ALICE BAUER is singing Salty Dog. Pavel Klikar is blowing his trumpet. The entire Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra rattles the dashboard. And there’s an early-morning smudge of slush on the A66 and a scattering of snow across the bleakness of Stainmore.
The Cumbrian fells rise in the distance, shrouded in a mass of black cloud and grey curtains of falling snow. Only Blencathra stands out from the darkness like a great white ship. It’s going to be a cold one, and perhaps a dodgy one.
I pull into the little lay-by above Braithwaite, at the start of the Force Crag Mine road. As I brew up on the stove in the back of the Wagon, a God-almighty shower of snow and soft hail scythes out of the west. In a matter of seconds, the greyness of my surroundings is transformed into whiteness. A very cold whiteness.
According to my records, I’ve climbed Grisedale Pike (summit ridge above) only once, and that was in 1982. But I’ve been underneath it many times – for the mountain is riddled with the thousands of feet of tunnels, shafts and workings of Force Crag Mine.
A little delve into history here. Just a peek into the black abyss of times gone by. The English Lake District was one of the great mining areas of the past. It has produced copper, lead, silver, zinc, iron, slate, graphite, and any number of lesser and associated minerals from deep in its volcanic heart – and on an industrial scale since Elizabethan times. Force Crag was the last mine to be worked commercially, finally closing down in 1990 after producing various quantities of galena (the ore of lead), sphalerite (the ore of zinc), and barytes. The mine was worked for lead from 1839 to 1865, and for zinc and barytes from 1867.
I count myself lucky and privileged because I had a certain amount of involvement with the final operation. Several of the partners of the New Coledale Mining Company were friends of mine. And because at that time I was employed as a tunneller for Burlington Slate, and because I was totally obsessed with mines and mining history, I spent several weekends at Force Crag along with other like-minded people, clearing roof-falls, filling tubs, and generally struggling to get the workings into a productive state.
When I say “lucky”, I accept, of course, that not everybody would consider themselves lucky to be sloshing about in knee-deep water and shoring up rotten timberwork to keep half a mountain from crashing on their head; then spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist. But that’s what happened. And for several years Force Crag limped along like the last wounded animal of a doomed species before lurching into extinction in 1990. It was a sad but not inglorious end. The mine went the same way as most mineral adventures. And it will be remembered, by me at least, with more than a degree of fondness.
So, history lecture over for now. The wind’s blowing from the west and bringing snow showers with it. After a brew and a bite in a stone shelter just below Grisedale Pike’s summit cairn, I set off for Hopegill Head.
I have a sort of rough though flexible plan to traverse the ridge from Hopegill Head to Whiteside (above right) then back again, but I find the going slow because of ice and the thin layer of snow. There is no danger of falling off – or perhaps falling far – it just becomes such hard, slippery work. About two-thirds of the way along the ridge I utter a silent “sod it” and turn back, skirting below the summit of Hopegill Head and making for Coledale Hause and the track down to the mine.
In a pensive frame of mind I sit on the step of the bothy-type building that once served as mine office, bait cabin, changing room, sleeping quarters and meeting place. This brings back memories. Somewhere I have a 35mm slide of Haig Colliery pit deputy Ronnie Calvin RM sitting in the same spot, one warm summer’s day, with mine executives Peter Blezard and Anne Danson. That was in 1984.
Head thick with memories, I plod steadily down Coledale to Braithwaite from the silence of Force Crag. The snow has long finished falling, and I do believe it is disappearing from the lower slopes of the mountains. It hasn’t lasted long. It has come and gone almost as swiftly as the past 25 years.
FOOTNOTE: Force Crag Mine was last worked by the New Coledale Mining Company. The mine is now a scheduled ancient monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Like a lot of monuments, it was, in its glory days, just a place where ordinary people earned a living.