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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

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The Mark Weir philosophy: ‘Better to live a day like a tiger than life as a mouse’

Mark Weir, the owner of Honister Slate Mine, once remarked that is better to live like a tiger for a day than a mouse for life.

RELATED: Tributes to mine boss

The words could have been his epitaph.

Entrepreneurial, daredevil, maverick and visionary are just some of the adjectives which spring to mind when his name is mentioned.

Speaking less than a year ago, he said: “My proudest achievement is that I am still alive.

“With lumps of rock dropping out of the ceiling right past you, you have the chance to say ‘that was a close one’.

“That kind of thing has happened so many times that I actually enjoy it.”

Before the age of five he had eaten rat poison, dipped his hands in concentrated acid and swallowed a lead bullet.

Since he saved the derelict mine more than a decade ago and made it an unlikely success, he had countless scrapes with death.

Cumbria has been deeply shocked by his death this week when his helicopter, a familiar sight in the skies around Borrowdale, crashed 200 metres south east of the slate mine.

He leaves behind partner Jan and his three children, Prentice, Piers, and Georgina-Blue.

Mr Weir won numerous business awards including North West’s Entrepreneur of the Year in the National Business Awards.

But his business acumen was bound up with a disregard for authority.

Earlier this year he illegally dropped a paraglider from his helicopter at 10,000ft and was fined £400 when footage of the stunt was posted online.

His passenger, Spanish champion acro-pilot Felix Rodriguez, was attempting to beat a world record for the so-called “infinite tumble” manoeuvre.

He also had a long-running feud with the Lake District National Park Authority, which accused him of flouting planning law at Owerhouse, High Mosser.

But Mr Weir was not the type of man to let little things like rules stand in the way of his vision.

He said: “I have had the national park and National Trust against me, trying to get me to stop operations, but I had to ignore them because I knew what I was doing was right.”

He was vocal in his criticism of the national park authority for what he saw as their failure to support entrepreneurs.

His flare for business became obvious from a young age.

At eight, he could drive a digger, by 13 was running his own little plant-hire business and digging ditches and graves so he could pay for his pilot’s licence.

When he set his heart on the Honister mine he knew next to nothing about slate and was running various successful businesses, including the Herdwick Inn at Penruddock, near Penrith.

It was while flying over the mine with his grandfather John Taylor, who used to work there and who had been upset by its closure, that he decided to buy it.

When Mr Weir was starting out it was not uncommon for him to work long back-breaking shifts in the mine’s caverns.

He said: “Something like this you put your life into. I have the ideas and they have to follow me even if sometimes it’s difficult to see where my vision is leading.”

The venture, he confessed, had nearly broken him more than once, but he persevered.

When he took over it was derelict but under his ownership, it offered a visitor centre, cafe and guided underground tours to explain the incredible stories and hardships faced by the original Borrowdale miners.

In 2007 Mr Weir opened the Via Ferrata, a high-level footpath that zigzags diagonally up the side of Fleetwith Pike.

But his vision did not end there.

He had also wanted to send visitors hurtling from the 2,126 feet summit to the visitor centre below on a mile-long zip wire – against the wishes of the Friends of the Lake District.

But Mr Weir, the hard man of the fells, had a softer side too and often paid tribute to the hard work of his staff.

He once took an 84-year-old with one arm and muscular dystrophy to the top of Fleetwith Pike.

He also took a six-year-old with just weeks to live on a helicopter tour of Carlisle.

He said: “I try to put smiles on faces and to get that genuine handshake from people who have had a great day. If I can get them to come back then I have done my job.

“It’s humbling when people say this is the 10th time they have come here or this is the best attraction they have visited. Then I know I’m on the right track.”

The slate mine produces the world-famous Westmorland Green Slate, which adorns the roof of Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the last few months a TV crew had been making a documentary about Mr Weir and the mine, which was due to be shown later this year.

Mr Weir was no stranger to the limelight and Honister Slate Mine was the setting for an epsiode of TV’s Coronation Street.

Trinny and Susannah even staged a makeover of some of the mine workers as part of their What Not To Wear BBC TV series.

Prince Philip, and TV presenters Julia Bradbury and Griff Rhys Jones visited the mine.

Pop star turned gardener Kim Wilde, whose parents-in-law live near Keswick, used Honister slate in her award-winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

A big promoter of Cumbria, Mr Weir also made regular appearances on TV shows such as Countryfile to push the county as a holiday destination.

Have your say

I second what the first poster has written. I grew up in a fishing village in cornwall. In 20 years its now a shadow of its former self as the local fishing industry has dwindled and its not likely you can introduce a new industry to such a location. Its an amazing achievement what he had done in 15 years. This zip wire was strand in the life line that Mark has created at Honister which it needs, the community needs and the lakes needs. So short sighted, so sad, so desperate.

Posted by David Andrew on 25 October 2011 at 10:22

I too watched the documentary last night, as a passionate walker and climber myself with many years spent up in the lakes, i was at first on the side of the parties concerned with regards the preservation of the paths and fauna that thrive on these hills, however, after seeing Mark's obvious love and understanding of his surroundings and the preservation of the mine and it's workforce i was very much firmly on his side by the end of the program, what a tragic shame it was not to be, could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like for his family, and to impose a £15,000 fine for the non removal of the Vera Ferrata AFTER he died to his widow is just outrageous at best, and downright wicked at worst, these groups and government bodies pertain to love and protect these areas of outstanding natural beauty, when in fact the REAL hard work and understanding is always best served in the hands of those that know the area in depth, the locals, volunteers, and all the hard working well meaning folk of the lakes, lose the mine and you lose another small part of a life and community under threat, conservation? they don't know the meaning of the word, God bless his family and workforce..............

Posted by Mark Robbins on 24 October 2011 at 09:46

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