Thursday, October 28, 2010

Middlehope Burn, Weardale

Today's Guardian Country Diary traces the route through the old lead mine ruins along Middlehope Burn at Westgate in Weardale. It's hard to believe now but this wooded, steep-sided valley was once a cradle of industry, whose heyday was during the 19th. century. The geology here is composed of alternating beds of limestone, sandstone and shale that erode at different rates and create perfect conditions for the formation of waterfalls like this one next to the cornmill, where the burn cascades over sandstone and greets the visitor on arrival. Rich mineral veins run up through fissures in the strata from the volcanic whin sill below.

The path up the valley is often washed away and has recently been repaired after floods in 2008 and 2009. When there's torrential rain on the fells above, a torrent of water flows down the burn, towards the River Wear. The burn is perfect dipper habitat and the mine ruins upstream provide ideal nest sites.

The first ruins you reach are the Low Slitt Mine bousteads, where partnerships of miners stored their ore before it was crushed between metals rollers. Each compartment belonged to a different partnership. At this point there are mine levels - horizontal tunnels that stretched sometimes for several miles into the hillsides, just large enough to accommodate a pony and its load. There was also a shaft here, at 177 metres deep the deepest in Weardale, where miners were lowered using an Armstrong hydraulic engine. The engine is long gone but its massive mountings lie just around the corner, out of sight in this photograph. Across the burn from the engine lies the old waterwheel pit that also powered machinery. The energy of flowing and stored water provided the power for the whole enterprise.

Further up the valley, where it broadens out into the fells, lies the ruins of Middlehope Shield Mine. Photographs from the beginning of the 20th. century, shortly before the mines closed for good, show gantries of ore crushing machinery here but now all that remains are the jagged ruins of the masonry.

The lead mined here was used for everything from sealing church roofs to producing bullets for some of greatest battles in 19th. century history. Lead, in the form of galena, was separated from the lighter crushed rock on washing floors, using a current of water channeled from reservoirs and from the burn. Now this waterlogged fenny turf is home to plants like the insect-eating butterwort and is a breeding site for frogs and dragonflies. At the head of the valley, at the bottom of the fell in the centre distance, lies yet another mine level that was briefly reopened to mine fluorspar. The whole valley was a cauldron of activity during the industrial revolution but now it's a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - and a European Geopark. Nature has worked wonders at healing the scars over the last century.

On a mellow autumn afternoon it's hard to imagine the cacophony of noise and the dirt and dust that must have filled the valley. The drier areas are now pasture, providing fine conditions ......

... for a range of grassland fungi, like this little gem with gills like cathedral vaulting... which I think may be a snowy waxcap Hygrocybe virginea (?), which sometimes develops with a funnel-shaped cap.
These, I've yet to identify (anybody know what they are?)... I think they could be dung roundheads Stropharia semiglobata

... and this is meadow coral Clavulinopsis corniculata still in the early stages of growth.

All the power for the mine machinery came from the skillful management of flowing water, channeled from the burn and tributaries, but no one seems absolutely sure where all the channels were. Floods have deposited rock and silt as the burn has changed its course, but here and there underground channels like this one bubble to the surface then disappear into the depths again.

Looking back as you climb up out of the valley you can see traces of the railway that carried the ore away from the site. The ruins of Middlehope Shield Mine lie amongst the trees in the centre middle distance and to the left of those are washing floors and yet another mine level (White's Level) cut into the hillside. The bridge abutments in the foreground carried the mineral railway over the burn.

Climb higher still and you can see the track bed of another railway - the smooth green track running slightly downhill to the right from the centre of this picture, just above a wall. In the distance, rays of sunshine are sweeping across the flanks of Chapel Fell that looms up out of the haze.
At the top of the fell now, and the sun is lighting up West Slitt Dam, the reservoir whose water provided the power for the Armstrong hydraulic engine below, that hauled miners up from their underground tunnels.

There were levels cut to mine lead all the way up the fellside. The green tracks fanning out here are soil tips, where ponies dragged carts of rock waste and dumped it.
At the end of a long shift underground hewing rock, this is the panorama that they would have enjoyed when they trudged wearily back down the hill into Westgate. It was a hard way to earn a living.

If you are interest in this circular walk, you can download an excellent Geotrail here.

Adrian's Images has a photo of the starting point for the walk - the footpath up to the strangely-named Weeds, at the lay-by in the centre of Westgate, here.


  1. Thanks for this Phil I intend going back there. Should have stayed an extra day or two really. It really does look an interesting walk.

  2. Ojj very pretty pictures. very nice landscape and very good light .. I loved the mushroom and the last where the sunlight through the clouds across a window..

  3. Wonderful walk, it reminds me so much of the Welsh coal-mining valleys where I was brought up, nature has worked her magic there too. And what pretty fungi too.

  4. Hi Adrian,it makes a really good circular walk ..... give it a week or two and we'll probably see the first hint of snow on the fells in upper Weardale

  5. Greetings dejemonos sorprender, I like the way the sunlight sweeps across the landscape like a searchlight

  6. Hi Toffeeapple, there are sveral places in Weardale where you can walk through trees and suddenly come upon a place where people of the past lived and worked, now reclaimed by nature. I think the presence of human history makes landscapes even more interesting...

  7. Hi! I stumbled upon your description when googling for Middlehope Burn, since I am researching for an article about the Weardale mining history. I love the photos - although I have been at the place three times now, I have never had such gorgeous weather conditions for photographing. Thumbs up also for the informative texts. :)Ellen

    1. Hi Ellen, delighted that it was of some use to you - thanks for the kind comment.Best wishes, Phil