The easing of lockdown made it possible for museums at least to partially re-open, and the Peak District Mining Museum in Matlock Bath’s Grand Pavilion was quick to take advantage of it. With its easy access, visitors can explore the story of lead mining in the Peak District. Everything is open except the popular children’s climbing shafts, which cannot be reopened in case the dreaded Corvid-19 virus lurks in dark recesses. Otherwise everything, including the popular Temple Mine is open to carefully spaced visitors.
Lead mining is the Peak’s oldest industry, it began in pre-Roman times, in fact it was the acquisition of lead for their plumbing and roofing needs that first attracted Roman conquerors to Derbyshire. Apart from a handful of sites, lead mining was very much a two-men and a dog sort of industry.
A glance at the Ordnance Survey map of the White Peak shows literally scores of sites marked as Mine (disused), or simply shown as mounds dotted across open fields. The place name Bole Hill is another frequently mentioned link with a long-gone industry. Usually on or near a hilltop, it indicates that a bole, or crude smelter was once nearby. Boles were small affairs, simply a three-sided stone fireplace facing the prevailing wind. It was here that a charcoal fire melted lead ore which was then run off into moulds, creating the traditional ‘pigs’, or ingots of useful lead. It took an age to produce a fother (ton) of lead and another thousand years or so to make any improvements. This came about in the mid eighteenth century with the invention of reverberatory or Cupola smelters. Rather than mix fuel with ore, the new system relied on intense heat bounced off furnace walls, producing greater amounts of refined lead. One of them can still be explored; it surrounds the square chimney standing on high ground at Spitewinter between the Matlock/Chesterfield and Darley/Dale Chesterfield roads.
Once inside the museum, the first exhibit is a lifelike miner and his truck of ore. Behind him, but currently out of bounds is the entrance to one of the climbing shafts. These realistic effects run between the ground and first floor of the museum, making a perfect adventure playground post Coronavirus. A word of warning though to any well-padded adult, don’t try climbing while wearing bulky clothes like I once did. Reaching daylight at the top, I managed to get well and truly stuck. All I could see was a large pair of shoes at floor level topped by a bulky male. Looking down at me, he grinned and said; ‘Another daft b—– like me, give us your hand’. A quick yank and I was out, and I’ve never tried it again, but the grandchildren loved to disappear into the gloomy recesses.
Set pieces like the miner figures made from plastic tubes are shown amongst the tools of their trade, such as the ‘whisket’, a simple basket which held their day’s delving below ground. Don’t try to pick up the massive lump of lead ore as it weighs over half a ton. There cannot have been many similar lumps brought out of Peakland mines, most of the daily production was at best, made up of pieces the size of a man’s fist, or smaller. It had to be dressed (broken up), usually by miners’ wives and washed in the river to remove as many impurities as possible.
Water below ground and removing it was always a problem. The most efficient way was by a drain, or ‘sough’ (pronounced ‘suff’), if the mine was above the level of a convenient river, but this was a rare event. The alternative was by a mechanical pump, or the cruder rag pump like the one on display. Another popular children’s exhibit, it is an endless chain of rag-filled links which, when turned by a handle, mops up water and brings it to the surface.
A clanking and grinding sound usually indicates that some child (or adult for that matter), is enjoying the task, but imagine spending all day turning the heavy handle. A more efficient system stands opposite the rag pump. Basically a vertical pipe a little over a foot in diameter festooned with all manner of valves and mysterious pipes, it came out of Wills’ Founder Mine at Winster where it had done yeoman service for the best part of a century. The work of dismantling it underground and then rebuilding it in the museum, was done by volunteer members of the Peak District Historic Mining Society.
Photographs, each telling a story are dotted around the museum and range from a poignant shot of Charles Henry Millington (1878-1968), the Peak District’s last working lead miner, to historical shots of now long abandoned mines. On display are fascinating models of mechanical pumps and surface views of mines such as Magpie Mine near Sheldon, or horse-drawn stone crushing circles, the remains of which can still be found half hidden in bracken dotted around the local countryside. Attractive displays of stone collections show just how colourful many of the ores buried deep beneath the ground can be.
Temple Mine is an abandoned drift mine running directly into the limestone hillside a little way beyond the entrance to Gulliver’s Kingdom. It was last used to mine fluor spa (calcium fluoride a source of the fluoride in tooth paste). We were lucky to find a family of four there, taking advantage of their museum entrance fees. They had just spent part of the previous hour on a guided tour exploring the mine’s inner nooks and crannies and were finishing off their visit with a spell of panning for gold. There really is gold in them thar hills, but it is of the fool’s variety – iron pyrites, (iron sulphide FeS2).
Currently the Peak District Mining Museum is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m, until further notice. Please wear face masks and keep a couple of metres away from other visitors.