Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Wad Mines of Seathwaite, Borrowdale.

Seathwaite has been my default starting point when setting off for a fell walk giving access to the iconic high fells of Scafell Pike, Great End, the Glaramara Ridge, or Great Gable. You can also access Kirk Fell or the Langdale Valley, so there is variety from this relatively easy location for me to reach and a certainty for free parking, whatever the time of year, if you get there relatively early. Though for all I've walked the area, it has only been these last couple of years that I have visited the spoil heaps that are layered like steps, up the right hand side of Sourmilk Gill/Gillercomb. These are the Wad/Black Cawke or Plumbago Mines, that were the birth of the world famous Keswick Pencil Factory, though Wad had it's many uses with respect to moulding, casting dyes and weaponry. Napoleon was not a happy man when deprived of this source, the best quality Wad in the world. Wad, graphite is one of the best dry lubricants and in a previous occupation in the foundry industry it was used in the moulding process. If ever you coated your hands in 'plumbago' it was impossible to retain your grip on anything.

Although taken from a different aspect, you can make out the spoil heaps, layered up the fell.
While at the base of the fell you are also not too far away from 'The Fraternal Four of Borrowdale', the yews mentioned after the Lorton Yew in Wordsworth's Poem 'Yew Trees', though that is for another write up one day.

The Wad (Plumbago) Mines

This is a good alternative route onto Green Gable via Grey Knotts and Brandreth, making a change from the more usual Gillercomb hanging valley route. You will see the first spoil heap jutting out, covered in grass between the trees and wall and is known as Robson's Stage. Rising higher toward the grey spoil heaps you come to Gilbert's stage with the John Banks marker stone to it's left.

John Banks
Efquier 175(2)

Many mistakenly think of this (there were originally 5) as a memorial stone yet it is a boundary marker. Due to robberies at the mine and pilfering of this very expensive material, an Act of Parliament was passed making it a specific offence to steal Wad with a maximum penalty of 7 years deportation.

The relationship of the marker with the Gilbert's Stage
To carry on up the fell you pass other stages, crossing the top fell wall via the steps, reaching a number of other levels before moving on to Grey Knotts. There is however one further marker that seems to have eluded people. I found this coming at the mine from the other direction, down from Grey Knotts.

John Sheperd
Note the same date yet alternative spelling, clearly not done by the same carver. Sheperd was another owner of a level. Having found this stone I began to take an interest in the Wad Mines and bought the book 'Seathwaite Wad' by Ian Tyler. This gives a very in depth history of the mines and well worth a read. For those not wishing to miss this marker, (referring to a map and not a GPS) the reference will be NY229128. It is basically at the 'T' junction of the vertical and horizontal walls to the left of the mines, then 50 yards (or metres) straight up towards Raven Crag. You can see a small pool on the OS maps.

The Sheperd marker with the pool, the higher Wad Stages just beyond the boulder and Dale Head in snow.
As can be seen, this is very fragile, being there for over 260 years and clearly should not be touched.

Wad/Black Cawke/Plumbago.

Above is a sample I picked up off the spoil heaps.

NOTE OF CAUTION - These mines are open and marked with 'deep excavation' yellow warning markers.

From the Sheperd marker stone it is easy to swing round to the right and find a safe route onto Grey Knotts, leading to Brandeth and then Green Gable. At the summit look out for the Avro Anson crash site near here. You can see the impact scar in the rough direction of Styhead Tarn (though more information about this again, I intend another write-up). Now it is simply a question of deciding if you head for Base Brown/Gillercomb, or onto Great Gable. Whatever you choose, all the best, I hope the weather remains fine and you have a little more knowledge on a very important historical industry that helped shape Keswick's name as the manufacturing centre of the world famous Keswick Pencil.


  1. Great write up, fascinating location. The Shepherd stone was a good find.

  2. If you want to explore the interior of the mines let me know and I can happily act as guide.

    1. Thanks Landy, though I like to see blue sky above my nap.

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