Slate Mines on Levers Moss, Coniston

9 December 2014

Posted by
Jerry Gibbs

A weekend in Coniston – trapped in a vortex of wee

My plan for the weekend was to join up with a group of similarly minded individuals as we explored the Coniston copper mines from the Levers water level to the Hospital level on the Saturday and have a look around the slate mines on the Sunday. Coupling this with an excessive amount of drinking was a recipe for a good weekend in my book.

As usual with me, things are always left to the last minute and on the Friday afternoon I found myself rushing back from work with the usual dilemmas; have I packed this, have I packed that.

I stopped at the local supermarket for my typical shop for this type of event; normally including cheese, salami, an indestructible sausage with a hint of garlic, a fine chilli sauce (also with more than a hint of garlic, a Soreen malt loaf, the obligatory 20 tins of cider and two cartons of V8 vegetable juice for the morning hangover and a roll of toilet paper – what more could I possibly need.

Disappointingly the cash card – which worked fine in the supermarket – stopped working after I had put 100 quids worth of diesel in the van; I would have much preferred that the card tell me of this before I filled the van thus saving me the embarrassment at the checkout; ideally, it continuing to function undisrupted would be better still.

After a quick shower and change I picked up John who had the normal amount of kit then picked up David who had packed everything including the kitchen sink, and I mean everything – he had even packed divers fins and bizarrely, a big bag of wood – to his credit, he did have a most fantastic homemade flan and conveniently we were in a spacious van rather a car. I guess he was a boy scout when he was younger and had come prepared; my idea of coming prepared is wearing a condom.

The drive over was in my usual driving style although it was made easier by the fact that the rush hour traffic had long since cleared. As the van approached warp speed and we entered the space-time continuum, John didn’t appear to be as comfortable as he did when he first climbed in and I noticed him trying to press the imaginary brake pedal on more than a few occasions; the fact that I was watching him slamming his foot to the floor when I should have actually have been watching the road ahead sort of tells you about the sort of panic poor John had subjected himself to. I wasn’t bothered, he could use the imaginary brake as often as he liked and as long as one of us was watching the road it was ok.

Arriving at the bunk house was great, it was set in the middle of a small terrace of slate-miners cottages which were quite literally “in the middle of nowhere” as I had driven over a mile away from civilisation.

It was great to see the rest of the group too; they were all enjoying the evening sun over a beer. We were eagerly greeted and soon I too was enjoying the evening sun with a cider – the weekend had begun.

The bunk house was considerably better than expected as the kitchen was well equipped, there was a large lounge, upstairs there was individual bunks (rather than the communal sleeping shelves that some bunk houses have) and clean toilets. There was two toilets for the gents which had a picture of a gent of the door, two toilets for the ladies which had a picture of a lady on the door and two showers which had a picture of a lady and a gent stood side by side. From this I concluded that the showers were for couples and was hoping I would find myself a lady to shower with – otherwise I couldn’t shower.

There were three bedrooms, one had bunk spaces for eight people in three bunks, one of these was a double bunk (two above two). I hadn’t ever seen a double bunk before and as I assumed they were for couples, I wondered if there was some etiquette involved when contemplating a quick shag either on top of or underneath another couple.

Later I discussed this with Kath who said that couples would do such a thing in such close proximately to others, but I disagreed with her as I knew that is exactly the sort of thing I would do and have had it done to me. In a small(ish) boat, a couple (whose heads weren’t more than a foot away from my feet decided it was an opportune moment for a quick go and I had to endure the full “rocking of the boat” – did the earth move for her? For sure it did, it moved for all of us on board.

The second and third bedrooms contained six bunks each; I chose the third room as the other two were already loaded with sleeping bags and stuff whilst the third room only had two sleeping bags in it. These were on the bottom two of the bunks and I bagged the third bottom with a rolled up sleeping bag and a pillow in the same way that a German bags a sun lounger with a towel and a book.

We continued drinking outside until the midges had got the better of us then we were forced to go in, it was a shame really because the moon was full and exceptionally large; so large and so bright that I could still read a newspaper – or would have been able to if I had brought my glasses.

The drinking continued until around midnight when somebody suggested that we should all go for a walk.

Despite the drunkenness (or probably because of it) we thought it was a good idea and a few minutes later we were striding up an ever steepening path on the flanks of “the old man of Coniston”

The drink fuelled our confidence and with this and the bright moon, no torches were needed, of course this was fine whilst the moonlight shone on the path but whilst tracking along the steep flanks, some of the paths were in shade. At this point I did consider whether the lack of torch was a good idea but it wasn’t in my mind for long as a split second later a boulder leapt out from the bracken and tripped me up. On route to the ground I thought it was a good idea to reduce the speed of my descent with some friction; this took the form of another conveniently placed boulder which, when rubbed with my forearm, slowed me down. On the positive side, the impact with the ground was negligible; on the negative side, the boulder now supported a thin veneer of skin – no doubt the addition of the organic material on the rock benefited some form of flora and fauna in some way so the overall experience could be considered to be positive – although not necessarily by me.

A couple of hours later and having covered about three and a half miles we arrived back at the cottage and despite it now being two thirty, more drinking was to be had. More than just drinking, cheese, salami and a bloody hot chilli were also to be had.

I’m a bit of a chilli connoisseur and immediately identified the small chilli jar as one of the hottest of the “Spicy Monkey’” range. Having tried Evil Monkey, Ninja Monkey, and Psycho Monkey, I was particularly keen to try the “Rabid Monkey” variety.

Full of drunken confidence I dipped a crisp in really deep and enjoyed the flavour and the burn; others not so familiar with hot chilli sauces watched my reaction then dipped in a similar depth to extract a similar amount. The expression on the faces on those with still perfect taste buds was one to behold as the Rabid Monkey grabbed their pain thresholds, shook them around then burnt them out with the amount of energy needed to smelt steel. It was a full flavour behaviour which insulted those with the softer pallet like Chubby Brown at a meeting of the Woman’s Institute.

I think it was closer to three thirty by the time I hit the sack; most (sensible) people had retired much earlier and I was one of the last men standing so, as I slipped quietly into the bunk room I found two people already sleeping – well at least I thought they were sleeping because the noise from Chris’s corner sounded much more like he was trying to pull start a chainsaw. I couldn’t work out why he would need a chainsaw in the bedroom or why he would want to start one up at three thirty in the morning; I concluded that he generated this sound from snoring rather than dwelling on the thought that he was preparing for some sort of Texas style massacre.

In the dark I struggled to un-roll my sleeping bag and find the head end but moments after I did, the sound of the chainsaw faded into a distant melody and I was gone – chainsaw massacre or not.

On waking, I felt pretty crap but out of the corner of my eye I noticed some movement from the top bunk opposite – when I entered that room in the night before, I assumed that there was only two people in the room and they were on the bottom bunks so I opened my eye a little more and absorbed some more detail.

To my surprise, a girl sat up and after rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she changed her bra and knickers then dressed and climbed down – what a bonus start to the day. You just know that your day will be good when an strange girl changes her knickers in front of you.

The second bonus was knowing there was now a chance of a shower; on the down side however, my sleeping bag was inside out and the water resistant surfaces of the outside of the bag were stuck on my bare skin.

I had the same puffy face and swollen eyes that I normally have following a heavy nights drinking and a night in a sleeping bag, but I am still blaming the sleeping bag for this as the cider couldn’t possibly be at fault – not ever.

To ease this and to re-hydrate my system I started my day with a litre of V8 vegetable juice which was much to everyone’s disgust; I followed this with two cheese, salami and indestructible garlic sausage wraps which had been well and truly blashed with the “flying goose” chilli and garlic sauce.

The spell check on this computer doesn’t seem to recognise the word “blashed” but I am good at making up words and I thought it likely that blashed was one of them.

Googling “blashed” finds some different meanings:-

  1. dialectal, British : a splash of liquid or mud
  2. Blash: vaginal juices “blash from my gash”
  3. Blash: In homosexual culture.

a. When two "bottoms" or "subs" attempt to have sex, and fail, because neither of them can penetrate the other.

The latter two are from the Urban dictionary and from this I could conclude that I should only use words that I actually know, rather than stuff which I think I know, or just simply make up.

I made a third wrap in the same style then bit an air hole in the packet of the Soreen malt loaf and proceeded to squash the malt loaf until it was a flat as flat could be.

For me, this is the only way to eat a malt loaf, classic caving food; once squashed (and it was going to get squashed anyway) chunks can easily be bitten off when needed – not so easy to get it off your teeth with a muddy finger though.

The whole lot was bagged along with a bottle of water and I was set for the day – it didn’t stop me from feeling fairly crap though.


Whilst we prepared the ropes and equipment needed for our trip, Chuck busy was replacing a part of his SRT kit; soon after, a conversation started about the age of his kit and the shock loading it might be subjected to, some people being particularly dismissive of Chuck’s lackadaisical approach to this. I deliberately kept out of the conversation as I stared forlornly at my decrepit SRT kit which was not only old enough to have been life expired twice over, it also had some mould growing on it. More annoyingly I was missing the “D” ring that held my harness together and the aluminium karabiner I would have used to replace it must have been near some salt or something equally corrosive as it had been eaten half through with a furry oxide.

The last thing I was intending to do was announce the state of my kit to the group as I feared they would ban me from the trip. Also I was sure they would question what other parts were either being consumed by mould or being corroded into mush by some unknown corrosive substance. Personally I didn’t want to know about these dodgy bits as knowing how dodgy they actually were would have spoiled my trip – thus I gained comfort from not knowing. How bad could it be anyway – I couldn’t fall further than for the rest of my life anyway.

My SRT kit had served me well many times over that last twenty five years so surely one more trip wouldn’t go amiss.

SRT stands for Single Rope Technics and it describes the equipment a caver needs to abseil down and prusik back up again.

Prusiking is the term used for the action of climbing up a rope using two cam / jamming devices. The technic was pioneered by Dr. Karl Prusik (1896 – 1961). Although he achieved this with knotted rope, we still refer to climbing a rope as prusiking in the same way as all makes of vacuum cleaner are used for hoovering.


Before we set off for the copper mines I made time for my second release of the hostages as the Rabid Monkey had insulated my stomach in a fairly major way and I pitied those who hadn’t had the foresight (or the urge) to clear out prior to spending a day underground. I was pleased that the thunder-boxes were not as communal as the showers as there’s a time and a place for couples and this wasn’t one of them.

Working my way up the hill I felt unbelievably awful; to say that I had strode up the same track only 9 hours earlier without any discomfort had nothing to do with the amount of cider I had consumed I’m sure.

The lactic acid build-up forced me to stop regularly and I turned to face the view in an attempt to hide my weakness; fortunately I wasn’t alone and I gleaned a little recompense from seeing someone younger than me struggling in a similar manner as he too stopped and turned to face the view about as many times as I did.


Upon entering the mine I realised how crap my elderly light was compared to everyone else’s. My light was a perfectly good light all those years ago when everyone used similar type, but since the majority of people seemed to favour the type of modern light that typically powers the Bass Rock light house, my light was less useful than a dead guide dog.

The fact that it kept turning itself off didn’t help either and generally I didn’t know it had turned off until the person behind me looked in a different direction and I was plunged into darkness. Just the sort of trick I needed whilst walking through a mine which had dodgy floors with open holes in them often more than 60m deep.


The mine was truly awesome with some fantastic colours on the walls as the copper sulphates leached through. It was full of abandoned artefacts and rotten ladders – some of which we used to access some upper levels.

It was extremely unstable too as many of the floors were not actually solid floors at all but comprised of timbers wedged across the span then stacked with rocks. They were only as strong as the timbers which had been quite happily rotting away for the last 100 years. In many areas, the floor had already collapsed and we hoped that there would be no further movement whilst we were in there.


As per usual something gets knocked or moves in some way and on that particular day it was me to blame.

Whilst negotiating a steep and treacherous boulder slope leading to a pitch head (abseil down a vertical drop), a boulder about the size of a football rolled past me; clearly I had dislodged it but I wasn’t sure where it came from, anyway, it rolled quickly past me and built up some serious speed. I shouted “BELOW” to the two people below as loud as a possibly could, then watched in horror as the boulder dislodged others until a small avalanche was careering towards the edge of the pitch then with a final rumble it disappeared into the silence and I held my breath.

About three seconds later there was some almighty banging which was followed by a string of obscenities echoing up the rift. I was somewhat relieved about that as it meant they were still alive.

As I abseiled down I was greeted with another bout of obscenities before the transcript of the events could be re-told.

After my shout of “BELOW”, Matt and Chuck paused to listen and heard the sound of rocks moving; adrenalin kicked in and they dived under a false floor of stacked rocks, braced themselves and waited; they said they waited an eternity but it was probably the same eternal three seconds that I held my breath for; then with a cacophony of noise, the avalanche of boulders landed about five feet away.

I was told in no uncertain terms that:-

a. I owed them both a beer and

b. I was to clean the soiling from their underpants (particularly Chucks as he was regretting not releasing the Rabid Monkey terror earlier that morning).

Whilst waiting for some of the others to join us I though it about time to enjoy my chilli, garlic, sausage and cheese combo wrap but was I bit disappointed to find that it had completely un-wrapped itself during its transport and filled the bag with its component parts; undeterred by this I made an effort to wipe my hands on the least muddy parts of my oversuit then re-rolled the lot into a giant spliff.

Apart from the addition of a little grit and a slight earthy flavour it was as good as new and after its consumption (it was offered around but all parties present, declined), I followed it up with the flattened malt loaf. For this there was more takers and having all bitten off a large chunk we sat around collectively masticating for a while.


We exited from the mine from the “hospital” level – which was much lower down than our entry point – amid bright sunshine and blue skies and had a leisurely stroll back down the hill. On arrival bunk house people focussed on stripping off and laying out their kit in the sunshine to dry. They made the ground in front of the bunk house look like it had been involved in an explosion of an Indian clothing factory, but when I got there but stripping off wasn’t my priority, cider was.

With a tinny cracked open and a deep swig taken I relived myself of my caving regalia and relaxed in the sunshine with the rest of the tin (and a couple more for good measure) – it was four thirty in the afternoon and it had the makings of a heavy session to come.

Before settling down too comfortably I thought a shower and freshen up might be a good idea, I mentioned this to the group and eyed up the only two available girls as showering companions but in the twinkling of an eye, they were gone and I was forced to shower on my own. Not quite sure how that happened as I didn’t think my eye twinkled at all.


After a short bout of extremely heavy rain it was decided we should head to Coniston to enjoy the hospitality’s of some of the pubs

In the first pub we came to we did exceptionally well as we bagged a table big enough to seat us all; it did suit all of us though as Gary complained bitterly about the food and this was the subject of much criticism as he hadn’t even seen the menu at that point.

Lots of things were discussed that evening, some related to the mine trip some related to other caving exploits, some were not related to caving at all and some were just unintelligible garble.

There was a lengthy chat about the “old school” caving attire of wet suits and how uncomfortable they were and how quickly you can get cold in one.

I pointed out that as a diver, there was a great benefit of weeing in the wetsuit and the joys of the warmth that the wee brings. From a blokes perspective, the wee needs to be structure and about half way through, the stream needs to be stopped and with a deft hip shift, the cock swung into the other leg to fill it to the same depth – there is no real benefit to weeing in only one leg.

I discussed with the girls as to how they direct their aim to fill both legs equally to which they both strongly denied weeing in the wetsuits at all – which I don’t believe; I think they were just jealous as they can’t write their own names in the snow.

I remember some years ago when I was diving on a wreck in the North Sea on a particularly dull autumn day, I wasn’t the warmest when I went in but having poked around in the murk for half an hour or so, I was absolutely nithered. A wee at that point was much needed and the warmth that it brought was heavenly to say the least, better that that was the quantity. Having filled the left leg to just above the knee (always dressing to the left) I did the shift and started in the right leg; at just past the knee I was still going strong and continued to fill the right leg until the warmth overflowed at the crotch and flooded back into the left – by the time I had finished I was warm to the waist. It made the rest of my dive pleasurable again although the same could not be said for the après-dive pint in the pub some time later and I regretted eating asparagus the day before.


In amongst the cave digging chat was one about digging tools and the benefits of a hoe as a long reach scraping tool. John pointed out that a “spazzle” might be a better tool and thus a discussion of “what is a spazzle” ensued. John described it as a tarmac rake which is like a wooden garden rake but without the teeth. My take on this was to pull the following text from my old favourite, the urban dictionary:

Spazzle : The female equivalent of semen; technical term for a girl's "love juice".

Now, I only need include “spaff mining” in this text to complete the urban dictionary hat trick. (you can Google that one for yourself)


Back in the bunk house we did considerably more drinking and more “Rabid monkey” chilli paste with dipping crisps – I’ve no recollection of going to bed although I do recall it being marginally earlier than the previous night.


The following morning I woke a little fresher and a little later too which was disappointing as the girl in the top bunk opposite was already up.

I started the day with the standard litre of V8 juice and the garlic chilli wrap which like the previous day was much to everyone else’s disgust then followed it with the usual release of the hostages which disgusted me let alone anyone else.

Our plan for the day was to explore some of the slate quarries on the flanks of the hill, I thought this was a short trip and didn’t make any lunch or bring any water. I didn’t take any more than I was wearing either, the standard English uniform of jeans and a t-shirt was good enough for me. I did take my caving light on the chance of finding something interesting but neglected to change the batteries for no other reason than I simply forgot.


Not long after we set of walking, Chris found a large karabiner in the grass which he gave to me as a replacement for my corroded one. As it was massive and made of steel I figured it too heavy for caving but perfect for securing my yacht “Epona” to mooring buoys and would replace the one that I lost when I foolishly tied Epona to a shallow water buoy in Windermere; this being the trip where Epona dragged the buoy off and drifted across the lake not minutes after I had rowed ashore and settled in a café for a pot of tea.


Minutes later John found a stash of Magners cider; it had been hidden by a wedding party group in a farm house further up the valley; we had heard them partying like animals the night before and were tempted to gate crash but as drink had got the better of us we didn’t bother

As their party ended many hours earlier we concluded that the Magners was free for the taking and me and John had one each.

We didn’t climb particularly high before encountering the first of many slate mines, this one was only small so we continued on up to explore some of the industrial archaeology which was still in abundance.

Back at home the pikeys will steal anything from my wheel barrow to the kids tricycles but there up on the hill was tons and tons of heavy steel and iron taking the form of winches, generators and compressors ect, all sitting exactly as they were left over one hundred years ago.

I despise the pikeys, regarding them as parasitic scum but knowing the value of scrap iron and seeing so much of it laid around did raise the odd eyebrow. There is one thing for sure, it would take more than a determined effort to get any of it down from its remote elevation.

A little further up was another mine which had a sizable puddle in its entrance, I had reservations about going in this one as I only had my trainers on but I was persuaded that it was worth a look in and that there was a dryish way across by standing on the old rail track. Gifted as I am in balancing along narrow things I didn’t plan for the thin veneer of algae that coated the rail and close to the centre of the puddle I slipped and put one foot straight in to the ankle – in hindsight I should have just walked through as two wet feet would have been moderately more comfortable than the imbalance of one wet foot and one dry foot.

It was worth going in and I was pleased I made the effort as I was rewarded with a huge chamber complete with a compressed air winch and other mining artefacts. I even found an old cardboard box, which (although very decayed) was still identifiable as an explosives box.

From this mine we headed further up in search of more and as we climbed ever higher, more of the outstanding Cumbria scenery was revealed to us.

As we stopped at yet another spectacular viewpoint, Matt moved away to piss over the edge (multi-tasking he said, as he was not just pissing but was admiring the view too – multi-tasking is difficult for a bloke so well done there). Chuck took note and started a conversation about a cliff in Ireland where the wind was so strong that you could toss a pebble over the cliff only to have it blown up and over to land on the ground behind. He discussed the concept of pissing into that wind and soaking somebody behind. I dismissed this idea as I well know that the piss was likely to be blown back into the face of the pisser so pissing to one side was my proposal. Matt, having returned from his multi-tasking, then reminded us that in these circumstances, the wind often swirls aground thus the pisser would catch a bit of piss anyway.

Chuck, with his theory now blown, wandered off muttering to himself “trapped in a vortex of piss – that would make you fairly un-popular, wouldn’t it”.

To that statement, we had to agree.

The next mine entrance we came across had collapsed a little way in so we stopped outside for a break before climbing higher to the next one. Those who had the foresight to bring something to eat and drink did so – this was all except me I might point out. My refreshment was logical at that point, the Magners. It was three minutes past 12 and this qualified as the afternoon; as some old sea dogs might say “the sun has passed the yard arm” thus the Magners could be opened.


The next few mines – we did eight in total – varied in size from big to enormous and on to “ma-hus-sive” and the vast expanses of darkness absorbed all but the most powerful of light.

My dead guide dog light was still hampering my movement through the underground and John happened to notice my reliance on the people (or more importantly their lights) around me.

Having sussed this, he thought it a particularly good idea to cover his and other peoples lights when I was negotiating awkward sections. This always had a similar effect to me actually being tripped up by my dead guide dog as I immediately dropped to the ground and started moving with my hands too.

Standing close to the edge of a particularly long and death defying drop with my dead dog waiting to trip me up at a moment’s notice, I was acutely aware of the awesomeness of these places and the very obvious risk of a fall. Because of this, I felt a strange tensioning of the muscle I refer to as the “barse” – in a bloke, this is the bit between the balls and the arse. In a girl, this bit is called the “chin rest”.

Not quite sure what the benefit of tensioning the barse actually was as it wouldn’t have stopped me falling, nor would it have lessened the impact with the ground. It did however act as a constant reminder that a savage drop was less than a stumble away.


Back at the bunk house, I extracted the last six inches of the indestructible garlic sausage from the bottom of the fridge, blashed it with an excessive amount of the favourite garlic/chilli sauce, rolled it up in yet another wrap, then feasted like a king.


On arrival back at home, I was keen to catch up with Kath and convey my weekends stories but it came as no surprise to me when she asked me if I could recount this from the other side of the room as I smelt too offensive to speak of the exploits from the other side of the settee.


Can’t think why?