The Alderley Mines, Climate Change, & Industrial Archaeology

Rising somewhat surprisingly out of the northern Cheshire landscape is the sandstone ridge of Alderley Edge. With its precipitous cliffs hidden in woodland, mineral resources, and links to legend it is an evocative landscape that can draw thousands of people on a cold and wet new year’s day, causing parking havoc in the surrounding country lanes.

I have been fortunate to have been involved in some of the archaeological fieldwork undertaken at this National Trust landscape since the mid-1990s, both excavation and survey work, inside and above the ancient mines (see my blogs on the Roman coin hoard and medieval bloomery sites). Thanks to the multi-disciplinary Alderley Edge Landscape Project in the 1990s and 2000s this research has revealed evidence for mining of copper, lead, and cobalt, and the communities that lived on the Edge spanning the Early Bronze to the early 20th century.

This is a landscape that I visit on a regular basis, at least once a month for more than 30 years. During this period the management of the landscape of the Edge by the National Trust has changed in some visible, and notable, ways. In the 1990s the area around Engine Vein, an 18th and 19th century mining entrance more than 120m long, in places 30m wide and 10m deep, was surrounded by a wide sandy strip exposing the bare rock. At the beginning of the 21st century, soon after the foot and mouth epidemic, the area was fenced allowing vegetation to regrow and help stabilize the exposed mine workings. A similar approach was taken in the late 2000s to some of the exposed mine remains at Stormy Point (below), although this also involved installing a bund to reduce the impact of rain running off the exposed sandstone. Elsewhere on the edge formally ploughed fields were given over the pasture, encouraging the development of the heathland landscape that dominated much of the Edge before trees were planted in the 18th century.

In recent years increased periods of intense rainfall have started to cause erosion problems not just on the surface of the mining landscape but also within the mine galleries themselves. From time to time the fill of mine shafts would shift exposing their tops and requiring swift capping to make them safe, work undertaken by the Derbyshire Caving Club. Now, the increased rainfall of climate change is speeding up this process. This is proving a particular problem at Engine Vein (above), where The National Trust, working once more with the Derbyshire Caving Club, faces issues of stability both on the surface and within the mine galleries themselves. This is a problem not just for the Alderley mines but for all historic mine workings in Britain, where increasingly landscape management decisions are having to balance public access with public safety, and even the potential for contamination from polluted mine water. The scale of the problem at Alderley Edge is not as great as some areas of the Pennines, where former lead mine workings pose multiple issues of instability, erosion, and potential contamination. However, at Alderley the ease of access to the public is an added factor for erosion, which the changing patterns of rainfall into the mid-century will only make more problematic.


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