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Derbyshire's Lead Mining Legacy.

Posted Monday, July 2, 2007

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Derbyshire’s Lead Mining Legacy: (Reflections Magazine 2006)

`the oldest industrial court in the world'

Wirksworth, seat of the Barmote Court of the King’s Field which is the oldest industrial court in the world, was once the lead capital of England and owes it’s existence almost exclusively to the lead mining industry, which during the two thousand years of it’s history has significantly shaped both the social and industrial landscape of the Derbyshire Peak District that we see today.

`Derbyshire has produced more lead than all the other counties of England put together'

Indeed, ever since the Romans first pillaged, scavenged and scarred the landscape in pursuit of it –Derbyshire has produced more lead than all the other counties of England put together – and consequently, more waste deposits and mining scars in a landscape almost permanently in flux.

These derelict rakes, hillocks and hollows of the lead ore fields are the visible above-ground remains of literally hundreds of miles of tunnels which lie beneath the surface of the pock-marked landscape.

They represent at least a thousand years of backbreaking toil for the men of the area who dug into the earth to scrape a meagre living, and the women and children who worked beside them, hauling up hundreds of thousands of tons of ore by bucket or kibble and windlass, before crushing, washing, sorting and weighing it on the surface.

Lead was mined throughout medieval times on a small scale mainly by farmers and their families who mined their own land.

It was mostly surface mining with underground workings rarely more than 75 –100ft deep, the different levels being reached by a series of vertical wooden ladders leading down to horizontal hand-cut tunnels at various depths - the miners simply located the ore where it outcropped on or near the surface and followed the veins of galena in whichever direction they led.

Many of the old lead rakes and hillocks which exist today are the result of small scale mineral extraction which took place throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, mostly high in the hills in open, exposed countryside, and with no protection from the elements.

The women and children working on the surface would first separate the galena from the clay, soil and rocks before crushing and washing the ore by hand, this was known as buddling; the waste was then thrown onto a spoil heap, whilst the lead bearing ore was taken to the nearest smelter and melted down to produce the lead and tiny quantities of silver which it contained.

From the 16th century the use of gunpowder increased both the efficiency – and the danger to the miners, but only those mining on a commercial scale could afford it!

By the 18th century most mines were down to the water-table and to remove the water drains or soughs were cut. Steam pumps were introduced and mining became much more industrialised, inevitably controlled by the landed gentry and an emerging group of wealthy industrialists who could provide the necessary capital investment.

But the industry went into terminal decline during the Victorian age and the last lead mine at Mill Close, Darley Dale eventually closed in 1939; thus for two thousand years, lead had played a major role in driving Derbyshire’s economy, and according to the Peak District National Park Authority, the legacy it has bequeathed is priceless.

The Authority, together with English Nature, English Heritage, and DEFRA (Department for the Environment for Farming and Rural Affairs) see this landscape dotted with the abandoned skeletons of stone-built coes, and the grassy hillocks and hollows of the lead rakes as a rare historical legacy worthy of conservation and preservation, and are currently working together to raise public awareness of it within the Peak District National Park.

Of course, some would argue that the blighted and scarred lunar landscape of lead rakes and hillocks which are dotted all over the White-Peak, merely stand as testimony to a bygone way of life and industry full of backbreaking toil, illness, hardship and poverty – and, along with limestone quarrying, signify the despoilation of the natural beauty of the area.

But, in fact, the old lead rakes are actually helping to preserve some of the indigenous natural beauty of the area – for modern farming methods over the past century and a half have almost wiped out several native plant species – rare specimens of which survive solely among the hillocks and hollows of the derelict ore-fields! They exist simply because they have not been ploughed in or fertilised intensively over the years, and today the hillocks & hollows provide refuge for many once-common Peak District wild-flowers, with exotic names like Moonwort, Frog Orchid and Restharrow.

This valid argument for conservation of the lead rakes becomes even more important when it is realised that the lead legacy has bequeathed us some rare and priceless indigenous botanical specimens, which according to the latest Phytologist Symposium could have a dramatic impact on both plant – and human health!

These rare and ecologically valuable plants are called `Metallophytes’ -

plants that can tolerate high levels of metals in the soil. There are four key Metallophyte species found here in the lead rakes, these are the nationally scarce Spring Sandwort (known locally as lead-wort); Alpine Penny-Cress, Pyrenean Survy Grass and Mountain Pansy.

Not only are these incredible plants tolerant of metallic elements, they actually take up metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium, copper etc. through their roots and are able to store them within their leaves and stems.

This is cutting-edge technology, and trials have recently been carried out to use Metallophytes as a way of decontaminating land - by sowing and then later harvesting the plants along with the toxic metals they have extracted from the ground. This, of course, has great potential for the ecological regeneration of metal contaminated sites throughout the world, as planting and harvesting the metallophytes would be an environmentally friendly way of removing dangerous toxic contaminants.

Professor Alan Baker, Head of Botany at the University of Melbourne, who is also head of a Global Mining Initiative which seeks to identify new low-cost and environmentally friendly approaches to mine decontamination, remediation and restoration through the use of metallophytes says:

“The benefits of Phytoremediation, defined as the use of a naturally occurring plant species called `metallophytes’, which thrive on metal-rich substrates is enormous, as metallophytes either remove metals from contaminated substrates or render them into environmentally innocuous forms”.

He cites three types of Phytoremediation:

“Phytoextraction – which uses metallophytes called hyperaccumulators to clean up metals from polluted soils.

Phytostabilization – which uses metallophytes to immobilise metals in soils or in metal rich mine waste.

Rhozofiltration – which uses metallophytes to extract metals from water and industrial waste waters.

He says: “Phytoremediation has shown to be both effective and cost beneficial when compared to traditional technologies. It is environmentally friendly as it can be applied in situ to large areas and does not alter the biological, chemical, and physical properties of the substrate, thus allowing for ecological restoration of contaminated sites, and thus, alternative land uses”.

Science & technology has a current emphasis on maintaining a balanced biodiversity and on finding green solutions to pollution issues; exploiting nature’s own solutions towards removing sources of anomolous metal accumulation not only offers an elegant solution to the soil contamination problem in heavily mineralised sites all over the world, but offers a solution that is both sustainable and potentially far more acceptable to society. This makes Derbyshire’s rare metallophytes a vital study resource at the forefront of modern technology, reason enough for their protection and preservation.

In addition, the nectar producing flowers provide food for invertebrates such as the local` Robber Fly’ (Leptarthrus Breuirostris) and the nationally scarce ground beetle (Carabus Monalis) and the seeds provide a resource for rare and declining mammals and birds.

Recognising the ecological value of the metallophytes, the National Park Authority has acted quickly and already some of the old lead fields have been listed as places of significant historical interest and are subject to preservation orders; many support an intricate and complex mix of wildlife, and `natures response’ to the harsh environment of the abandoned worked-out mines has developed into a rich habitat for biodiversity.

But many are vanishing and 75% have already been lost, many to modern farming practices and through the reworking of spoil-heaps for fluorspar, barytes and other minerals, and the Authority warns that unless we do not act now to protect sites, then an important part of our heritage and wildlife could be lost forever.

If you want to know more about the Lead Rakes Project visit the website at:




**Where would we be without lead? Some facts about a lead-free life:

Your car wouldn’t start in the morning because it needs a lead acid battery. 120,000 tonnes (more than half) of lead used in the UK goes to make batteries – and 90% of that is recovered and recycled to make more batteries.

Without the use of lead solders and leaded glass you would not be able to safely sit in front of your computer. Lead alloy solders enable your computer to send electronic data. Lead is the glue that binds our electronic world together. It plays a vital role in space exploration, energy conservation and telecommunications.

Lead is used to shield medical workers from harmful x-rays and as a shock absorber in hi-tech buildings in Japan to absorb the impact of earthquakes.

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