Exploring the Nent Force Level: A Hidden Gem of Industrial History

by | Attractions, History, North Pennines AONB

This article is part of our Discover Alston series. You can find more articles here

Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Alston Moor in Cumbria, the Nent Force Level represents a fascinating chapter in the industrial history of England. Spanning just over four miles, this underground canal was a marvel of engineering designed to drain the lead mines and explore new mineral veins. Today, the remnants of this ambitious project continue to intrigue historians and adventurers alike.

The Vision of John Smeaton

Portrait of John Smeaton, the engineer of the Nent Force Level

John Smeaton, the renowned engineer who designed the Nent Force Level to drain the lead mines under Alston Moor and explore new mineral veins.

The Nent Force Level was the brainchild of John Smeaton, a renowned civil engineer best known for his work on the Eddystone Lighthouse. Initiated on June 10, 1776, and completed in 1842, the canal aimed to alleviate flooding in the lead mines under Alston Moor. By draining these mines, Smeaton hoped to facilitate deeper mining operations and uncover new mineral veins, thus extending the productivity of the region’s lead industry. The project, funded by the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital, cost approximately £81,000.

An original engineering plan of the Nent Force Level canal.

An original plan of the Nent Force Level, showcasing the intricate design by John Smeaton to drain the lead mines and explore new mineral veins.

Construction began at Alston and involved the excavation of a long adit, or horizontal passage, with several intermediate shafts for access and ventilation. The first section cut along the dead line to Nentsbury, about three miles from the entrance. A ventilating shaft was sunk to the Tyne bottom shale and connected to the first section. The second section, about one and a half miles in length, extended from the Nentsbury shaft to the Wellgill shaft. Despite the challenges, Smeaton’s project advanced steadily, showcasing his engineering prowess and the determination of the workforce.

A Victorian Attraction

Entrance to the Nent Force Level from Brewery Shaft

The entrance to the Nent Force Level from Brewery Shaft, including abandoned mining machinery.

During the Victorian era, the Nent Force Level attracted adventurous day-trippers seeking unique underground experiences. Guides at local inns offered boat trips through the canal, allowing visitors to explore its subterranean wonders. The canal’s passage, often nine feet high and wide, sometimes expanded to sixteen or twenty feet, offering a dramatic setting. This journey provided a singular novelty of sailing underground and viewing the various geological formations and mineral veins. The canal’s grandeur and the natural beauty of the surrounding area made it a popular and thrilling destination.

Victorian pleasure boats at the Alston portal of the Nent Force Level, with one boat peaking out and another on the shore.

Victorian pleasure boats at the Alston portal of the Nent Force Level, offering visitors a unique underground adventure in the 19th century.

Westgarth Forster, in 1821, referred to it as “the great aqueduct level,” while Thomas Sopwith, in 1833, called it a “stupendous aqueduct.” These vivid descriptions highlight the awe and fascination that the Nent Force Level inspired in its heyday.

Challenges and Decline

Plaque commemorating the Nent Force Level at its top entrance

A commemorative plaque placed at the top of the Nent Force Level, marking its historical significance and engineering achievement.

Despite its initial promise, the Nent Force Level faced significant challenges. By the time it reached nearly three-quarters of the way to Nenthead, funds were exhausted, and the project had to be scaled down. A narrower adit was developed towards Brewery Shaft, but no new mineral veins were discovered. By 1890, Wallace deemed the Nent Force Level a “total failure” in its primary objectives. However, it did succeed in draining existing mines, enabling deeper mining operations.

Modern Intrigue

Sealed shaft near the Nent Burn

A sealed shaft near the Nent Burn, part of the extensive network of tunnels and shafts in the Nent Force Level system.

Today, the Nent Force Level remains an intriguing site for historians and explorers. Although the original entrance was destroyed by quarrying, the canal’s legacy persists. The intermediate shafts, particularly Brewery Shaft, still house the pelton wheels that once compressed air for mining operations. Remarkably, these wheels remain in situ, a testament to the enduring engineering achievements of the past.

Environmental interest has also emerged, as the Nent Force Level does not appear to collect the lead, zinc, and cadmium pollution that the Coal Authority is addressing in other parts of the drainage system. This anomaly raises questions about the canal’s role in filtering or storing pollutants, adding another layer of mystery to its story.

Route and Dimensions of the Nent Force Level

Historical Nenthead Mines in Alston Moor

The Nenthead Mines, a central part of Alston Moor’s rich mining history, linked to the Nent Force Level’s drainage system.

The Nent Force Level extends from its entrance near Nent Force at Alston under the course of the River Nent for a distance of three and a quarter miles to Nentsbury engine shaft. Initially designed to be nine feet in height and width, in many places, it expands considerably, rising to dimensions between sixteen and twenty feet. Navigated in thirty-foot-long boats propelled by wooden projections from the sides, visitors could enjoy the novelty of underground sailing and observe various geological formations and mineral veins.

Visiting the Nent Force Level

The Nenthead Mines, a central part of Alston Moor's rich mining history, linked to the Nent Force Level's drainage system.

The modern, peaceful village of Nenthead, surrounded by the remnants of its industrious past, including the Nent Force Level and historical mines.

While the Nent Force Level is not currently open to the public, its history is accessible through various local resources. The village of Nenthead, with its rich mining heritage, offers insights into the canal’s impact on the region. Additionally, websites such as Subterranea Britannica and the Archaeology Data Service provide detailed information and historical context.

The portal at Alston was blocked in the 1950s to feed the Alston Foundry but is now open and gated. For professional explorers, parts of the Nent Force Level can be accessed through various shafts, with Nentsberry Haggs, Wellgill, and Brewery shafts being notable points. The best access is from the Horse Level, which requires laddering or SRT descent. The shaft’s top is on private ground, previously covered with concrete sleepers, now housing a visitors’ center. Winch trips are occasionally arranged by caving and mining clubs. Please contact the Nenthead Mines Conservation Society to find out more.

For those interested in exploring further, the remnants of Brewery Shaft and the surrounding mining landscape offer a tangible connection to the past. Efforts to preserve and interpret these sites continue, ensuring that the story of the Nent Force Level remains an integral part of Alston Moor’s heritage.

A Remarkable Feat of Engineering

The original Alston portal of the Nent Force Level, now lost beneath later quarrying.

A later image of the original Alston portal of the Nent Force Level, now buried under later quarrying activities, which once served as the entrance to this historic canal.

The Nent Force Level stands as a remarkable feat of engineering and a symbol of industrial ambition. Despite its mixed success, the canal’s legacy endures in the history of Alston Moor and the fascination it continues to inspire. As efforts to uncover and preserve this hidden gem progress, the Nent Force Level promises to remain a captivating chapter in the story of England’s industrial past.

Salvin House: Your Perfect Base to Explore the Next Force level

Salvin House offers an ideal location for enthusiasts eager to delve into the rich mining heritage of Alston Moor. This charming accommodation provides easy access to historical sites, including the Nent Force Level and Brewery Shaft. Guests can enjoy comfortable lodging while immersing themselves in the history of lead mining, all within the stunning landscapes of Cumbria. Salvin House’s proximity to local attractions makes it the perfect base for a memorable exploration of the region’s industrial past.




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