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Journal Entry from the Countryside: The Mines Glisten in their Depths | Written by Susie White


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Equipped with protective helmets and lights, our backpacks stocked with drinks and snacks, we make our way up the Nent Valley, passing desolate heaps of debris. A curved entrance leads into the side of the hill, the dim tunnel of Smallcleugh mine. Any apprehensions I may have had about going deep underground are replaced by the thrill shared by our group, led by three experienced guides.

As soon as we enter, we are transported to a new environment. The tunnel’s sandstone blocks are illuminated by flickering lights, while our wellies make splashing noises in the water. The scents of wet stone and soil fill the air. Delicate stalactites in shades of white hang above us, their tips shimmering with droplets. As we continue, the walls turn into rugged rock, displaying rust-colored hues with pockets of shiny minerals in crevices.

Smallcleugh, which started operations in 1770, yielded a significant quantity of lead and zinc until its closure in the 1920s. The mine boasts of numerous interconnected tunnels spanning several miles across various levels, making it easy to lose one’s way. Horse-drawn wagons used to traverse the main route, which is lined with parallel rails. Additionally, wooden chutes that are over 150 years old can still be seen in the walls, used to transport materials from higher levels into trucks.

The Upside Down River in the Nenthead Mines, Cumbria

The miners were well-versed in geology and their stonework was impressive in its artistry and intricacy. They would extract lead from seams or carve out large sections of ore known as “flats”, where we would stop to admire the surroundings. We would switch off our headlamps to fully experience the complete darkness that exists 300 feet underground.

Afterwards, there is a brief five-minute descent through a passageway known as Hetherington’s Misery. My hat frequently hits the ceiling and I am grateful for my cushioned gloves and knee pads. The highlight of this journey is the Ballroom, a massive chamber, also known as a “stope”, where the Masonic fraternity hosted a banquet in 1901. I am amazed by the sheer amount of rock that was chipped away by hand and touched by the sight of residue from the miners’ candles.

The Ballroom, situated in a confined tunnel, holds a magnificent atmosphere where I am enchanted. The grey rock walls frame the sandstone ceiling, adorned with countless water droplets that resemble twinkling Christmas lights. This wondrous sight, called the Upside Down River, can be found deep within the earth.

Source: theguardian.com