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UK Coniston Copper Mines, The Hospital Levels - October 2015

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Coniston Copper Mines, The Hospital Levels
 
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The Coniston Copper Mine valley and surrounding areas I think were the catalyst to what I've done with my life ever since. I was 13 when I first visited the valley; there was a weeklong climbing and mountaineering trip there organised by the Scouts at a district level, technically I was too young, but I was keen for some reason, very, very keen so I kept hassling everyone and managed to go in the end as there was a spare place. To this day I'm not sure why I was so keen to go, fair enough I'd been up Snowdon a few years before with the Scouts and had done a fair bit of walking in the Yorkshire Dales, but I wasn't that keen on heights having cried on my only attempt to abseil the previous year eventually scrambling back over the top of the crag.
 
We stayed in the Yorkshire Mountaineering Club hut at the top of the valley, each day we were out in the hills for most of the day and still remember them clearly. Rock climbing at Raven Crag in Langdale up what felt like 1000ft of vertical rock, bouldering and climbing near Chapel Style, trudging up the never ending scree slopes up to Dow Crag and ascending the gullies which cut through the huge 500ft cliff and walking around the rim of the Copper Mine valley finishing on top of the Old Man of Coniston.
 
Towards the end of the week we had a slight change to being on the hills, we went under them instead. I can't remember the guys name, but he was part of the active group who were exploring and mapping the long forgotten sections deep underground. I can remember just being in awe at what felt like a maze of passages, the old artefacts and the peace and quiet of being in the mine. Also having read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings a few times by then I could imagine being in the books now myself and the thought of Awks, Trolls or Dwarfs hiding around each corner left a lasting impression.
 
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The Youth Hostel, which was formally one of the mine buildings.
 
Roll on 4 years and I was a keen climber, being close to local crags and borrowing the Scouts climbing equipment had made that possible, but apart from a few caves in Yorkshire hadn't really ventured that much underground. Passing my driving test shortly after my 17th birthday meant I could head over to Coniston for weekends, stopping at the Copper Mines YHA. It wasn't every weekend as my £27.50 a week probably wouldn't cover it, plus there were plenty of other places to visit with my recently found mobility. It was often enough though to get to know the YHA warden well, which had its advantages; a cup of tea and homemade cake on arrival, up to date weather forecasts before setting off from home; plus he had an old beat up car which he use to drive us down to the end of the dirt track to go to the pub and then back, this was very advantageous as it was a fair walk, but YHA's locked the doors at 22.00 in the mid 80's so being with the warden meant it was never a problem. On top of all that he was also a wealth of knowledge on the Copper Mines, so when I wasn't on the hills I was underground exploring the mines.
 
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One of the early trips to the area aged 17, we did wonder why other folk were putting on crampons, ice axes, harnesses and ropes. When I said to Jonny (lad in the photo) look at the stunning views, he replied I don't give a fuck about the views! That was his first and last introduction to ice climbing.
 
Even when I went to college in Guildford there were regular trips to the Lakes and many days when the weather was too poor to climb usually ended up with a visit down the Copper Mines. However I stopped staying at the YHA by then, the bright lights of Ambleside had drawn us there. It also had an outdoor education primary school teacher college with a 90% female intake; this usually meant free floor space to sleep on or a bed if you were lucky. It was about this time that I heard that the YHA warden had taken a fall while in one of the mines breaking his back , never did find out what happened to him. I'd say my last trip into the mines was about in 1991, climbing took over and visits to the Lakes in general were less frequent as there were many places in the UK, Europe and beyond to visit and climb.
 
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Me and Jim on one of our mine trips 1989.
 
Apart from a couple of wanders around the edge of the Copper Mine valley I have not been in it now for nearly 25 years favouring the quieter Duddon Valley over the hill. I'm still kicking myself for missing out on a job up there in the mid 90's. It was a friend of mine who was part of the team to bolt up a shaft into the higher levels and discover the legendary Levers Water Bung. Rumour had it that in the 1800's the miners nearly broke through into the large tarn, they stopped digging and blocked the passage with a timber plug. This turned out to be true and after contacting Northwest Water and getting an engineer up there he deemed it safe. However a few years later tales of someone trying to blow it up came out and NW water decided to make a permanent repair. This involved drilling into the tunnel from above and dropping a mixture of sand and cement down the hole; filling sandbags and making a retaining wall with them. The company I was working with at the time got the job, equipment was to be taken up with a 4x4 and a helicopter, I pushed to get on the job pointing out my interest and connection with the history of the Bung. Alas I ended up hanging from a tower block in Hackney, while the lads working in Coniston had a pub crawl around the Lake District by helicopter that afternoon, as everything had been moved to site and the pilot pointed out that he was being paid for the full day!
 
Well that's enough of my memories, I have to write them down these days before I forget them. On with the report.
 
History (Very Brief)
 
The history of the  Copper mines go back over 400 years but extraction of copper will go back much further than this, probably to Roman times or even earlier. The most prosperous period was the 1850s and by the 1870s the mine went in decline. For most of the mines history only gunpowder was used, hand drilling, and only tallow candles as light. The country rock is volcanic so progress would have been painfully hard and slow. Getting to the copper veins at depth could only be done by descending wooden ladders and stagings. Some of the workings were over 1100ft below the surface and around 500ft below sea level.
 
Although over 1000ft of the mine workings are now under water it is still possible to descend over 500ft through the complicated vein systems. It is like stepping back in time. As well as a good knowledge of where you are going it is necessary to be fully competent in Single Rope Techniques and be fit. Ascending a 180ft vertical pitch at the end of a long day underground can sometimes not be put off!
 
The primary copper ore that was mined at Coniston is called Chalcopyrite (Copper/Iron/Sulphide). This is a yellow brassy colour similar looking to Pyrite or "fools gold" as it is often called. Since the mines closed over 100 years ago a considerable amount of post mine mineralization has taken place (Supergene). For a long time it was assumed that these were the copper carbonates Malachite and Azurite but it is now known that the vast majority of the stunning blues and greens are copper sulphates. These "supergene" minerals have a much higher copper content than Chalcopyrite. There are a number of these stunning formations in the mines and luckily they are in quite difficult places so have remained relatively undamaged.
 
The miners followed the veins down and would put in false timbered floors to tram the ore to the engine shafts. At various points a man-way would be built so the miners could descend ladders to other parts of the workings. These false floors are one of the major hazards to mine explorers today. They are covered with rubble and sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are on a false floor or not. When you are in new ground and you suddenly realize you are on one, with a big drop beneath your feet, it can be a sobering experience!
 
Contrary to what you would expect there are not many artefacts to be seen in the mines. This is because most were sold off for scrap as the mines suffered the slow decline and inevitable money problems, however some areas of the mines suffered from collapses due to the unstable nature of the ground and it is in these areas, where it was not worth tunnelling to retrieve them that you can find the odd mine wagon, jack roll, tallow candles and other small items.
 
My Visit
 
I had been planning to head back here for a few years now, and finally found some time. A fair bit of research was done to see what was feasible to do on my own and without any SRT methods being used. The day started with me trying to find Flemings Level in the pissing rain and low cloud cover. I'd wandered straight past it and ended a lot higher up the Valley at Gods Blessing, a small mine before retreating back to Flemings Level. A tight entrance and a reasonable depth of water meant I left my camera outside.
 
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After this brief visit I traversed the fellside on one of the water channels to get to the area below Levers Water. Memory was poor, but seemed to remember a lot more entrances than I found in this area.
 
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I did eventually find the entrance to the Hospital Levels and was glad to be out of the rain for once. It starts of wet and you soon reach a right branch from the main tunnel.
 
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Assorted timers have been stacked here, there's been a fair bit of strengthening work done since I was last down these mines.
 
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This tunnel does dry out and eventually stops about 400 meters into the hills.
 
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Back at the fork I decided to follow the main tunnel and see what I could find.
 
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I soon found where some of the timbers had been used.
 
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Beyond that you encounter various shafts in the floor of the tunnel, the board walks look sound enough but a harness and cowstails may have made some sense, after all safety is paramount. The shaft could drop hundred of feet and know I couldn't see the bottom.
 
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The 2nd shaft was a bit more rickety, but easy enough to get past.
 
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The right tunnel here led to another vertical shaft with water thundering down, I opted for the left tunnel and carried on with my explore.
 
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Another bit of timber to walk across and the tunnel started to open out a bit.
 
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Old timbers and chains are wedged in to the tunnel and roof.
 
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Just after this point old tracks were visible in the floor of the tunnel.
 
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But reached the end of the line too quickly as they hand over the mouth of another deep shaft.
 
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Nearly the end of the line for me too.
 
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The tunnel continues for another 500 or 600 meters after this, a few interesting side tunnels come off it and bits of steel work imbedded in the walls, but decided to leave these for future visits. This was about the last photo I took down here as my lens misted over and realised I had left my camera bag and cleaning kit near the entrance.
 
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That was my first visit underground here for 25 years and will be back a lot sooner for my next visit. Didn't see half of what I intended to see, but the weather was grim and missed a couple of the entrances.
 
I did venture over to the Tilberthwaite Valley later in the day, report to follow.
 
Cheers,
 
TLR.

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Cheers all, I do like the Copper Mines. Hopefully get back in them in the not too distant future as there is just so much of them to see :thumb

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Really nice @tlr m8ty. Love seeing your crazy shit you get up to. Once your reports stop will know you've found all that hidden treasure and done a fuck off lmao 

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