Allen Smelt Mill volunteers, Northumberland

Finalist for the Best Craftsperson or Apprentice on a Heritage Rescue or Repair Project, sponsored by Ecclesiastical, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

The Allen Smelt Mill is a rare remnant of the lead mining industry of the North Pennines. Until 2014 the mill was all but lost beneath piles of rubble and thick vegetation. No one could have imagined that inviting a group of volunteers working to recover its remains would help provide the impetus for a substantial rescue and restoration of the industrial heritage site.

Historical asset

The best volunteers dig deep and so it has been with the group who responded to a call from the North Pennines AONB for help to uncover the remains of a lead smelting mill near Allendale so that the architect and contractors working on a landscape partnership scheme could gain a better understanding of the structures beneath the rubble. The scheduled ancient monuments comprising ore bunkers flue tunnels, smelting hearths and water wheel pits comprise part of the regeneration site.

Under the self-appointed leadership of volunteer Helen Wilkinson, the group organised themselves into an effective and enthusiastic workforce, working side by side with the site manager and specialist contractors and eventually helping to take the project beyond its original scope.

After several weekends of hard graft, much of the arduous clearance work had been done and elements of the structure were visible. Meanwhile, the volunteers had been converted to the cause and many are still working at the site today, continuing to uncover and consolidate the vast smelting complex and acting as its champions.

Ore smelting at Allendale began in 1692 and continued until 1896. Despite the duration of the industry and its importance to the North Pennines region, many smelting sites have now been lost. By the 1840’s the Allen Mill had become the centre of lead production in the Allen Valley; in the 19th century the site was one of the largest producers of Northumbrian silver at more than 16,000 ounces a year. The long-neglected smelting mill was in a perilous condition and on the brink of being lost forever when the work began to save it.

The project

The main aim of the Allen Mill project has been to turn the site into a safe and accessible historical asset that would encourage tourism and a better understanding of the industrial heritage of the region. All the work has focused on sustainability and a concern to preserve an important part of the cultural heritage of the Allen Valleys.

Initially, the AONB partnership secured some initial funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to pay for limited work to conserve the core of the site. Architects were commissioned to prepare a conservation management plan to determine the works needed to reveal and conserve the fragile hidden structures, which included the important access ramps, ore hearths, condensing chambers, flue chambers and water channels.

A first step was to painstakingly separate demolished material from natural decay across the site, where changes in level created significant challenges. Gabions were used to retain the upper level of the site and limit the amount of historic fabric that had to be exposed. The team even created an innovative “bat hotel” to contain the bats living in the underground chambers.

Training and guidance were organised for the volunteers in areas like health and safety, archaeological recording and even working with the bats. This has provided a team of skilled volunteers to restore and maintain the site in future, continuing an involvement that has helped the project attract further funding and achieve its aims sooner.

Following archaeological investigation and recording, the site is now better understood and this understanding has been incorporated in physical and digital interpretation that includes a reconstructive illustration of the working factory.

Why this category?

A nationally important and rare example of a lead smelting factory has been saved by excellent teamwork, including the vital contribution of volunteers who have developed their own skills and knowledge and championed the rescue of the site throughout their involvement.

Original buildings on site have been restored and a new build on original foundations recreates the appearance of the site in its heyday. The site has undergone a substantial programme of conservation, restoration and rebuilding to provide a vital boost to the economy of the Allen Valley.

The project has provided impetus for further work and an exciting project to replace the water wheel pit and install a replica water wheel is currently underway, amid wider efforts to conserve the surrounding woodland and landscape.

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