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Coppermine Valley in Winter

January 8, 2020

Winter can bring short days, challenging weather and an overwhelming desire to hibernate but equally fighting that urge can make way for some of the most rewarding outdoor adventures in breathtaking landscapes and provide an incredible sense of achievement.

Spending December in the Lake District may not be your first thought for a winter holiday destination but we decided to escape far from the maddening crowds of shops and Christmas commercialism and immerse ourselves in the slower pace of life, surrounded by nature and the rugged landscape of Coniston.

Coniston has a rich mining history and the copper mines at the foothills of the Old Man of Coniston are a stark reminder of times gone. In its hay day in the 1800s around 600 people worked here above and underground.

Huge piles of rock tower above bracken-filled hills and sheep tracks covering a maze of tunnels burrowing 1000ft down. Now the grey hues of industry blend into the natural landscape and fuse to become one. (Click gallery to enlarge photos).

The Lake District is punctuated with disused mines. A historic record of past industry that breathed life in to the local communities but which have subsequently ebbed away.

I discovered my 'inner child' emerges whenever I find one of the disused mines. It is like discovering a secret. Taking care to stick to paths and not disturb sites, you can get a first hand sense of the harsh working life folk endured; the damp, the cold, the dark vegetation-free shafts.

 

Please excuse the bumpy filming, I was balancing over a muddy bog but it does give a good sense of place with the sound of the dripping water, you can 'feel' the damp and darkness.

Legally protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and as a Scheduled Monument this area is a heritage site and education centre for future generations. 

From the vast rolling landscape an ominous mountain of slate or dry stone wall will suddenly reveal an opening, a manmade gorge that leads to a shaft which once would have been a hive of activity but now has been reclaimed by nature and swallowed by moss, ferns and trees whose roots cling precariously to the rock.

Against the odds the natural fell flora is plentiful even at altitude. Mountain streams lay way to a myriad of bog plants that manage to thrive in challenging conditions.

The running water attracts a diverse collection of plants, many dormant now but in summer this spot, at roughly 260m above sea level, is bursting with life. No sign of it in December but I had the fortune of discovering the carnivorous plant Drosera, Sundew at this very spot last August.

Although not a commonly found plant in the UK, the flowerless spiky foliage of quillwort litters the edges of the Lakeland mountain streams; as do Juncus effusus, the common rush whose coarse narrow leaves act as a beacon to where water can be found.

Grazing has taken its toll on the landscape and many plants over time retreated to the safer refuge of gullies, crags and scree. These artic alpines were ideally adapted to the cool Cumbria environment but as temperatures have climbed so have they and now many of these precious plants have retreated to higher altitudes to seek more favourable growing conditions. These are plants I try to seek out whenever I am walking in the Lakes.

Life will find a way and it is wonderful to see first hand the personal battles many of the these plants have overcome to secure their future on this planet like the numerous trees that have entwined their roots through sheer rock, defying all logic but retaining a firm stance, securely clinging to the mountain side. Anchored against the elements.

The ascent is rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view out to Coniston Water and Grisdale Forest. The old mining tower at Old Engine Shaft Red Dell stands like a military sentry guarding the entrance to the higher mountainous regions towards Wetherlam.

We have taken our teenage son out on the fells since he was a baby and so it feels like home. It is a great place for us as a family to share an experience away from the hectic distractions of everyday life and computer screens! Some of our best chats can be had whilst out walking.

The fells undulate between copper-coloured bracken, lichen carpeted rocks to barren slate.

Many plants self-seed between the rock cracks. In late December rosettes of foxgloves litter the landscape, moss and lichen cling to boulders and grasses thrive.

Copper appeared in this valley approximately 460 million years ago via the eruption of super volcanoes and then earthquakes, injecting this valuable commodity into the rock.

October 2019 hosted a temporary Gilded Sculpture Trail 'Copper in our Veins' by local artists Jessica Elleray and Siobhan Miles-Moore to celebrate the area's copper heritage.