Did the tiny River Lathkill really shape this vast gorge?
Turn to your left and look all the way to the head of the small side-dale to find a clue. It is not hard to picture that low cliff, its broken lip and polished, undercut face with a great cascade flowing over it. This is a fossil waterfall – not a drop ever flows there now.
It was the end of the last Ice Age, around ten thousand years ago, which created Lathkill. Meltwater from retreating ice sheets came thundering through this area of the Peak District carving out its narrow dales, exploiting the limestone's cracks and fissures.
Imagine the power of that extinct, prehistoric river!
Like the Mendips in Somerset, this limestone landscape is porous, riddled with holes and caverns, quickly draining the surrounding plateau.
Three hundred million years further back, far hotter forces had allowed molten lead-ore into those same weaknesses. Looking at the north side of the dale, can you see a diagonal scar running through the grass from top to bottom, punctuated with a few shrubs? This marks a succession of old, small-scale mine workings and is best avoided on foot, as it is dotted with poorly covered pits where generations of miners followed that seam of valuable ore. You may notice a complete lack of arable farming all about; thin, rocky soils make the land fit only to graze meagre flocks of sheep and cattle; lead mining and quarrying became important sources of income for local farmers.
Since Roman times the lead miners' knowledge of rock and water had gone hand in hand. A mile-and-a-half from here is Magpie Mine. To get water out of this deep pit a drain was dug, leading northwards to the River Wye; this in turn deprived the River Lathkill of a secondary spring which used to flow through the dale. This story of vanishing water means the river can be a poor habitat for wildlife. Dippers often start to breed here, but then abandon their nests in late Spring; fish have to be moved downstream in special operations. Plans are being hatched to block one of the old drains serving an abandoned lead mine lower down the dale. This might mean there is once again at least a trickle of water running here all year round. In turn this may increase the flow of visitors to this spectacular landscape, formed by nature, modified by man, where tourism has long since overtaken mining as the principal source of wealth.
Magpie Mine is a striking feature in the landscape and well worth a visit. The first impression is of something straight from the pages of “Poldark”. This is no coincidence, as the builders were in fact Cornishmen.
The mine had been in existence since the 1740's, but, due to problems pumping out the water and in encountering levels of hard rock, the works only made a profit for a few years. The main shaft is sunk to a depth of two hundred metres and a staggering five million gallons of water a day had to be pumped out. It closed in 1883, but reopened in 1953 with new diesel engines. This new lease of life did not last long, however and Magpie closed for good in 1958, still unable to make a profit against cheap imports of lead.
The Cornish miners have left a lasting legacy on the map, however: There is a Wheal Farm and Wheal Lane nearby - Wheal being the Cornish word for a mine.