of the walk, it was as much a challenge as anything. Never did anything comparable after, not out of unfitness or loss of interest, but just because life got in the way…
An interesting combination of history and scenery. Beautiful in a bleak sort of way. Wouldn’t have fancied your descent though! Sounds hazardous.
Aye, that descent was rather hairy. But other than that a good day.
Fantastic fells and a classic UK walk. The ridge between the Old Man and Swirl How is one of the finest in the Lakes. Prison Band can be a tricky descent in wet weather as you discovered! Like you I find industrial archeology and it’s remains and fascinating addition to a walk. We’ve stayed at Coppermines Hostel a couple of times, great little place.
Absolutely a great walk. Pity about that brief spell of wind and rain. Came in at just the exact wrong time for a hairy descent 😬.
They’vedone some work to make more information on the mining available and I enjoyed that aspect of the walk. There’s a bit more exploring I’d like to do. The Countryside podcast episode is particularly informative
Looks a fascinating area, all that scenery teamed with history of industry. I am glad you got back down ok though!