Full marks to Pete for tact. Getting me kitted out for a trip into a lead mine he had to assess what size belt I would need to hold the battery pack for my helmet lamp. He gallantly started with a belt from the M peg before discreetely moving to the L peg.
I’d joined a group of 10 at Nenthead for an underground tour inside Carrs Mine. Isaac’s Tea Trail passes through Nenthead and now I can legitimately say I’ve carried out an in-depth study of the area I love to walk.
The Tea Trail follows some of Isaac Holden’s routes as he sold tea door-to-door in Victorian times, but his early life was embedded in the lead mining industry. He was born into a family of North Pennines miners and as an eight year old he worked on the washing floor of Keirsleywell Mine. It was very hard labour, processing piles of lead ore. When he reached his early teens he went underground, but later found another livelihood as a tea seller.
My visit to Nenthead Mines gave some idea of Isaac’s early life. Led by Chris, one of the volunteers from the Nenthead Mines Conservation Society, we walked in through the tunnel that would have been used by ponies pulling tubs of ore.
Most of us had to stoop as we walked along some sections of tunnels, but other areas opened up into high caverns. Reassuringly sturdy timber props appeared in our lamp beams every now and then, along with stone arches lining parts of the tunnels.
We were shown the veins where molten rocks from the earth’s core had been forced between cracks in the earth’s crust. These releases eventually formed the highly-prized minerals lead, zinc and silver.
Spookily, as we progressed deeper into the hillside we could hear hammering, and soon we came across a miner working by candlelight.
Introducing himself as Titus, he explained how the explosives were set into the rock face. Handy Tip number 1: as you’re running away having lit the fuse, make sure you go round TWO corners to avoid flying debris. Handy tip number 2: always hold a stick of dynamite with extreme care.
It was impossible not to think constantly about the men (and ponies) who worked down here in the dark and the damp. But amid the harsh conditions was beauty; when Chris shone a UV torch at some ordinary lumps of rock they glowed with purples, pinks and greens. This was fluorspar, of no value to the mining company but fashioned by the miners into exquisite models and dioramas. There’s one in an exhibition at Nenthead Mines, and a large collection of spar boxes at Killhope, the North of England Lead Mining Museum just over the hill from Nenthead.
The underground trip involved climbing a few ladders, but the tour was conducted at a slow and easy pace with frequent stops to learn lots of interesting stuff about geology, the development of mining methods, and the community that grew up around the mine.
In the nineteenth century miners were underground for eight hours at a time. As we returned to daylight after just 90 minutes it was easy to appreciate how they must have felt to be back out under a North Pennines sky, breathing the fresh air.
Now ….. having been underneath Isaac’s Tea Trail, there’s a plan afoot for me to see it from above – possibly to be achieved at the end of September. Watch this space (from above or below).
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://www.allenvalleys.com/isaacs-tea-trail