Harpur Hill Quarry

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Harpur Hill Quarry is a disused limestone quarry on Harpur Hill, Derbyshire, England. Limestone was extracted there from 1835 to 1952 for lime burning at lime kilns to produce quicklime. The quarry was used by the Royal Air Force as a chemical weapons storage depot during the Second World War, the largest such depot in the United Kingdom. Afterwards a number of captured German chemical munitions were disposed of at the site by burning, which was only partially successful. The RAF depot closed in 1960 and the site is now vacant. The abandoned quarry has flooded to become a quarry lake. Its water has a very high pH, that is, it is very alkaline, owing to the presence of caustic chemicals that are leaching from the waste. The lake water has a vivid blue colour due to the scattering of light by finely dispersed particles of calcium carbonate. Despite signs warning of the health risks the lake became a popular tourist destination and swimming spot. The local High Peak Borough Council dyed the water black in 2013, 2016 and 2020 in an attempt to deter swimmers.



The site near Harpur Hill, south of Buxton, was worked as a limestone quarry. [1] Small-scale lime burning had taken place near Harpur Hill since at least the 1600s, initially around Grin Low near Poole's Cavern to the north, using lime kilns to produce quicklime by calcinating the limestone (mainly Bee Low Limestones) quarried nearby (that is, heating calcium carbonate to produce calcium oxide). A site beside the quarry was used for large-scale lime production from around 1835 to around 1952, using larger shaft kilns and then a multi-chambered Hoffmann kiln, operated by Buxton Lime Firms Ltd (later Brunner Mond from 1918, and then ICI from 1926). The Hoffmann lime kiln was demolished in 1980 to create space for an industrial estate. Large volumes of solid waste from the lime burning were dumped in tips nearby, creating spoil heaps contaminated with traces of quicklime and with ash from the coal used in the process. Water percolating through the waste leaches calcium hydroxide and becomes alkaline. [2]

The site was taken over by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1938 for use as a depot for the storage of chemical weapons. Poor weather delayed construction and the depot did not become operational until 1940. [3]

During the Second World War it was the largest chemical weapons storage depot in the country, covering some 500 acres (2.0 km2). [1] [4] [3]

After the war the site was occupied by an RAF unexploded ordnance disposal unit, known as an X station, and used for storage and disarmament of captured German chemical weapons and V-rocket warheads. The RAF disposed of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and phosgene, by burning it with bleach on the surrounding hills This proved unsuitable as large quantities of smoke were produced and the destruction was incomplete. Some mustard gas escaped as a vapour and much of the nearby vegetation was killed. The site also housed an RAF Mountain Rescue team who attended air crashes across Derbyshire. The RAF depot closed down in 1960. [3]

Blue lagoon

Harpur Hill Quarry lagoon
Harpur Hill quarry blue lagoon.jpg
The quarry's lagoon in May 2012
LocationHarpur Hill
Coordinates 53°14′01″N1°54′15″W / 53.2336°N 1.9043°W / 53.2336; -1.9043 Coordinates: 53°14′01″N1°54′15″W / 53.2336°N 1.9043°W / 53.2336; -1.9043
Lake type artificial
Primary inflows groundwater
Primary outflows evaporation, seepage
Basin  countriesEngland
First floodedc.2005
Max. length308 ft (94 m)
Average depth2 m (6 ft 7 in)
Max. depth3 m (9.8 ft)
Settlements King Sterndale, Buxton

A quarry lake ( 53°14′01″N1°54′15″W / 53.2336°N 1.9043°W / 53.2336; -1.9043 (Blue Lagoon) ) at the site became a tourist attraction owing to its vivid turquoise-blue coloration. [5] It is the only such "blue lagoon" in the country and has attracted visitors from across the country. [5] [6] The colour derives from the scattering of light by small particles of calcium carbonate that are precipitating within the water. [2] The caustic quicklime dissolved in the water gives it a pH level of 11.3 (by comparison bleach has a pH of 12.3). [6]

Signs at the site say the water can cause "skin and eye irritations, stomach problems and fungal infections such as thrush" and that the quarry is known to contain car wrecks, dead animals, excrement and rubbish. [6] [5] The water is also extremely cold. [5] Despite this the lake continued to be a popular swimming site used by hundreds of people. [7]

Around 750 local people, concerned about the health risks, signed a petition to have the quarry drained and closed off. However the water was deemed too toxic to drain, as it would risk contaminating local water supplies. [5]

In order to deter swimmers the water was dyed black in 2013 by High Peak Borough Council, who acted after being unable to get in touch with the site's owner. [6] [5] The dye wore off by 2015 and the water returned to a blue coloration. The council redyed the lake in 2016 with a stronger mixture, but by October 2019 it showed signs of returning to a blue colour. [5] In March 2020 the lake was dyed again following reports of people gathering there despite social distancing instructions issued by the British government to combat the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic. [8]


Derbyshire Police found the body of a 44-year-old man at the quarry on 18 February 2019. The death was found not to be suspicious. [9]

On 29 September 2019 two firefighters from Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service were injured whilst carrying out rope rescue training at the quarry. One of them was hospitalised with life-changing injuries. [10]

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  2. 1 2 "The Harpur Hill Site: its geology, evolutionary history and a catalogue of materials present" A.E. Mildowski, R.P. Shaw and D.I. Stewart, 2013. British Geological Survey Commissioned Report, CR/13/104
  3. 1 2 3 "Tribute by Lancaster". Buxton Advertiser. 13 July 2011. Archived from the original on 23 August 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  4. "The Cork photographer taking pictures of contaminated weapons sites". Irish Examiner. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Whelan, Zara (8 October 2019). "Buxton's beautiful Blue Lagoon is so toxic it can burn through skin". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Warning over toxic 'Blue Lagoon'". BBC News. 15 August 2012. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  7. "Toxic 'Blue Lagoon' dyed black". BBC News. 10 June 2013. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  8. Woodfield, Amy (25 March 2020). "Latest updates: East Midlands Live". BBC News. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  9. "Death of man found in Buxton quarry not suspicious". Buxton Advertiser. 20 February 2019. Retrieved 27 February 2020.
  10. "Firefighter seriously hurt in training exercise". BBC News. 1 October 2019. Retrieved 27 February 2020.