The Coniston Fells are a great adventure and there are plenty of attractions to keep you busy all day but what makes them so appealing isn’t just the summits or the Halifax LL505 plane wreck on Great Carrs, it’s the Coniston Coppermines. After 200 years of men digging and blasting holes for minerals, the ruins of workshops, the workings and the caves are enough to entice you to visit. Here’s a short history of the mines and what makes Coniston so interesting.

Halifax LL505 plane wreckage on Great Carrs, Coniston Fells
Halifax LL505 plane wreckage on Great Carrs, Coniston Fells

The History of the Mines

Although mining started in Coniston over 400 years ago, the industrial Coniston copper mine of Cumbria, one of the first to appear in its genre, was founded and curated by Elizabeth I in the 17th century. She saw it fit to contract German workers to man the Northeastern mines and Coniston Coppermines were among the first large scale mines to be dug.

Work began on the outer surface of the copper veins, most done entirely manually using metal hand tools and wedges to extract the various ores; primarily copper. Many ores were also extracted and exported. These included iron pyrite, malachite and arsenopyrite.

The ore became increasingly difficult to extract as the layers wore away – the rock became harder and more resilient. This is mainly due to ore being extracted from volcanic rock, such as Basalt and Granite. It stretched throughout the whole of the Coniston area.

Workings at the Coniston Coppermines
Workings at the Coniston Coppermines

These rocks are generally considered among the “Hard Rocks” which are somewhat impervious to natural wear and tear. A thermal technique would be employed under which the rock was subjected to high temperatures and then cooled immediately using cold water.

This method would be sufficient in engendering cracks and splits within the rock, thus making it exponentially easier to extract. Tallow candles were the only source of light used within the mines. In later years, under the control of John Taylor – water methods were used to extract the required ore – using high water pressure to cause cracks within the rock.

The British Civil War

The British civil war (1642) dramatically hindered processes within the mine – the workhouses of the smelters being destroyed within the conflict. Work in the mine was brought to a complete halt without anyone to purchase the ore. Once the war had ended, business, as usual, picked up once again.

Gunpowder

In the 18th century, the mine was deepened significantly by over 110m, and gunpowder was integrated into the extraction process. These new introductions greatly improved the speed of extraction and output of the mine.

Workings at the Coniston Coppermines
Workings at the Coniston Coppermines

This deeper part of the mine is no longer available to explore due to haven been flooded. Water was relied upon heavily during this period of the mine. Many new access points and shafts were built within the mine, allowing for greater access to rocks.

The Coniston Railway

In 1859 the Coniston Railway was built to transport copper ore from the city of Broughton to the Coniston mine. By 1860 the railway’s line had expanded to the copper mine railway station. It now served passengers who wished to travel to and from the town. The trains size continued to grow as demand for the mine extracts grew – thus there were extra wagons or carts addended to the train. This resulted in the train being able to support three times its initial capacity. The platform has since been shut down.

Vehicle at the Coniston Coppermines
Vehicle at the Coniston Coppermines

Many of the miners lived within forge buildings (now known as forge cottages) that lead from the Coniston river to the Coniston mines. These forges were often inhabited by up to 184 people at a time. This shockingly high number is attributed to the family members of the miners.

What became of the mines?

Like many British mines, the Coniston mine came to an end in the 19th century. The only buildings salvaged being the manager’s office.

YHA Coniston Coppermines
YHA Coniston Coppermines

Previously consisting of the manager’s kitchen, office and storage – this was subsequently transformed into the Coniston Coppermine’s Youth Hostel, rebuilt in 1928, which still occupies the grounds to this very day.

The upper and middle parts of the mines have been left entirely unscathed. Being safe to explore, it provides for a stunning trip into the past, for anyone who wishes to visit. Anyone brave enough can ascend the 180ft vertical pitch.

Mineshaft cave at the Coniston Coppermines
Mineshaft cave at the Coniston Coppermines

The quarries and caves left from the mining industry are now available for discovery and exploration, with the majority having been left open to the public. If you wish to discover Britain’s mining past up close or want to explore the depths of a man-made cave, you can do so by taking the suitable precautions and dawning the adequate gear. Guided tours are available for novice cave-explorers or the general public.

Explore the Coniston Coppermines

One of the most cost-effective accommodations in the Lake District, the YHA, although basic, is a wonderful place to stay. With a great breakfast and dinner available, or self-catering, you can hire a room of your own in the old mine manager’s building and get right into the thick of it, hiking up into the Coniston Fells.

YHA Coniston Coppermines
YHA Coniston Coppermines

Stay at the YHA Coniston Coppermines Hostel

Why not take your next adventure in the Coppermines Valley, the home of the YHA Coniston Coppermines, and stay right up there in the action at the YHA?

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Rydal Caves
Rydal Caves

More Caverns of the Lake District

Learn about the caves of the Lake District here, including Millican Dalton’s Cave Hotel and the Cathedral Cavern.

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