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Storm Desmond and Wythburn mine

Last Updated: 29th Jun 2016

By Paul Nicholson

On the 5th and 6th of December 2015 the North West of England was battered by Storm Desmond, one of the worst storms to hit Cumbria in living memory. It left a trail of destruction in its wake with towns and villages flooded, buildings and property destroyed and bridges and roads washed away. Six months on some areas of the county are still recovering.

In the last issue of the British Micromount Society newsletter (February 2016) Peter Todhunter wrote an article called 'Desmond's Legacy' about his recent visit to a couple of Cumbrian mines to take a look at the sites and see what damage may have been left behind by Storm Desmond. He reported that the dumps of both Blencathra mine and Saddleback Old mine, both sources of some very fine micro minerals, had been completely washed away and the sites had been re-shaped by the storm.

So with that in mind I decided that as I was up in Cumbria for a weeks holiday with my wife and daughters it would be an ideal opportunity to re-visit one of my favourite locations, Wythburn mine, and take a few photos to record what damage Storm Desmond has done to this site, and compare them to the photos I took when I last visited the mine back in 2012. The mines location was particularly relevant as it sits on the western flank of Helvellyn, the third highest mountain in England, in the very steep Mines Gill overlooking Thirlmere reservoir. This part of the county was severely hit by the storm with the main road, the A591, which runs alongside Thirlmere, blocked by several large landslides washed down from the fells overlooking the road. The top end of the road near Dunmail Raise was also washed away. The road was re-opened this May, five months after the storm.





So I set off on a warm, sunny June morning not quite sure what of what I was going to find. The first obvious thing I came across was that the original path and footbridges that cross the bottom of Mines Gill, just below the site of the old processing mill, had been washed away. Although that wasn't totally unexpected, the extent of the damage was still a surprise. In its place there are now two very wide, deep gullies, filled with boulders and debris making that route now impassable. There is now a new path which veers off from the forestry road and crosses the gill quite a bit further down, complete with two new wooden footbridges.

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The original footbridge across the far side of Mines Gill, with the tailings dump just above it, in 2012.


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Roughly the same view in June 2016 after Storm Desmond.


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Another view of the tailings dump showing the gill stripped back to the bedrock.


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The right hand side of the mill has been washed away, along with the path and footbridge on this side of the gill.


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The new path and footbridge across Mines Gill, which is a lot further down, and a lot more substantial, than the old route.


So, to get to the mine, the climb up now starts from here. Once I reached the gill the extent of the damage becomes apparent, with the bottom of the gill now strewn with large boulders washed down during the storm. However, what I wasn't expecting was the damage the storm had caused to the incline. The incline was a fantastic feat of engineering. Built in 1861 by the Wythburn Lead Mining Company, this self-acting incline, with a gradient of 1 in 3, measured 600 yards long, 9ft wide and 9ft high and was built out of dressed stone. A bridge was also built at the bottom of the incline so that it could ford the gill and take the ore directly to the ore bins at the dressing plant. At the top of the incline, a large winding drum house was built, just below No.2 level adit, to house the winding mechanism. This was all a massive investment for the company, around Β£20,000, a huge sum of money at the time, showing just how confident they were in the mines future. And all this work was carried out in just 2 years. Until now the incline had withstood over 150 years of Cumbrian weather, remaining relatively intact, a testament to its builders. However, in just one night Storm Desmond had virtually washed the incline away with just one small section still standing near the bottom of the gill.

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Looking up the incline from the bottom of the gill, May 2012.


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The same view, looking up the incline from the bottom of the gill, June 2016.


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Looking down on to the same section of the lower incline from the opposite side of the gill.


Amazingly, in the middle of this destruction there is a small section of the outer retaining wall that is still standing. There is now a large gap between the wall and the bedrock, filled with large boulders and a small off shoot of the gill. However, given its exposed position, another year or two of Cumbrian winters and no doubt that this will probably be washed away too. The incline was also an extremely convenient, and relatively easy way to get up the gill but now most of the climb has to be made up the gill itself, which is now made all the more difficult due to the amount of large boulders and debris that has been washed down by the storm.

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The incline as it was in 2012.


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And the incline in 2016, post Storm Desmond.


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A small section of the outer retaining wall, still standing despite the rest of the incline behind it being washed away.


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Standing inside what used to be the incline with the outer wall on the right hand side.


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Looking back down the gill to the remaining section of incline./>


Climbing up the gill the huge dump of No.2 level soon comes into view and to my surprise it is still there. I was expecting most of it to have been washed away in the deluge that swept away so much of the incline. However, it hasn't completely escaped the effects of the storm. At the top of the dump there used to be a large flat grassy area but that has now gone. The water has then gone down the gully at the side of the dump, ripping out a lot of the embankment on the other side of the narrow gully, which is now filled with large boulders. Debris has also been washed down the side of the fell, from No.1 level and Arnisons level, which now covers the other side of the dump. But apart from a couple of small 'landslides' on the side of the dump next to the gully it is still remarkably intact, but just a little smaller.

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No.2 level dump as it was in 2012.


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The same dump in 2016. The light coloured material on the left hand side of the dump has been brought down from the dumps of No.1 level and Arnisons level further up the fell.


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The top of the dump in 2012.


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And in 2016.


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The storm also ripped out part of the embankment next to the side of the dump leaving a lot of very large boulders hanging precariously over the gully. How long before they come down?


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A large boulder of quartz and baryte, measuring about 18 inches across, found at the side of the gill. Although some of the raised baryte was a little bruised there were some good cavities all over the boulder, lined with some nicely developed 'cockscombe' baryte with a light green colouration, most likely from copper, as it was also scattered with tiny crystals of chalcopyrite altered to goethite.


So Storm Desmond has left its mark on Wythburn mine too but not quite in the way that I was expecting. It was very disappointing to see that so much of the incline had been destroyed, but the rest of the site seems to of escaped quite lightly compared to some other Lakeland mines. The climb up the gill is now a lot harder than it used to be and my legs were certainly paying for it the next day (or three) but it is always worth it for the fantastic views across Thirlmere and the fells beyond, although I think it may be a while before I take on that climb again.

It would be interesting to visit some of the other mines in the area and see what kind damage Storm Desmond has left behind at those locations. Overtime all sites such as Wythburn mine will be subject to natural erosion but this will have a limited effect on both the archaeology and any remaining dumps and spoil heaps, even over the course of many years. The most noticeable effect will of course be on the gradual weathering of any mineralization which may be present on the dumps. However, it is extreme weather events like Storm Desmond which highlight the vulnerability of these sites. Although it shows a need to protect such sites for the future, public funded bodies and institutions have neither the time nor the resources to carry out such a task, especially in a time of austerity. But as Peter Todhunter also points out at the end of his article in the BMS newsletter, 'events such as Storm Desmond have no respect for SSSI's or permit schemes and can destroy a site in a few hours'. At the moment the only future for these sites is for us amateurs to do the collecting and curation while the material is still available to collect, preserving it for future generations and a time when a more academic approach can be carried out. Amateur collectors have always provided a valuable roll in mineralogy, indeed many new finds and new species have been discovered by amateur collectors who do have the time to contribute to topographical mineralogy through their passion for field collecting.




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