Underground in Birmingham.

Flat urban Birmingham full of sluggish canals, you would have thought that there was nothing undergrcund but how wrong can you be?

There is a fantastic, huge system at Dudley between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. I first heard of the Dudley stone mines in a midlands caving club newsletter, there was a photo of a huge cavern, the size of Mud Hall in the Gaping Gyhll system that made one swear “Bloody hell if that’s Birmingham, I’m going in.

Basicaly most of the main canals built in Britain cross at Birmingham (now we have the same with roads at Spagetti Junction). Fortunately for cavers in the middle was a big hill needing a one and a quarter mile canal tunnel, this tunnel had lock gates underground. This area also has a thirty, yes thirty foot coal seam. The hill was also full of valuable building stone and limestone, ideal for the iron works and the new Birmingham.

This was an ideal situation, you just cut branches off the canal and then you could mine the stone, load it aboard barges and transport it anywhere. Unlike other more famous mines in the country, it was surrounded by coal, and industry, building needs, and labour. There was no tramping for miles ever moors and hills. You just took the boat in, dug, filled it up, and out again. Even today it is important enough to be part of a TV advert with Lenny Henry, for Dudley Zoo.

I decided on a visit when I went to Birmingham next. One day in June I turned off the M5 at junction 2 and headed straight for Wolverhampton, Dudley, and the Black Country museum. The Black Country museum is like Beamish, a whole village buiit up with a working tram, people dressed in period costume, shops full of original goods, a pub with sawdust on the floor and real ale. It was impossible to believe, sitting outside eating faggots and peas, surrounded by trees and open space that this was right in Birmingham. Better was to came!

We went into the canal tunnel in a 7Oft. long barge. After 600ft. we approached the bottom of a huge, deep hole, filled with trees, via a large entrance 20-ft. square. Moreover a 15ft. curtain of ivy hung down making a magical scene. The boat nosed it’s way out of the bottom of this curtain into brilliant sunshine, more like a scene from the tropics than the outskirts of Wolverhampton! We waited in this deep crater for another boat to pass us then proceeded to yet another tunnel and another deep pit, this one with several other tunnels leading off it. We proceeded via a concrete lined tunnel (done a year ago at a cost of a quarter of a million pounds) to the singing cavern.

This cavern is 200ft. long, 30ft. wide, and 80ft. high, set at an angle of seventy degrees with huge rock pillars. It was named the Singing Cavern due to the sound of the wind blowing through it.

Here we got a very original sound and visual display, often in almost total darkness, with ‘candle’ lights here and there lighting up the cavern as it would have been in the past. Various voices were heard of people preparing a shot hole. There were life like sound of hammering and drilling by hand, this followed by voices and the sound of a burning fuse, running feet, followed by the sound of a tremendous explosion. This was followed by more voices, footsteps, a yell, the sound of falling and a splash. Then came the sounds of a rescue attempt. (Ron Bliss would have been proud of the sound effects).

Eventually we returned, passing the remains of an underground lock gate, which raised boats a fcot or so. In the past someone spent their days working this thing, some 40,000 boats a year went through at the systems peak usage. Then another tunnel was driven, so as to make a one way system to cope with these numbers.

The present day trip is very impressive, plans and work are in hand for an extension to the Seven Sisters cavern, this is reputed to be twenty five times as big as the Singing Cavern. But it is at least 400ft. long and 50ft. wide according to old photos and a survey.

Andy Walsh.

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