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“Coniston Without its Old Man is Unthinkable”

Low Water, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District

Peak Walking Adventures Guide, Richard Tower, discovers an enduring relationship between mountain and village on a hike in the Coniston fells …

“The Old Man is no Matterhorn, nor is Coniston a Zermatt, but an affinity is there in the same close links between Mountain and Village….Coniston without its Old Man is unthinkable.” 

So said  Alfred Wainwright, fell walker and author of the celebrated Lakeland guide books. 

His words were brought to life on a hike up Coniston’s principle fell, The Old Man (803m/2634ft), across to  Dow Crag (778m/2552ft) and down to Torver, with a finishing stroll along Lake Coniston and back to the village. 

Everywhere, there’s evidence of the village’s industry across the high landscape behind.

An ascent alongside the ‘roaring’ Church Beck, leads to the Copper Mines Valley with a fine mountain backdrop. These fells were forged from equatorial volcanoes over 400m years ago, producing hard slates and intruded veins of copper-rich minerals.

Evidence of mining stretches back to the Romans, but was properly established in the Copper Mines Valley when Elizabeth I hired German miners to work on the seams.  A sophisticated labyrinth of water wheels, pools tracks and smelting pools were developed until larger scale mining ceased in the early twentieth century.

Higher still,  there are slate mines perched on the Old Man’s North East Flank, below the shores of a glacial tarn – Low Water.  The view is stunning but one wonders at the harsh life miners’ endured, hauling this rock off the mountain and down to the village.

An easy walk from the Old Man’s summit takes us to Goat’s Hawse and up onto one of Lakeland’s finest peaks, Dow Crag, perched on a sheer cliff with gulleys, high above Goat’s Water over 800 feet (250m) below.

Descending a ridge with airy views over Dunnerdale, Eskdale and the Scafells, a little tarn appears below the summit of Brown Pike; unusually, no stream flows from it, hence its name, Blind Tarn.

Heading down the Walna Scar track, an old pack horse route used by quarry men and traders, a path passes Bansihead Flagstone Quarry with it’s beautiful waterfall.

But the mountain-village story doesn’t stop there.  Along Lake Coniston the track briefly follows the route of a disused railway, opened in 1859, and used to carry ore and slate from Coniston to Ulverston and beyond.  A finishing stroll along the Lake’s tree-lined shores finishes at the village pier.  This was a loading point for mountain slate and ore onto barges, for transportation to Coniston’s southern shores and onwards.

You wouldn’t choose to make these scars in the Coniston fells today, nor sanction the scars such dangerous work inflicted on mining families.  Yet, the fells were vital to the survival of Coniston’s community, and bear witness to an extraordinary partnership between mountain and village.

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