For the second weekend in a row, I’ve found myself in Borrowdale in the Lake District.
It is a beautiful part of the Lake District and a drive along the Honister Pass needs to be taken slowly if you are to see all the dale can offer.
Like any place, what you see depends upon the weather; the tranquil green peaks of Summer are a stark contrast to the snow capped peaks of Winter, but due to the steep sides of the Honiter Pass, the time of day you visit also plays an important factor as the angle of sunlight generates a range of shadows across the dale.
One constant amongst this every changing environment is the Honister Slate Mine. The quality of slate produced is second to none with a product life of 300-400 years, compared the to 80 years of Welsh slate or the 25 years of Spanish. Perhaps that is why it is Honister slate that adorns the roof of Buckingham Palace?
The mine workings date back to the 1700s when Monks started to source materials for Furness Abbey. Over the centuries mine owners come and go, but there are none more inspirational than one of the more recent owners, Mark Weir. Mark perished in a helicopter crash in 2011, but the mine remains owned and operated by his family under the stewardship of his partner Jan. However, to lift Honister Slate Mine “off the page”, the first thing we need to do is understand a little of Mark Weir the man.
Honister Slate Mine had been derelict for over a decade by the time Mark, a self made man, acquired it in 1997. The successful publican & restauranteur had spotted an opportunity most people simply couldn’t see. Perhaps it was when his grandfather questioned why the mine had closed as they took a helicopter flight over the Lake District that sparked his vision, I’ll never know, but Mark had set his mind to acquire the mine. After a few phones calls and a forty-five minute meeting in Manchester, the deal was done. In the book “The Brilliant Darkness” Celia Taylor Weir, Mark’s mother recalls the day she was plucked from her shop at Keswick by her son. Driven up the Honister Pass and dragged up the mountain in work clothes, not walking clothes, only for Mark to announce “All this is mine” while beaming with pride. So you’d think with all his massive mining experience the revitalisation of Honister was ‘in the bag’. Just one snag. Mark didn’t have any mining experience, just an enormous love for the place and pride in all he did. He simply didn’t seem to know the meaning of “can’t be done”. This is the type of approach that permeates all who work at Honister.
Roland was our guide on the 90 minute mine tour. I’m not keen on confined spaces and my heart sank when I heard we would be below ground for an hour and a half, but with Roland’s encyclopaedic knowledge and entertaining delivery, the time flew by. Plus all my claustrophobic fears were unfounded. The layout of the public sections of the mine have none of the tight squeezes I’ve experienced on other underground tours. The underground sections are well-lit and the safety practices are explained clearly prior to the tour starting in a way that puts even the most nervous visitor at ease. The staff also encourage underground photography, with ample opportunities to get those memories along the way. (Video is prohibited which is only fair.) The other thing to remember, whenever you visit the site and someone says “Mark did…..” this isn’t some abstract reference. On the tour Roland told us that “Mark carved out the tunnels on levels to allow vehicles and more modern equipment in.” Roland, didn’t mean Mark put a team in to do the work or hired some experts. He meant exactly what he said. From 8pm to the early hours, Mark would work alone ensuring that any outstanding jobs were completed and the dust settled after any blasting, to allow his staff to come in the next day and carry on work unimpeded. So when someone at Honister says “Mark cleaned the toilets…..” you know he was elbow deep with cleaning products all around him. Toilet cleaner one second, MD & Mine Owner the next. A poem on the wall of the Gents toilet explains all this.
Emerging from the lower level of the mine on to the outside of the mountain, you get a sense of what it must have been like to work a long shift underground, particularly on a bright sunny day. However the sight is something to behold. The tiny dots on the road are actually cars to give you a sense of scale. Thankfully it was only a short walk back to the shuttle bus to take us back to the mine buildings. Unlike generations of miners who had been there before us, we had the luxury of being ferried up and down the mountain.
Now if a trip underground isn’t sufficient to get your adrenaline flowing, Honister Slate Mine is host to something I had only every seen in Italy before, also on the side of a mountain. It is something they call the Via Feratta, which literally translates into English as ‘Iron Road’.
With Helmet, harness and a couple of carabiner to satisfy the ‘Safety Police’, you can be taken on a tour of the outside of the mountain. Walking, climbing metal ladder rungs driven into the rock, whilst strapped to a safety line, the Via Ferrata comes in two flavours; standard and extreme. The safety video prior to the mine tour includes a talk by Jan, standing on a rope bridge high above the pass. Whilst she seems very comfortable, I couldn’t help but wonder if the cameraman was as cool and calm, but hey, that’s Honister.
As we emerged from the mine tour, Roland pointed out a bridge above us.
He mentioned that people on the Via Ferrata tour go over that bridge and that he had also walked over it a couple of times.
Now take a good look at the bridge.
Notice anything? Roland told us that just going across a bridge would be too easy. Can you see that two planks have been removed from the bridge in the middle? I really would like to think he wasn’t pulling our legs.
If going on the Via Ferrata interests you then I strongly recommend you book in advance to ensure your place is secured before you visit. It is definitely a tour where demand outstrips capacity.
Returning to the main buildings from the mine tour I was privileged to chat with Celia Taylor Weir, Mark’s mother. She was manning the gift shop and was kind enough to sign my copy of her book, The Brilliant Darkness, which tells the history of the mine. It has become one of only three books where I have read start to finish on the first sitting.
Mention Mark’s name at Honister and it is clear any member of staff holds the memory of Mark Weir with a great sense of love and affection. Mark’s way has become the Honister way, and that means if your journey goes anywhere near the Lake District, Honister Slate Mine should be on your list of ‘must visit’ destinations.