OS Grid Reference: NY325261
Map Reference: 54°37'31"N , 3°2'44"W
On a wet day in August 2008 my Dad and I decided to pay a visit to the Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum, 3 miles from Keswick, and deep in the heart of Blencathra next to the Borrowdale valley, my Dad had told me a great deal about it and how interesting it was and knowing how much I enjoy exploring underground tunnels, passageways and shafts, I was very much looking forward to my visit.
So armed with my Phillips guide to minerals, rocks and fossils and my Dad's pocket magnifier we set off and arrived at Threlkeld at 10am, just as the mine and quarry were opening, we were cheerily greeted by a group of friendly volunteers who work at the site. I was keen to get exploring underground, so we collected out safety helmets and lamps and set off with our guide for the morning Philippa and her aptly dressed assistant Dicken. It was very interesting, and we learnt a great deal about the tough life and working conditions of the miners and quarrymen at the start of the 20th century, when the charming little village of Threlkeld became a boom town, when zinc and lead were first discovered in the area. Soon over a hundred men were working at the mine, and so terraced houses were built to accommodate them, the quarrying for granite for roadstone ballast and building quoins continued in the area until the mid 1980’s. The mine itself had closed in 1928, after Over 13,400 tons of zinc and 10,000 tons of lead sulfide containing significant amounts of silver called galena, were mined there.
It was very dark inside the mine even with our head lamps, and at one point we turned them out and Philippa lit a candle to show us just how much light one candle gives out. Many of the tunnels were extremely narrow and only dug out at shoulder height to allow the miners to walk in putting one foot in front of another, and carrying their equipment, they were called coffin shafts because of their coffin shape, other shafts were not at full height so you had to be careful not to bang your head when squeezing through them, the bottom of the shafts were wet with pools of water, and water was dripping from the ceiling.
A giant waterwheel had been constructed underground to pump out the water that was constantly flowing in from underground springs and rivers, the pumps needed to be constantly working or the mine would soon fill up with water and the miners would drown. Sometimes it was difficult to see where the pools of water were, because of the fine dust covering the water making it look like solid ground!
The water smelt bad and was polluted with the chemicals and other contaminants from the workings, so it was not suitable for drinking.
It was absolutely fascinating walking in and out of the different levels, the deeper we went into the mine the more the air became stale, it was not difficult to see just how tough the conditions were for the mine workers and their families, children as young as 10 were expected to do a full day’s work underground, they had to push the carts of rocks in trolleys along the rails to the surface of the mine, it must have been exhausting for them, air was piped into the lower levels and later on, so was compressed air and water as a lubricant for the heavy diggers that were used to replace the pick axe and chisels used to break up the rocks, they looked like the road diggers that are used today to dig up our pavements and roads, but they needed to be used horizontally which made it very hard for the men using them to break up the rocks, later props were used to rest the diggers on to take some of the weight.
A miner of the time was only expected to have a working life up to the age of 45, because the work was so very physically demanding and tough, they would often die earlier of lung problems too, because of the poisonous gasses found underground, Minerals and decaying timbers used up valuable oxygen too, and Carbon dioxide was given off by the decaying supports used on the roof and sides of the mine. Some horrid gases were also released from rocks and decaying vegetable matter, and as if that wasn’t bad enough there were sometimes explosive gases released from deep inside the mine that would easily ignite and cause a bad explosion.
The timbers used to support the mine’s roof and walls underground suffered from dry-rot faster than wood used on the surface because of all the moisture and humid air found below ground, so they were very liable to cause a tunnel to collapse trapping the miners, altogether life as a miner in the old days was extremely hard work.
After our mine visit we were allowed to roam freely around the extensive micro granite quarry and museum to our hearts content, we had a good look round the excellent museum, which was jam packed with exhibits of old days mining equipment and quarrying artefacts, including chisels, hammers, wedges and old drills that were used at Threlkeld, and there were lots of old photographs of the people that worked in the mine, there was also a good section of old miners lamps used by miners before battery lamps had been invented, when you were expected to work 12 hours a day and pay for your own candles and explosives to work the mine.
Outside there was a unique collection of vintage excavators and old mining machinery that looked like giant dinosaurs and in an old out building we stumbled on Ian Hartland working on “Sir Tom” a 0-4-0 saddletank narrow gauge engine built by Bagnall of Stafford in 1926, and named after Sir Tom Callender, the loco worked at British Insulated Callender Cables, Kent, until 1968, after lying idle for 33 years, it arrived at Threlkeld in 2001, and since then has undergone a complete restoration, it is the same model as two Bagnall 0-4-0 saddletank engines which were housed in the engine shed at Threlkeld from 1900 until 1937.
The boiler was re-tubed by Derek Bouch at Carlisle, which has passed its final boiler inspection with flying colours; also a new Saddle Tank was made by Alistair Bell also at Carlisle as the old one was full of holes! But many parts had to be made by Ian Hartland on site to replace worn and missing items.
I spent some time talking to Ian Hartland, the quarry owner, locally thought of as being something of a legend in his own lifetime when it comes to engineering and vintage machines, he collects Ruston-Bucyrus excavators and he also owns a couple of Series one Land Rovers, which was a good conversation opener as my Dad and I are great Landy fans.
Hopefully in 2009, Sir Tom will be used to haul passenger trains into the inner quarry, all that remains to be done are a few adjustments to the engine and the track, completion of the two platforms and carry out the final track inspection in time for the 2009 season, sounds easy doesn’t it, but the reality is quite different, maybe that is why only a Fred Dibnah character like Mr. Hartland with a real love of engines is needed to engineer such a task!
In 1998 Ian Hartland after reading a book on excavators by Peter Grimshaw, and a life long enthusiast Philip Peacock formed The Vintage Excavator Trust at Threlkeld Quarry
Well was it worth visiting the Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum, absolutely yes, it was without a doubt a most fascinating and absorbing place, I learnt a great deal about mining in Threlkeld, the museum was so interesting and packed full of mining I am really looking forward to my next visit.