There is something exciting about going underground and by the time the tour was due to begin there were six expectant people waiting. There were schoolgirlish giggles as we sorted out the right size of wellingtons from the long racks in the stable building (they go up to size 13) and put on hard hats. We were kitted up with lamps and told how to use them. We were ready for the off.
The tour spends about 45 minutes underground, depending on how quickly members move. With my stick I was concerned I might hold up the group, but needed have worried.
The first part of the tour takes you through the Park Level Mine which has several inches of fast flowing water running over the wagon tracks. It took out eyes time to adjust to the dark and the dim light given out by our lamps and progress was slow at first. Part of this is quite low and we were thankful for the hard hats.
The main part of the tour is through a specially constructed mine known as the Milburn Level, as the deeper stretches of the Park Level Mine are unsafe. Fibre glass casts of tunnel surfaces of other local mines have been used to make the Milburn Level look as authentic as possible. One great advantage is that this part of the tour is dry underfoot.
There are examples of wooden and metal ladders used to access the working faces and tableaux showing men working above our heads.
An access shaft with wagon way was dug into the side of the hill to reach the mineral veins which ran horizontal. Miners were paid on the length of tunnel dug. It took eighteen months to reach the ore bearing veins. The height of the tunnels was designed to fit the size of the dales ponies pulling the wagons which could contain up to a ton of ore. The ponies were bought and owned by the mine workers and were well looked after. Along the wagon way are wider areas, called sidings, where ponies and wagons could pass. There was also space to turn the ponies round here.
In places there were 'stepping stones' along the wagon way which could be used by miners to reduce the risk of feet being trodden on by the ponies or crushed by the wagons.
Veins ran up from the access tunnel and were worked by partnerships (teams of 4-6 men) who dug up from the access shaft to reach the ore.
Risers, originally metal chain link ladders were used to reach the working area. These swung as the miners climbed them and were later replaced by fixed wooden ladders. Tools were carried in a kibble.
Originally all they used to work the vein were pick axes, but later black powder (gunpowder) was available. They had to be very careful with this as too much could bring the roof down. It could also be ignited by sparks and cause a fire.
Two men from the team would be responsible for drilling using a jumper. One would hold this while his partner would hit it with a hammer. The jumper was given a half turn after each blow and it could take 300 blows to make a hole big enough for blasting. They made several holes in the area to be blasted. A stemmer with flattened ends was used to clean out dust before the black powder wrapped up in paper was pushed into the hole using a picker. This was packed round with clay before being pulled out and the fuse put in.
Blasting was done at the end of the shift so allowing dust to settle overnight. Doors helped to control the spread of dust through the mine.
Next morning, the blasted rock was sorted by weight. A lot of waste was produced, mainly quartz and felspar. This was left on wooden platforms inside the mine as the partnership would have to pay for it to be taken out.
The pieces of galena ore were put in a barrow and taken to a wooden shoot. When enough had been collected to fill two wagons, a pony would come and the ore was sent down the shoot into the wagons. It was then taken to the partnership bunker in the bousesteads by the washing floor, where it was tipped, waiting to be crushed and washed.
When all the ore had been recovered as far as the could reach (usually about 100'), another level would be opened above with another access wagon way.
Unlike coal mines, methane was not a problem underground, although there was a device for getting fresh air around the mine using a water blast. Water was poured down a channel dug through the rock. This pulled down fresh air which could be taken by a large pipe to where it was needed.
There is a reconstructed waterwheel inside the mine. These were used to pump water up from the lower levels to stop flooding. It could pump ten times as much water than was needed to drive it. Water was always a problem There was usually 3-4" running water along the wagon ways but in places this could be 6-8".
Before leaving we were shown the thunderbox, which was pulled round the mine by two boys. It really did sound like thunder when the lid was dropped…
Partnerships had to bid for an area to work. They were paid six monthly in arrears by the amount of dressed ore they produced. Out of their wages they had to pay the men taking the ore out of the mine and they also had to reimburse the mine owners who paid the wages of the boys working on the dressing floor. They also had to pay for their lodging in the mineshop, the blacksmith, as well as their own tools and candles.
Miners wore their oldest clothes and clogs to work. They covered their felt hats with clay which was allowed to harden, so giving some protection against bumps. Life expectancy of the miners was about 50.
This was a fascinating trip and definitely worth doing. Taking notes in semi darkness provided a challenge. There was a lot of information about method of working and conditions which isn't available on the surface.