Nenthead watercourse survey excavation

Project Profile

Project Title :

Nenthead Lead Mines

Client :

Natural England and Cumbria County Council

Type of Work :

Conservation Management Plan

Project Gallery 

Clearing fallen stone in the smelt mill   Rebuilding the Rampgill Burn culvert wall  
Rebuilding the smelt mill wheel pit   Putting in the formers for the flue arching  
Altogether Archaeology   Volunteers starting to dig the blocked overflow from Handsome Mea reservoir  
 Excavations start on trackside leat   Exposed leat capstones  


Nenthead Lead Mines

Conservation and reconsolidation

Northern Archaeological Associates are currently involved in a series of projects at Nenthead Lead Mines, Nenthead, Cumbria. We have been working closely with a team of skilled masons from William Anelay headed by Countryside Consultants on a Conservation Management Plan for the site at Nenthead, funded by Natural England and Cumbria County Council. The plan is aimed at the conservation and reconsolidation of many of the structures still standing today. Much of the work carried out by Northern Archaeological Associates has taken the form of numerous small scale watching briefs and detailed photographic survey with some limited small scale excavation work being carried out on areas of high archaeological impact.

Mining at Nenthead is likely to date from the 17th century or earlier. In 1735 the Alston Moor estate was granted to the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich in London, who leased out mines on the moor. One of the major lease-holders, George Liddle, began working at Nenthead from 1736, and built the first smelt mill.
In 1745, the leases were taken on by the London Lead Company, who successfully developed and modernised the mines, becoming the largest employer in the area. The London Lead Company gave up its leases in 1882.
Between 1882 and 1896, the mines were run by the Nenthead and Tynedale Lead and Zinc Company, and from 1896, by the Vielle Montagne Zinc Company of Belgium, who concentrated on producing concentrates of zinc and lead from both mined ore and the reprocessing of spoil dumps. In the Second World War, the mines were requisitioned by the Ministry of Supply. Following the war, the mines were worked by the Anglo-Austral Mining company (from 1949), and then by a series of small concerns, who were mainly interested in the reprocessing of spoil heaps rather than undertaking further mining.
By the 1970s, activity at the site had largely ceased, and the smelt mill and other buildings were systematically destroyed.

Much of the remains still standing at Nenthead are vulnerable to loss through natural erosion, animal activity and flooding. The conservation management plan is aimed at highlighting these areas of particular immediate risk and undertaking structural work where necessary to ensure these structures are not lost.
A skilled team of masons and joiners were brought in from William Anelay to undertake much of the structural work on site monitored by archaeologists from Northern Archaeological Associates in case any unknown structures or deposits were uncovered.
The majority of the work took place in and around the smeltmill complex. The smeltmill complex is a complicated structure, which has developed organically since at least the middle of the 18th century until the present day. The complex comprises at least nine buildings, paved courtyards and passageways, the Bingsteads, and the Spine Wall, the latter two elements being the largest upstanding remains within the complex. Although much of these structures have been previously recorded there is considerable potential for further structures to be uncovered during the consolidation works.
Further to the consolidation work at the smeltmill complex a small scale excavation took place at Smallcleugh washing floor. Work was undertaken on the retaining wall preventing a large quantity of toxic mine waste from falling into the river Nent. During machine stripping a large wooden sludge chute was uncovered. This took material away from the settling tanks of the washing floor and over the retaining wall and into the river. The chute itself was dismantled to allow for the reconstruction of the retaining wall and will be re-instated at a later point.
A similar small scale excavation was undertaken outside of Smallcleugh Level. Work was undertaken on a section of previously repaired culvert now in danger of collapsing again. During machine stripping a previously unrecorded retaining wall for the culvert was uncovered. This wall was then fully recorded, dismantled to allow repair work and then re-instated back to its original position.
Numerous watching briefs were carried out all along the length of the smeltmill flue all the way to the chimney on the far side of the moor. The chimney flue itself stretches out for over a mile and would have carried toxic fumes away from the immediate area. The horizontal flue was constructed because of numerous complaints from local farmers. They were complaining that the fumes from the chimney were killing nearby livestock and damaging the surrounding land. The construction of the flue was not completely altruistic however and also allowed the fume from smelting to condense along its walls. Because the flue was built horizontally they were able to send employees (probably children) into the flue to scrape off the toxic fume to be further re-processed. This process proved so profitable that they were able to recoup the costs of the construction of the flue within a few years.
Further watching briefs were undertaken at Rampgill Burn where large sections of culvert had been washed away causing toxic material to be washed into the natural watercourse. Work was undertaken under archaeological supervision to remove any blockages and reinstate the collapsed sections of culvert.
A small team of volunteers, organised by the Nenthead Mines Conservation Society under the direction and supervision of William Anelay, are currently undertaking the reconsolidation of the Powder House. The Powder House is a small structure designed to house gun powder. It is deliberately placed out of the way as a result of numerous fatalities with the handling of gunpowder in close proximity to the mine workings. Much of this structure had since fallen into disrepair, but is being brought back to its former glory with the re-instatement of its roof and door, which will prevent the structure from degrading further.

Nenthead Lead Mines, Altogether Archaeology Watercourses survey and Excavation.
Northern Archaeological Associates have also been working closely with the Altogether Archaeology team at Nenthead lead mines as part of the Nenthead Watercourses Survey. Altogether Archaeology started in 2010 and is a volunteer led initiative, run by North Pennines AONB, aimed at enhancing our knowledge and understanding of the archaeology and historic environment of the North Pennines.
The current phase of the Altogether Archaeology project, generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, began in September 2012 and runs through until September 2015. It aims to complete archaeological survey and excavation projects at a wide range of sites. Volunteers from Altogether Archaeology have worked on projects from early Neolithic sites at Hallbankgate, Bronze Age cairns at Alston to prehistoric landscape surveys at Ravenshaugh and much more. Participation in the project is open to all and it actively encourages local volunteers with a passion for heritage to sign up and participate.

Work began with volunteers from Altogether Archaeology in June 2014. This took the form of a walkover survey, led by Northern Archaeological Associates, to map and record the position , direction and water flow of a series of leats and culverts, which formed the historical water management system at Nenthead lead mines. As a direct result of the survey our understanding of the water management system, and our understanding of the problems associated with the ongoing conservation and management of the site, have been greatly enhanced.
Further to the mapping of the watercourses at Nenthead; the project was also aimed at reducing the amount of toxic material, primarily tailings from ore processing, from entering the natural watercourses. This is currently having an effect on the River Tyne through the deposition of heavy metals which is encouraging the growth of rare metallophytes, which are lead tolerating plants.

Trial Trenching
A two week phase of trial trenching was undertaken by volunteers of the Altogether Archaeology team, lead by staff from Northern Archaeological Associates as a direct result of the walkover survey. The aim of the trial trenching was to target areas highlighted in the survey which were vulnerable to collapse or were causing flooding issues elsewhere within the site with a view to understanding potential future conservation issues.
In total 10 sites were investigated by volunteers of the Altogether Archaeology project. A great deal of information was gathered by the volunteers on the direction and flow paths of various leats and culverts which will inform a future conservation plan aimed at re-establishing the water management system at Nenthead. This has also helped further reduce any pollution associated with the lead mine from entering the natural water courses and subsequently into the river Tyne.

You can download the full report here (pdf 47.7MB).