Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Honister Slate Mine by Alastair Cameron and Liz Withey. Amberley. £14.99
In December, 1991, an advertisement was placed in the Quarry Manager’s Journal. Honister Quarry, which had been worked for centuries, was up for sale. McAlpines of Penrhyn in North Wales had wanted to operate the quarry by open-cast techniques on the surface of Fleetwith. The quarry and its fine slate was best suited to deep mining on a much smaller scale. McAlpines, who had owned the quarry for a mere five years, were offering the lease for sale for a five-figure sum.
It seemed the end of a long era. “The mining of slate on the crag probably started shortly after the Norman Conquest.” In the twelfth century, slate from Honister may well have been used in the building of Furness Abbey. At first the slate would have been extracted by quarrying the outcrops of the three volcanic bands of slate, the Kimberley, the Honister and the Quay Foot.
In Elizabethan times it is probable that the quarrymen learnt techniques of mining the slate from the Tyrolese miners who had settled in the area. Five levels were driven into the bands, the slate was brought out by ponies and taken to the riving sheds.
In the 1830s the lease of the quarries came into the possession of Sam Wright. He constructed an “amazing series of graded track-ways from the higher workings on Honister Crag and from Dubs Quarry down to Warnscale.” These “Sam Wright’s Roads” together with the improving road system and the development of the west coast ports injected new life into an isolated industry. In 1865 the Cockermouth to Penrith Railway opened. Seven years later, Sam Wright retired and the thriving industry became the Buttermere Green Slate Company. Tramways were constructed to facilitate the movement of slate down a steep incline from the top of the quarry to the workshops at the Hause.
Later, an aerial flight was used to transport blocks of slate down to the saw shed. Inside the mine tramways were driven down inclines of 32 degrees. It was a highly technical operation but one which was largely powered by gravity.
The years of the Second World War saw the mines fall into disuse. After the war, the production was shifted to Yew Crag. Yew Crag closed in 1962 and attempts were made to develop further mining in Honister. The business looked to produce decorative slate as well as roofing slates. In 1967, Lord Egremont took over the workings. In 1981, he was succeeded by the innovative and forward-thinking Bernard Moore. However, it was Bernard Moore who, four years later, sold out to McAlpines.
In 1992, it looked as though a thousand years of industrial history had come to an end. The slate quarries at Honister could no longer be worked economically.
Five years later the fortunes of Honister were revived by a local Borrowdale lad, Mark Weir. The first consignment of slate clog for twelve years was brought down to the Hause on 18th December, 1997. Thanks to the energy and initiative of one man, Honister Quarries were back in business. Blocks were being quarried and slates were being riven and trimmed in the sheds. Here was a potential tourist industry in one of the most dramatic of landscapes. In 2003 Mark started guided tours round Honister. The site was a natural adventure playground. Thanks to Mark Weir’s vision, Honister has become a major tourist attraction. Mark was involved in a helicopter accident in 2011 and did not live to witness the remarkable success of his venture.