High on the flanks of Coniston Old Man is a little-known yet highly important industrial archaeological site.
Historically, Coniston was known for two main industries: copper and slate. Copper was worked from the mid-1500s up to the 1890’s; its presence given away by the reddish-coloured spoil heaps that dot the landscape in the appropriately-named Coppermines Valley.
However, on either side of Coppermines Valley, a different type of spoil heap can be seen in the form of huge banks of silver-grey rock, comprising the unwanted ‘spoil’ from the extraction of fine grade slate from deep inside the mountain.
There is evidence of slate extraction on the Old Man from c. 1200. By Victorian times, slate-working was extensive, and newer and faster techniques of extraction were required to keep up with demand. The use of compressed air was one way of providing power for the rock drills and winches, but it required a sustainable source of energy to drive the compressor that produced it – in the form of water.
To meet the need, a powerhouse was built adjacent to an existing smithy. From a natural reservoir high on the mountain, water was delivered by pipe to a Pelton Wheel installed inside the powerhouse. The energy produced was transferred by drive-belts to a compressor. The compressed air was stored in a holding tank until required. The pelton wheel also drove a dynamo producing electricity for lighting in the mine.
By the 1960s, new sources of slate were being opened up and the quarries on the Old Man were abandoned and allowed to deteriorate. Rock falls filled the chambers and the mine entrances were gradually blocked by surface scree, but remarkably the powerhouse remained largely intact despite having had its roof removed.
Since then, work has been done to stabilise the building and preserve its internal machinery.
A survey by English Heritage in 2006 concluded that the Old Man quarries and associated remains including the powerhouse were of ‘exceptionally high archaeological and educational significance’ and of national importance.
It is hoped that the powerhouse and its associated features will be repaired and preserved for future generations to understand the importance of this local industry.
In an era of high demand for power, it is worth noting that the powerhouse is a pertinent reminder of how to harness energy that does not rob the earth of its natural resources, but simply borrows those resources with minimum harm to the environment.
In this respect, we should continue to take lessons from the past and apply them to the future.