Charterhouse ore field on Mendip

Meeting up

We met where the road turns a sharp bend around Velvet Bottom. We dressed in waterproofs, woolly hats and gloves as, while the clouds looked fairly thin, there were sharp showers predicted during the day. The first topics of conversation were, as always, “Which route did you take?” and “ do you think the weather will hold?” Where have you been since we last met – Thailand, Djakarta and Bristol were the replies. We had a couple of showers but mainly walked under leaden skies.

Having sorted this out, the eight of us trooped up to a high point in the area – in the middle of the SSSI called Ubley’s Rakes Warren. This is an SSSI because of the rare lead resistant plants contiguous with the lime loving plants such as mosses and liverworts; and the underlying cave systems.

From this point it was possible to see the “Gruffy Ground”, a local names for the landscape left after many years of mining. The layout and formation of the Rakes was explained to us, as was the Mineralization – why was the lead ore, Galena, Lead Suphide, here in the first place? To understand this we had to go back 300 million years to the  Carboniferous Period.

Lead 1

Key to numbers
10 – Car park
11 – Smelting plant and flues
12 – Upper Flood Swallet
13 – Waterwheel Swallet
14 – Black Rock Limestone
15 – Culvert

Tectonic context

Partway through the Carboniferous Period there was the start of the Variscan Orogeny. This was felt in the British Isles as pressure from the South West, In this area it resulted in the uplift of the Mendips, the formation of Broadfield Down and lesser folding, examples of which can be seen on Portishead Beach.

This pressure faded towards the end of the Permian Period and eventually reversed, putting the strata under tension. This resulted in crustal extension and actively subsiding rift basins. This tension and subsidising continued through until the late Jurassic. We saw isolated rocks with calcite-filled tension gashes.

A feature was the Somerset basin, which formed between the Avon platform to the North and the Cornish Platform to the South West. This Somerset Basin infilled rapidly with Jurassic sediments. The basin waters were squeezed out onto platforms via tension structures. These basinal fluids at C.1000C, saline, migrated into the platforms, reached impermeable ceilings, ponded and cooled. Ores precipitated out as they mixed with the cool ground waters. The minerals are therefore found in caves, tension structures, faults, joints and fissures.


The lead ore here was found in the Rakes that trend NW – SE. These are fissures in the limestone formed during the tension event mentioned above.  They rapidly filled with local minerals and erosion products. The galena lead ores found in these rakes are therefore placer or secondary deposits – ‘an accumulation of valuable minerals formed by gravity separation during sedimentary processes.’

The limestone here is Black Rock Limestone, BRL. It is dark, as its name suggests, is richly fossiliferous with crinoids, stems and ossicles, and Zaphrentites corals and some brachiopods.. Slicified limestones can be seen, pointing to localised metasomatism. ‘Metasomatism is the chemical alteration of a rock by hydrothermal and other fluids. It is the replacement of one rock by another of different mineralogical and chemical composition. The minerals which compose the rocks are dissolved and new mineral formations are deposited in their place.’ There are several examples of this across the Mendips, examples are Felton Common on Broadfield Down, near Bristol airport and the Harptree Beds to the South of Smitham Hill. The famous Devil’s punchbowl sink hole is developed in these beds.

A rich, varied flora has developed here because of the juxtaposition of alkaline limestone rocks with the acid loessic soils – wind blown sand, mainly from the Sahara, which are common on the Southern flanks of the Mendips

The ground here may be damp from recent rain but there is little or no surface water because the BRL is permeable.


 Complete Crinoid fossil


Zaphrentites Corals




After a talk to help us understand the geological processes that had formed the lead ore deposits we walked into one of the rakes to find and observe the many fossils. We found many specimens of crinoids, corals and brachiopods.We then walked over to the deepest and most extensive rake to the East of the SSSI. We concluded that the scientific evidence showed that this trench in the BRL had been dug by the devil when he was trying to stop the lead mining by flooding the rakes.

It was interesting to note that the rocks on the North side of the rake were bedded and jointed while those to the Southern side were mainly massive – we did not arrive at an explanation for this. Our lichen expert pointed out how the lichens differed on the different vertical sides, presumable because of the different conditions such as sunlight and rain. We also had a short talk about how each type of lichen – one of thousands – was composed of a synergy between a fungus and an alga.

As we walked back to the reserve entrance, we saw several old mine shafts, protected by padlocked steel grids, thus emphasising what a dangerous area this is.

Lead processing

We then walked across to the car park which has an excellent information board and an imagined picture of the area when it was a working industrial landscape. Just by the car park we examined an outcrop of rocks from the Avon Group.

These are Lower Limestone Shales and underlie the BRL. The LLSs are   impermeable because they are mudstones so there are an increasing number of puddles in this area and dams which form the lakes that were used as reservoirs for the water needed for washing the ores in the buddles. Near the car park are remains of the mine managers house which was called Bleak House – one of many we assumed.

After absorbing some of the information we walked along the ore tramway to the remains of an old smelting plant and flues which were in use until 1878.. Here a steam driven fan forced hot air over the lead-rich slag and slime from earlier mining operations. The vaporised lead condensed in the flues and was removed by hand, a particularly  unpleasant and dangerous job. We could see up to the end of the flues where they were still roofed.That made us feel how uncomfortable it must have been, bent over, probably in the dark with only candles, scraping the lead off the walls.

The dammed reservoirs had leats leading off from them and theses sank underground at the contact with the permeable BRL near the car park. There are two gated caves nearby, Upper Flood Swallet and Water Wheel Swallet. The water from both of these swallets and cave systems eventually emerges from underground at Cheddar. Walking towards the reservoirs, we came to the banks of slag left from the processing. The banks consist of lumps of black stones, some of which are shiny, like obsidian. It has a high lead, zinc and cadmium content and a low level of plant nutrients and so is poisonous to most plants. This means that the plants that do grow there are highly specialised and nationally rare. They are metal tolerant and form a low growing mat of lichens, mosses and tolerant vascular plants such as alpine penny-cress, herb Robert, and common whitlow grass. There are also many lichens of the Cladonia genus and several species that are normally found on siliceous rocks in upland areas.


During the preparation of this trip and the trip report, much use was made of the “Walkers’ guide to Western Mendip” and the associated geological map.
This was written by Dr Andy Farrant of the BGS, Keyworth, Nottingham, British Geological Survey. ISBN 978 085272576 4


Here are a couple of additions about smelting and refining lead from the Charterhouse mines.The slime referred to is the ‘Anode slime’ where valuable by products such as silver accumulate when lead electrolysis – using lead total loss anodes –  is used. This means that the slime may have a higher value than the basic lead. I think this is the process used to recycle car batteries.“The electrolytic refining of lead bullion from soluble anodes has been practiced for years in a number of large plants. Because of poor solubility, solutions have been restricted to the lead salts of fluosilicic acid, fluoroboric acid and amido-sulfuric acid. Metals with a higher electrochemical potential than lead (silver, gold, copper, bismuth, antimony, arsenic, and germanium) do not dissolve and accumulate in the anode slime that is processed to recover these valuable by- products.” interesting site about lead working in Bristol.

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