Volume 38 Number 2 Article 2
Ritton Castle Mine
No doubt many of you have heard me talking from time to time about various digs and other trips in mines. I thought I should put pen to paper and write about some of the exploration I have been involved in, and some of the classic mining trips in Shropshire and in Wales. This article describes exploration carried out by Shropshire Caving and Mining Club (SCMC) members at Ritton Castle mine in 1998-9.
It has long been rumoured that the old looking stone arched level at Ritton Castle mine was the pre-Boat level drainage for Bog mine. (Boat level is a long deep drainage level that drained various mines in South Shropshire. It reached Bog mine in 1797.) I have been to Shrewsbury records and research and have seen the abandonment plans for Bog mine. A section shows what is called "Bog shallow adit" heading west from Bog. There is however no clue as to where it surfaced if it ever did. In January 1998 permission was obtained from the farmer to dig open and explore the above level.
The level consisted of 5ft high stone arching. It was completely blocked by a collapse from about 40ft from the entrance. This collapse corresponded to a depression on the surface some 15ft above, which is thought to be an old air shaft. The blockage issued a lot of water which flowed down the level and into the adjacent stream. It was decided that the best plan was to dig in the depression and thus enter the level on the far side of the blockage.
On a cold Saturday morning in February Steve Holding, James Goddard and myself started work. As the hole deepened Mike Worsfold, Eileen Bowen and Ian Davies arrived to join in. Around 3.00pm Steve and I pushed a long piece of angle iron into the top of the blockage at the end of the level. More water started coming out and within minutes the stream outside was 1ft deeper than normal and brown in colour. Escaping water was washing away the blockage leading to even more water being released. Digging continued through Sunday, and by Sunday evening the hole on the surface was 6ft deep and shored up, the situation shown below.
Torrential rain over the next week caused the hole to collapse into the level, lots of water was visible flowing out of the gap between the bedrock and the soil. The hole was now a large chasm about 12ft deep with most of the shoring buried at the bottom. Luckily, as there were sheep in the field we had covered the hole (very well) with corrugated steel, which was still in place.
The following Saturday Stuart Tomlins arrived with three oil drums (with the tops and bottoms cut out) welded together. These were lowered into the hole which was then back filled around them. The sides of the level between the bed rock and the stone arching (i.e. under the oil drums) were shored up with corrugated steel. We back filled behind the steel sheets, then kept them apart and the level open with wood props. By mid afternoon on Sunday the entrance (via the level, not the oil drum lined air shaft) was considered stable enough for the level beyond to be explored. Mike and I progressed up the level in chest deep water with a lighted candle as a check on oxygen levels. The level was explored for 150 yards past a short crosscut to a flooded winze (underground shaft) which was not crossed. Next Thursday a large team crossed the flooded winze (plumed at 20ft) and explored the rest of the open level, 10ft, to a collapse.
Work on digging this blockage was soon started, essentially we were faced with wet loose material that had collapsed from above. On the next trip Eileen and I (against the advice of everyone else present) ended up putting in some temporary shoring, including a sheet of corrugated steel. A week or so later there had been a collapse and the shoring was buried. From then on everything that we dug out was replaced by material from above. It was becoming clear that a more scientific approach was needed. While we considered what to do we set about making the air shaft dig safer and lowering the water level to about knee deep just beyond the air shaft dig and getting shallower inbye (away from the entrance). Up until this time every trip beyond the airshaft dig had required a wet suit.
Eventually we set about forpoleing (a method of shoring up a dig through a collapse from above) the in-bye blockage. All was progressing very well until we came upon the buried sheet steel from our previous shoring attempts. It was totally blocking the way and resisted all attempts to move it. We attempted to drive it upwards, undermine it and leaver it free. Ian and I managed to drill a hole in it and attach a maillon. We then tried to haul it out using a nylon rope and a two to one advantage, no chance. On the next trip we tried using the high lift jack from Steve"s land rover braced against a wooded beam - that stretched the rope a lot but did little else. A tirfer seemed to be the answer and one was borrowed from Stuart Tomlins - it was a massive thing with half-inch diameter wire rope attached to it. The first attempt with the tirfer ended up breaking the maillon that was attached to the sheet steel. Another one was then fitted. We thought that the forepoles might be trapping the steel so we collapsed the whole structure, burying the steel again. It still refused to move so we tried to pull hard enough to break the maillon to free the tirfer. Surprisingly it would not break, so the tirfer had to be left underground. A changed angle of pulling and putting the forepole structure back in place eventually got the sheet steel moving. It fought every inch of the way and took the whole forepole structure with it. All in, the stuck sheet of steel held us up for three months or so, including a month with no trips.
The forepoling was then set up again and was progressing well by the time I left Shropshire in September 1998. The others carried on the digging. Eventually the material from above ran out leaving the forepoling very little to support and it was removed. Access was then gained to a "chamber" on top of the collapsed material. A hole descended into a water filled level (with a foot or so of airspace) on the far side. At this point the oxygen meter reading was very low - no way would a candle burn. (For much of the digging time a candle would not burn at the dig site.) Siphoning much of the water out of the level marginally improved things. On a rare visit to Shropshire I was able to slide down the hole (whilst attached to a rope) into the level beyond the collapse. The level was open and went off into the distance. I left exploration for another day. I can't remember what the oxygen meter was reading but it was not a lot, before I descended into the level we had lowered the oxygen meter down on a piece of string.
Mike Worsfold eventually followed the level beyond the blockage in deep water and with an improved but still low oxygen level to its end, about 150 yards further on, passing nothing of interest along the way. It clearly never drained Bog mine. To date, only one person has been to the end. It remains unsurveyed and I don't suppose it will get many visits. Most of the digging was done on weekday evenings, although several whole weekends were spent digging also. In the end, the flooded winze was completely filled in with spoil from the 2nd dig leaving no trace, so future explorers may wonder why there is a traverse line in place.