Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mines of Memory

Some years ago I needed to explore a mine. I had the permission of the landowner, in fact their head honcho wanted to take the opportunity to come with us. I had access to a selection of experienced geologists and I asked one who was into mine rescue and a Masters level student if they fancied it.

Off we went.

Some things about that little trip are fuzzy and others seem so clear. I found a load of photos from that trip today. They were taken in the days before I had a digital camera so there are only a few from in the mine and to be honest they arn't that great. I look at most of them and they just don't really fit with my memories....

Near the entrance to the mine there was a huge cavern carved into the cliff, supported by pillars and full of beautiful green water. You got the feeling that if you could explore, a tunnel would lead from the back of the cavern.

An adit lead away from above the cavern. An adit is a horizontal (ish) tunnel which drains water from all the levels above it. Cornwall is full of them. The biggest is the longest man made water carrying tunnel known as the Great County Adit and from 38 miles of tunnel it drained 40 mines of 13 million gallons of water every day. And this was built in the 1700s. In 1876 it suffered due to a bad winter an neglect, water burst through carrying debris with it and this caused silting up of the Carnon River and as a result Devoran fell beyond the navigable reaches of the river and it's quays died.

This adit is no Great County Adit, it lead mostly straight and true into the cliff. I remember every so often you would come across what looked like a puddle with a plank across it. Walking carefully across the plank it would become obvious you were walking across a shaft. The light from my helmet showed me the view as I looked down. And what a view. The water was crystal clear and it just went down and down and down.

You couldn't stay and look because the realization kind of hits that you are stood wearing a huge amount of heavy kit above a deep shaft full of very cold water and the plank you are on has been there a very, very long time.... But that image looking down has stayed with me and it is also tinged with a few nerves.

We didn't explore much of the mine. We were being safe and cautious rather than brave and fool hardy. The main adit ended in a rock fall and although we could have squeezed through.... A narrow tunnel went off to the right and led into a chamber and I can't remember why but we didn't follow the tunnel out to far either.

The one photo I have of the pool of water above the shaft doesn't do it justice an doesn't match my memory either. Maybe there was more than one shaft. The one I remember didn't have the huge gaping opening of the one in the picture. It had a square opening and it just went down. I think I like my memory better. I almost wish I hadn't found the pictures....
I am grateful for these memories... There are tourist mines in Cornwall in various places. Some are twee, for instance one where you ride a train through a tiny bit of tunnel.... Others are better. The best I went on was rather different. It was a safety check. Not your normal check, but on to make sure we wern't claustrophobic or scared of the dark and we would be safe to let loose in a mine.

I have no photos from that trip. At one point we went into a chamber, the whole group, and we all switched our head lamps off. The dark was incredible. I have never experienced dark like that. There was no glimmer of light or reflection. There was no adjustment of the eyes. It was just black....

To get out of the mine we had to go out the emergency exit and this was the claustrophobia test. Now some of the group were very fit and went off on ahead of me. One person was terrified and was going to be talked up by someone else. I wasn't scared, but I was unfit so I went inbetween the two groups.

The exit was a shaft with several ladders. At the top of each ladder you stepped onto a ledge and moved around the bottom of the next ladder and began climbing again. I can't remember how many ladders there were but there was a few. The thing was the ledges were tiny. The shaft was a tight fit, My legs were too long to climb the ladder properly. I had to have my knees to the side of the ladder to fit.

Now what I had no idea of was the fact I had managed to pick a defective battery pack and lamp. I soon found the fit people had long gone and the scared person was far below. And it went out. I hit it a few times and it flickered a little but it wasn't having it. I climbed most of the emergency exit alone and in the dark.... And that was fine.

Not all mines are like that, even in Cornwall. One I went down was all on a level. You walked in and the tunnels were broad and didn't scrape the top of your head. You could almost drive a car through. A mini definitely would have fit. In some places huge caverns had been excavated.

Cornwall is full of mines but so many are capped off or locked. I guess what I liked best was the feeling that I got to go places most people didn't.


  1. Wow....what an amazing experience!! I"m desperately afraid of heights so I think the looking down into a neverending large hole would do me in...but I think I'd like to explore a mine...with a light that worked...

    bloody hell, there's a squirrel literally knocking at my door and chattering at's Bushy..come for her peanuts...

    sorry...had to share that...bit jumpy, I am...


  2. I guess you don't have so many mines left over from the industrial revolution? Or do you? I have no idea except that you have oil sands in Alberta...