Time Team series 20, my Fifth Episode: Rig Day in the Clouds

Fenmen don’t waste their money on climbing boots, although there is (honest!) a Fenland Mountain Rescue Team – who spend their lives raising money for charity and enjoying a few beers. So it took me a while to track down a place where I could buy the necessary footwear and I found it, in Peterborough, at about 4 metres above sea level. Being a bit of a cheapskate I bought the boots that were on offer, for £49.99 (normally £120.00). They had laces (fiddly things that sheep farmers don’t like as they take too long to tie and untie in the watches of the night, during lambing) and were guaranteed waterproof. I couldn’t see any leather on them at all: it was all hi-tech fabrics and clever seams with knobbly multi-coloured soles. Very trendy, but not brightly coloured, so I didn’t think I’d look like an oldie mimicking a youngster – and why is it that so many younger folk seem to have bought-into the corporate vision of people like Nike? In my youth we’d have sooner died rather than wear branded trainers or T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘Pepsi’. Maybe that’s why I get so cross about the over-branding of the Olympics. It’s all so bloody corporate. So glib and PR-driven. But it’s better to laugh at it all than fulminate, as I’m doing. So somehow I’ve got to find a television where we’re filming, as I refuse to miss the last episode of Twenty Twelve. But I digress.

Actually ‘but I digress’ is potentially an alternative title for this blog, as I seem to spend a lot of time wandering off the point. Maybe I can set up a blog-within-a-blog. A bloglet. A baby blog – all about ideas that are sparked by the main theme. But no: that’s a silly idea. And as I’ve just said: I’m digressing.

I was discussing footwear. And why? Good point. Pause to recall earlier mental processes. Pour cup of tea. Then light returns; that’s right: I needed mountain boots because the site I’ve just recce’d is over a thousand feet up in the mountains of north-western England. As you know, at this stage I can’t reveal precisely where we’re filming because the site would be invaded, in this case by thousands of inquisitive sheep, not to mention a few curlews and the odd snake. And they’d be right to come, because the site looks like it’s going to be a cracker. It’s a copper mine and it potentially dates to the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And at this point I think I’m allowed a brief digression.

Readers of my books The Birth of Modern Britain and The Making of the British Landscape will know that I don’t believe in the Industrial Revolution, because revolutions, by definition, have to be quick. The French Revolution, for example, was very rapid – over, bar the bloodbath, in a few months. The English equivalent, the Civil Wars (1642-51) of the mid-17th century, were also of revolutionary speed. But the big one that affected the entire world, the Industrial ‘Revolution’, took three, maybe four centuries to complete. My own view is that its roots lie even further back: ultimately in the social upheavals that followed on the Black Death (1348) and subsequent waves of plague. In my view it was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

This Time Team is going to examine the roots of modern mining at the start of the industrial era. And do you know what? We’ve got some big surprises. Guess who it was that kick-started those early copper mines: free-wheeling British entrepreneurs out to rock the establishment in the chase for wealth? No. It was the Crown and a group of German miners. Bang goes another myth – at least I think it does. But we’ll have to dig to be certain.

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