There’s nowhere quite like Honister Slate Mine. As well as being a working mine, it is a place of adventures – from subterranean experiences to high-level adrenalin rushes.
There’s been a slate mine at this bleak, craggy, wind-blown pass for hundreds of years; quarrymen first started working the seams here in the early part of the eighteenth century. The famous green slate was used widely in the building industry, particularly as a roofing material, and can even be seen on Buckingham Palace. The mine closed in the late 1980s, but local entrepreneur Mark Weir saw its potential, partly as a potential tourist attraction, and re-opened it in 1997. Today, it is one of the area’s biggest attractions.
For the standard underground tours, visitors are kitted out with safety helmets, lamps and battery packs before being bussed up to the mine entrance and then led deep inside Fleetwith, the rocky fell that is home to the workings. Cathedral-like caverns, miles of tunnels, small ‘explosions’ and enhanced-reality technology all contribute to the 90-minute guided tour.
The ‘Climb the Mine’ experience is a sort of indoor via ferrata with steel ladders and rope bridges giving more adventurous underground explorers the chance to see the mine workings from a totally different perspective – while clinging to the rock walls.
Even scarier, and most definitely not for those with even a slight fear of heights, is the external via ferrata. This climbing system, which originated in the Italian Alps, uses permanent cables, metal ladders and rungs firmly embedded in the rock to allow people to climb the old miners’ route up the dark, craggy northern face of Fleetwith Pike. There are two grades of via ferrata at Honister: the ‘Classic’ and the ‘Xtreme’. Both are fully guided, but the ‘Xtreme’ involves more exposure and requires a greater level of fitness, culminating in a cargo net climb to reach the summit. For both experiences, climbers are provided with harnesses and helmets, and are secured to the rock face at all times. The ‘Classic’ lasts about three hours while the ‘Xtreme’ is about half an hour longer.
The ‘Infinity Bridge’, which forms part of the ‘Xtreme’ via ferrata, can also be booked as a separate experience. This high-wire bridge is strung out many hundreds of feet above the valley floor. A good sense of balance helps as the brave edge out over the abyss using just a few wires – a steel hawser under their feet, a chest-height cable on either side to cling to and another cable above on to which safety carabiners are attached.
Once you’ve scared yourself silly, you can relax in Honister Slate Mine’s visitor centre, which has a café and shop. There’s also an opportunity to watch skilled slate craftsmen turning huge slabs of rock into slate products.
The road leading up to Honister Pass has a gradient of one in four (25 per cent) in places and also has a 6ft 6ins width restriction on it. In summer, it is served by the 77/77A circular bus which starts in Keswick but also calls in Braithwaite, Buttermere and most of the Borrowdale villages.