However, lower-cost competition from new discoveries outside the country, including in the US, Spain and Germany, eventually led to the decline of lead mining in Britain. By the dawn of the 20th century, few operating mines remained, though some held on until the 1930s, helped by increased demand during World War I.

New drilling program should yield results soon

“The historically mined lead in the [North Pennines] was all near the surface,” said McKillen in a January 8 phone interview. “That's mainly because the old-timers weren't able to go to greater depths. We're going below the Great Limestone formation, or about 400 meters deeper than the previous mines. The theory is that if there was mineralization above the Great Limestone, then there is a strong possibility of mineralization below it as well.”

McKillen said that Minco should know fairly soon whether that assumption holds true; he expects the first assay results from the current program toward the end of the first quarter of 2013, with the second phase of drilling running into the summer. But expectations are high.

“We think the potential is there for a world-class deposit,” said McKillen. “Of course, we would have to delineate it, but there would be lots of options for development. For example, you could use an old mine as an access point, with the actual operation being 5 kilometers away. That wouldn't have an impact on the surrounding countryside.”

One challenge that Minco has faced is the fact that mineral rights are privately owned in the UK. That has forced it to deal with numerous landowners in order to conduct exploration activities. In the North Pennines, the company had a slightly easier time because the target area mainly consists of larger estates, which meant there were fewer owners to deal with.

Minco sees big potential for UK lead mining — but challenges remain

On the whole, McKillen is bullish on the prospects for a lead-mining revival in the UK, but he acknowledges the challenges. “Many people have backed away from exploration in Britain because of the mineral-ownership laws,” he said. “It makes it impossible to put together the tracts of land required for a modern exploration effort. The country's expanding population also makes locating projects more difficult.”