These beautiful hills on the south edge of the Peak District did not only see the beginning of the Industrial Revolution through silk and cotton mills or serve as a centre for the quarrying of stone, but have also been a key source for lead. Most of the mining traces are gone, those jobs that kept body and soul together for so many gone with them.
Not entirely a bad thing. Lead kills those who mine it, those who work it, and causes severe brain damage to children who eat paint chips or inhale its dust.
We fought it in Los Angeles, where slum buildings contain layers upon layers of brightly-coloured environmental disaster. I have spent years talking about lead, trying to get it remediated, working with families whose children suffer from its effects.
I never gave much thought to where the lead was from, how it was worked. Funny blindspot given my dad’s work for the copper mines, our mining claims filed with the BLM.
On holiday we stumbled across the The Peak District Lead Mining Museum, where the above picture is from. The best thing, and rather an anomalous thing, in Matlock Bath (the Paignton of the North, and not our thing at all on a summer weekend). I quite loved it, and as we were alone to enjoy the exhibit much of the time (having missed the tour of the actual mine across the road), we got to crawl through the narrow spaces designed to recreate the experience of being in the mine. Probably it is mostly for children, and many children went down those mines, and adults stunted by poverty and malnutrition. We were a little big for them, but they were brilliant none the less.
I loved too the bits of history found here, the old equipment brought here by the immense effort of teams of volunteers. Like home in Arizona, people love these old mines and the rusting hulks of ingenious machinery built to work them despite the suffering of working them. I share this love too, from my dad, and divided feelings of deep admiration for the men who went down into these dark and dangerous places and the work that they did there, and the hatred for the cost of it in suffering and environmental degradation for the profit of a few.
But I love the stories miners tell, and I’ve heard more than one say how much they miss that life underground. But they weren’t mining lead.
Almost all traces of the lead mines that once covered this part of the country are gone — all that remains are pits in the ground, old foundations and walls. We saw a picture of Magpie Mine here, though, and decided to try and get there if the weather was kind.
And it was.
We came up through Bakewell, across fields impossible in shape (hard on the legs too)
and impossible in number of peas
And then we saw it
Magpie lead mine was worked for over 250 years — the steel cage taking miners down the shaft is from the 1950s, but the first engine dates back to 1840 and of course, some of the stonework even earlier. In 1881 they completed a sough of 1 3/4 miles to drain the mine workings into the river Wye, 8 years it took to build.
All of it now ruins, picturesque against the sky. Again I am divided at its undeniable beauty, and all that it has meant both as a place that gave life through labour and took it away through the conditions of that labour, and the lead that must have come home with the miners in the folds of their clothes and the grime on their faces to poison their families who weren’t themselves down the mine …