Saturday, 25 August 2012

Killhope, Spar Boxes and A Bit of Spookiness


KILLHOPE. Not an encouraging name, but I suspect anyone working there in the late 19th century would have felt it was appropriate.

I've been in Co. Durham, a county I've always longed to explore. Last week we took S. up there and one of the places we went was an old lead mine way out in the countryside. You can borrow wellies, a hard hat and a torch and go inside the mine... so we did.

If you look hard you can see the date "1851" below. It was carved by one of a small group of men who had spent a backbreaking year .....

cutting a narrow, uncomfortable tunnel by hand into the side of the hill.for perhaps seventy yards.


Here's the entrance to the tunnel where miners dragged wagons of lead ore over the rails. It's necessary to wade through a fast flowing channel of peaty brown water which is several inches deep throughout the mine.

So in we went. It was a warm enough day, but the temperature dropped as we splashed into the darkness, daylight fading behind. I decided to take photos without flash, to catch the atmosphere. The view below looks back to the entrance, past the dim figure of T with his lamp. I know it's just a trick of the light but it was a bit spooky, as if there was a luminous white figure following us... can you see it? You can see the water rippling beneath our feet too.



The mining was done mostly by candle light, and as it got darker, we turned off our lamps and the flickering candle flame took over.


S., aged 10, was interested t learn that children of his age would have worked at the mine, though they'd have been outside, raking the ore, rather than braving the conditions within.


Lead mines are not deep. The faces are vertical, exposed sometimes by the use of explosives. So in the filthy, dusty atmosphere, the miners had to work upwards, hacking out the lead ore and allowing it to crash to the ground, after which it would be collected and heaved into wagons.
It must have been desperately hard work. I didn't know what "heavy as lead" meant till I picked up a chunk of ore. I'm not weak but it was almost too much for me.


The ore has a bright silvery hue, (and does contain some silver) which gives a bit of a "Seven Dwarves" feel - it almost could be treasure, glittering away.

The lead miners suffered terribly, and their health was ruined by the work. Always up to their shins in cold water, they developed chronic foot rot, and were always cold. They could not get out of the mine even for lunch or to go to the toilet. A "thunderbox" was carried in and out each day, and set down in the swirling water for them to use.



The dusty atmosphere and lack of sunlight affected their lungs, and many died of tuberculosis. After a day of hard toil, they slept together in miserable dormitories on site, and many a man must have been kept awake by the coughing of his mates all night. They were paid a pittance, half-yearly.

There's a giant underground waterwheel in the centre of the mine, impossible to photograph but working incessantly in the dark - the wood is always soaking wet, and I don't know why it doesn't rot as it splashes inexorably round and round.



We spent a few minutes in pitch darkness by the water-wheel, listening to its relentless swishing and thinking of one miner who was trapped for three days in the wheel chamber. He drank the water and ate his tallow candles to keep alive.

Yes, it really could be a bit spooky down there, although I have always had a bit of an imagination. I began to think there were ghostly men tapping above my head, a figure with arms upraised ....



S. was more interested in making scary faces with his torch. This one is the most sinister - he was pleased with it.


It was quite a relief to reach the entrance again...and get out. As I admired the evening sunshine lighting up the trees by the river, I could only feel sadness for the men who spent their lives undergound.


So if you're in or near Co. Durham, I recommend a visit to Killhope. Click here for the website. The centre has a fascinating museum of impressive mineral specimens and traditional needlework and crafts. It also has a collection of spar boxes,


which are almost impossible to photograph (at least, they are for me). These weird bits of Victoriana are tableaux made of minerals and crystals, sometimes incorporating taxidermy. A few, like the one above, were very large and were exhibited on a cart, for money. Others were just created for fun. Many use mirrors and lights (originally candlelight) to create a fairy-tale atmosphere. Below, there's a garden of crystals and mirrors reflecting the beautifully detailed dolls' houses into infinity but I am afraid my photo really doesn't catch the atmosphere.


The centre also has some very accomplished work by local craftsmen in the shop, it runs all kinds of interesting courses and it's very eco-friendly. It even has a hand-made yurt conference centre and you can't get much more ecological than that.

Best of all the volunteers are charming, and one of them even gave S. a bag of minerals so he could build his very own spar cabinet. He's now looking for a little glass fronted box and possibly a little train to run through his stony landscape.

I'll try and post more about Durham soon - it really is cool. First, though, I have to write my article, and rather quickly too. Gulp.

46 comments:

  1. Being terribly claustrophobic I am not for sure I would do well exploring an old mine. Your story reminds me of those who have and still do mine coal. It is such dangerous and deadly work.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed your time. I could never go in there but it sure did look spooky! Great shots!

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  3. Very interesting journey Jenny. They did have a very hard life, didn't they? I couldn't help thinking how little of that treasure they got to share, and I'm sure there were very harsh punishments for anyone who thought to help themselves.
    Sad.

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  4. Deadly work...your heart bleeds for people forced to work like this to keep body and soul together.

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  5. I wish I had some of your curious spirit. I am in a similar frame as the commenter above. Dark, closed in, dreary places would not find me checking them out. Claustrophobia for me too . . . Miners of yesterday and today certainly need to be respected and honored. A work atmosphere many of us could never do and one we don't have a clue of how dangerous and demanding.

    Interesting post! I liked the mine entrance. Can't imagine moving, cutting and laying stone In 1851 when they had none of the capability we have today. Have you visted New Grange North and a bit West of Dublin Ireland? A marvel indeed.

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  6. Such a touching peek into the past. It likewise made me think of all those who still work in mines to this day. I remember seeing lead mining samples (also from a lead mining museum) in my youth and thinking what terrible, hard work it must have been. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Any time i read about the horrible conditions of workers, then or now, i wonder at how one person can require that of another.

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  8. You did a great job describing the terrible conditions under which the miners worked. Oh, the good old days...yet to this day, some coal miners still work under similar dangerous conditions. Something to remember when complaining about the stress of an office job!

    Is that you in the picture?

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  9. I'm a bit claustrophobic so I doubt I'd ever want to visit, let alone imagine what it was like for those poor men working down there all their lives in poor health. So sad. But this was fascinating to see and read about. Another one of those things that I would gladly watch on TV but would never want to experience in real life--LOL! ;)

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  10. Goodness, and i thought I was having it rough at a school..
    I've spent a lot of time in C. Durham and really like the place. Durham Cathedral always felt as if it had been transported from Medieval France.

    We loved the Beamish Museum. I hope you manage to fit it in.

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  11. I bet that was a really interesting experience to visit the museum, but I surely wouldn't want to work there!

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  12. Thank you for the tour. What a nightmare it must have been for those good men working under such extreme conditions.

    Helenx

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  13. Hard to imagine those conditions, and yet, there are thousands of lives spent similarly in our time; just thinking of the various mines dotted throughout Africa and Asia, where children and men work under unsafe and horrific circumstances, often being forced labourers "recruited" after a war.

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  14. Sounds like an adventurous tour for all ages. It was hard visiting in the dark and I can't imagine those workers staying in there all day. I think your mind begins to play tricks on you in the dark.

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  15. What an amazing adventure. You told their story very well. I think that when you turned off your lamps and the flickering flame took over, would be quite a sight to see too, and oh those ghostly figures in the shadows, spooky!

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  16. Aye it was a tough life in those days. Folks were physically stronger because of the life they lived, but tended to die because of the sicknesses. Excellent tour of the mine, and S appears to have come out of the day well!

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  17. Durham is one of those areas I've never visited but intend to one day. The lives the leadminers lived were miserable and must have been short as well. It's hard to imagine those conditions even being allowed when we live in today's 'health and safety' regulated world.

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  18. How hard was the work of these men and boys, as you well explain, for days immersed in the depths of the mine, eating without seeing sunlight for days and these terrible diseases that tougher times, embarrassed. A greeting.

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  19. What fun - for all of you. With history and general adventures for S thrown in, to remind him that there was a life before the health and safety police. (Note to self - must go to Durham one day.)

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  20. A fascinating look at down-the-mine for someone like me who is never, ever going down there. Coming from a coal-mining area, I've often wondered what happened to anyone with claustrophobia in the days when there was virtually no choice of occupation - you were born into a mining community and you worked down the pit. No choice.

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  21. A fascinating blog Jenny. Thanks for sharing this tour. As I am claustrophobic I wouldn't like to go into that mine! Very interesting though - Dave

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  22. Co. Durham is an amazing place and the village names are very revealing: there's a Wideopen, and a Pity Me, which I always think is deeply depressing. It must have been a really tough place to live back in the day.

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  23. Fascinating places for us today - I love to explore caves, go pot-holing, whatever. But difficult to imagine the hardships for the poor soles who had to work them. Thanks for a really gripping and informing post.

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  24. You have such interesting adventures. I can't imagine going into a mine myself but I sure enjoyed your photo's. Life for the workers must have been so miserable tho.

    Darla

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  25. It is sobering to see how some before us lived and died. It makes me sad and so very grateful. Thank you for sharing.
    And I just learned what wellies are last year. We call them rain-boots. ;)

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  26. fascinating although very sad--wonderful pics

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  27. Fascinating. I don't think I could have braved going in there, so thank you for sharing your experiences :-) x

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  28. A really interesting post, thanks Jenny. If the miners survibed the effect on their feet and lungs they sometimes developed nervous disorders from handling the lead. It lost them them feeling in their limbs and damaged the motor nerves. As you said, a hard and sad life.

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  29. What a great place to explore! I have traveled around the UK many times, but I never even heard of this place. It has now earned a spot on my To Do list.

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  30. Very interesting read. Mining in the US is often a family affair with grandfathers, fathers, and sons all following in the profession. In my humble opinion, these men do not get paid well enough for what they endure even in modern times.

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  31. Thank you for this interesting and informative post.
    It was a sad way to make a living, but some had no other choice of survival.
    It took me back to a few years ago when I was riveted to the tv watching to see if all the miners that were trapped in the Chilean mine would make it out safely....and I was overjoyed when they did.

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  32. wow...gave me a shiver a bit...went down into a coal mine in kentucky once...and was a very overpowering experience for me....we have old railroad tunnels nearby as well with the dates carved in the wall....pretty crazy....

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  33. One aspect of harsh working conditions of miners who must have suffered the slings and arrows of living came to the surface thanks to your experience. It's so poignant. There may be this kind of conditions still now. It may be just that I try to avoid looking at it...
    Thank you for sharing an unusual experience.

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  34. An interesting experience but like you I would have been greatly relieved to get outside again!

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  35. Thanks to everyone for the comments. COnsidering coal miners, the only thing in favour of lead mining (or 2 things) are that you're not too deep underground, and the air is not potentially inflammable like it is with coal, which gives off gas. As for being better than coal mining, though, I doubt it. I don't know what Victorian coal miners lived like but George Orwell wrote about miners' lives in the 1920s and it sounds like hell. I don't know what claustrophobic people would have done either. Got a job doing something else, I guess, at lower pay. There must have been shops and pubs and services even in a mining community, that didn't involve going down the mine. My great grandfarther worked in a mine office in Northumberland, and by all accounts he was a mighty tough man, I don't know if he worked his way up but I don't think there was much of a career route out of the mine.
    No, Pixel Peeper, it is not me in the photo. I sometimes think it's a good idea to record parents' memories of life doing hard jobs like this, I wonder what stories your dad's passed on to you Annemarie?

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  36. Working in a lead mine must have been hell on earth, however much time you had had to "get used to it". How exactly do you get used to hours of hard physical labour standing in freezing water, then getting foot rot and TB? While the mine-owner was no doubt living like a lord in his opulent mansion a few miles away.

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  37. That is fascinating! And creepy. What horrible things they had to endure in there!

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  38. My goodness - I think I actually learned something! You're dangerous. My particular charm as a writer is built upon my abysmal ignorance of most things. You'll have me out of work.

    I wonder how the offspring of the lead miners fared, what with lead being such a poisonous thing to mental development.

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  39. That is sad to think that those men worked, ate, slept all in the same place, not seeing their families for weeks, months, years. Sad indeed. Here we have caves that one can take tours through. One of the tours, turns out all the lights so that you can experience total darkness. It was so weird not being able to see your hands in front of your face.

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  40. The mine seems aptly named, sadly. And since I have an overactive imagination myself, I saw all your spectres! Very spooky but probably just the coolest things for young boys! I'm curious, knowing what we know now about lead and how toxic it can be, was there any discussion about how long visitors could stay down there or what they could and couldn't touch?

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  41. Thank Goodness for Trade Unions. They may not be as necessary now as they were then but without them to insist on proper working conditions for miners (coal as well) things would have remained intolerable for a lot longer.

    I hate crawling into holes in the ground, you are certainly a lot braver than I would be. I can't even go into nice big caves without being pushed and led by the hand.

    I love Durham too, town and cathedral are very special places to visit.

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  42. Your description on how the lofe of the lead miners are so vivid... I can picture them clearly in my head... not exactly a nice sight.

    What a life, jsut to gain a few $$$ to support themselves and their families. :(

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  43. There is always a heartbreaking story behind mines. Sometimes I don't even want to imagine how people could work in such conditions. But life is tough and somebody has to do that. The garden of crystals though doesn't show the real atmosphere as you said, looks impressive.

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  44. What amazing adventures you've been having.

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  45. I've not been down the lead mine but I've been in other mines. I cannot even conceive of the life. My area of interest used to be (still is I suppose) Nelsonia and that era of the Royal Navy. I have a feeling that there would be little to choose between sailing in the tropics or the seas off Copenhagen in the winter in a man-of-war and a lead mine. We have become soft to a degree where we could not even begin to tolerate those lives now.

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