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The Coniston Copper Project preserving the industrial heritage of the Lake District

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 November 2018



Milton Haworth

The two-and-a-half year initiative to preserve the remains of the copper mines.

On the ruins of old Coppermines Eleanor Kingston from Lake District National ParkOn the ruins of old Coppermines Eleanor Kingston from Lake District National Park

VISITORS to some parts of the Lake District 150 years ago would have found sights and sounds vastly different to the idyllic rural vistas of today.

Back then, machines and men pounded rocks and created industrial landscapes. Women and children were not excluded from the heavy tasks demanded for operating mines of various kinds. Commemorating this industrial past was an important element of the Lake District’s successful bid for World Heritage Site status.

Nowhere is the contrast between then and now more pronounced than the charming Lancashire village Coniston and the fell above.

This month sees the end of a two-and-a-half year initiative to preserve the remains of the copper mines which once dominated this corner of what became the national park. The Coniston Copper Project was initiated as a result of the long derelict site being designated as “heritage at risk” by Historic England.

A ride alongside Coniston WaterA ride alongside Coniston Water

It has been a joint effort by Lake District National Park, local land owners, Grizedale Arts, YHA Coniston Coppermines, the Ruskin Museum and Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society, and funded with almost £500,000 from the Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project’s leader has been Eleanor Kingston, an archaeologist with the Park Authority for 16 years and now its lead strategy advisor on historic environments. ‘They are a really important part of our history, and of international importance.

‘They deserve to be protected and celebrated by people who live in the area as well as visitors,’ says Eleanor, whose family came from Blackburn.

‘The mines have not been restored. Rather, the remains have been consolidated so they will still be here in another 100 years. Walls have been repaired, rubble removed and the wheel pits and other buildings cleared up so that the industrial heritage is visible.’

Elizabeth I was responsible for the copper industry in the fells. She brought over German and Austrian miners in the 16th century to exploit the mineral for the “Mines Royal.” They started near Keswick and moved on to Coniston.

At its height, in the 19th century, the mining covered a huge area of the fells, around 57 hectares with 600 men, woman and children employed digging out the ore, smashing it up and extracting the precious metal.

Eleanor is particularly pleased that the project managed to involve the local community. Coniston Church of England Primary School spent a term researching the history, visiting the site, even going underground before creating a stage drama.

John Ruskin secondary school studied the geology and the important chemistry of extracting copper from the core by electrolysis. And lots of local people helped in archaeological surveys of the mines and mills, excavating sites and exploring archives for aspects of social history connected to the mines.

‘It was very hands-on and enabled us to compile a series of leaflets. The final result is that Historic England has removed Coniston Copper Mines from the “At Risk” register,’ added Eleanor.

Visitors can now combine fell-walking with industrial heritage trails, marked with interpretations and notices discreetly immersed in low stone walls, the main one being an interpretation hub opposite the youth hostel. It contains an interactive sound installation and visitors are invited to make sounds of hammering and chains rattling to be transported back to the landscape of years past.

Much of the land is owned by Coniston Copper-Mines Lakes Cottages company, who have converted a Victorian sawmill into four cottages which can be linked together to form accommodation for two to 22 people. They even hold weddings as a licensed premise. Many of the artefacts on site have been collected by company founder and managing director, Phil Johnston. ‘We have we have reconstructed one of the storage buildings as a heritage centre,’ he said.

A worldwide focus

Coniston will be the focus of worldwide attention next year which marks the bi-centenery of the birth of John Ruskin. He was one of the greatest figures of the Victorian age – a geologist, poet, artist and art critic, social revolutionary and conservationist who was warning of global warming 150 years ago.

Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, had a view of the mines over Coniston Water and his interest in the welfare of the working man was converted into practical help, according to Vicky Stowe at the Ruskin Museum.

‘Ruskin was aware of the very hard circumstances of the workers, the risks of injury and even death and he was involved in developing safety nets for them,’ she says.

His family visited the Lake District as tourists when he was a boy and in 1871, when he was 52, he bought Brantwood, before setting about expanding and renovating it.

He added a turret from which he could gaze over spectacular views.

‘Brantwood will be the hub of worldwide interest in Ruskin,’ says director of the house and grounds, Howard Hull.

From London to Tokyo, on both west and East and the United States, and across Europe and the UK, there are exhibitions, conferences and other events organised to mark the anniversary.

‘We are the major Ruskin attraction in the world and custodians of Ruskin’s legacy,’ says Howard. Events at Brantwood include exhibitions of Ruskin and Turner’s connections to Venice, including a Turner painting loaned by The Tate.

Another exhibition will feature Ruskin’s geology. He was the youngest ever member of the Royal Geological Society and the science was his first love. Brantwood has 2,000 items and Ruskin’s own hand-written catalogue. Howard is also working with museums across Cumbria to create Ruskin trails and exhibitions at other galleries.

A full list of events can be found at

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