Sitting on the outskirts of the historic market town of Egremont is a reminder of the area’s mining past and industrial legacy: Florence Mine.
This iron ore mine was first sunk in 1914 when this part of West Cumbria was rich with seams of hematite than ran for miles beneath the surface. The mine was linked by underground tunnels to nearby Ullcoats and Beckermet mines and drew in workers from across the county and beyond. The iron ore pigment, a deep red color, was used in the manufacture of paints, dyes and cosmetics and the mine produced a never-ending supply until it was closed (for the first time) in 1968. A reprieve was on the horizon in the form of the newly nationalized British Steel Corporation who bought the mine, pumped water from the flooded tunnels, and restarted blasting the iron ore.
Florence Mine’s second closure came in 1980 when British Steel underwent severe cost-cutting and cut Florence from its holdings; the saviors this time around were the miners themselves, using their redundancy money to purchase the property. In a deal with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (who owned and operated the nearby Sellafield nuclear plant) they kept the mine going — BNFL pumped the water out to use in their cooling systems, and the miners continued to provide the paint, dye, and cosmetics industry with pigment, although on a much smaller scale than before, latterly operating a heritage center and tours of the pit and underground workings.
After just over 90 years, Florence Mine finally closed its shafts when Sellafield no longer required the water to be supplied from the location, thus leading to flooding and collapse. In 2007 the last miner left — at that time Florence was the last working iron ore mine in Europe.
Today, the mine lives on as backdrop to a thriving arts center, housing a venue for live music, theatre, and comedy, as well as an art gallery and workshop space. The disused mine is scattered with reminders of its past, not least the towering pithead and a plethora of abandoned machinery and rusting minecarts.
One tradition lives on; inside the Arts Centre a co-operative, the Florence Paintmakers, still use the surface ore to create handmade watercolors, oil paints and pastels. The unique color is called Egremont Red and their products are on sale on site and in artists’ shops locally and nationally.
The rich color is omnipresent here — when it rains, the earth and mud turn red.