Volume 41 Number 1 Article 4
And Now For Something Completely Different!
After a very successful spate of well attended, old mineral mine-working visits I thought now could be a good time to lead the Red Rose to pastures new following a similar vein [pardon the pun]. The imagination instantly flipped to my early years of underground exploration where an enthusiastic apprenticeship in caving was being nurtured and moulded down dark places in Southern Scotland.
Underneath the villages of Wanlockhead and Leadhills in Dumfrieshire's Lowther Hills lies a multi-levelled labyrinth of lead and copper workings which gave weekends of adventure to a bunch of pimply snotty faced youths in the late sixties. These places offered miles of passage, deep shafts, long swims, amazing machinery and tremendous mineral samples still sitting in the bogey's that were left un-emptied when the mines were abandoned. I could see it all through the fug of thirty-five years, how can anyone fail to be impressed? - then I thought 'Let's not be hasty'. That's when I decided to suss it out first to ensure it was still as I remember it.
There were three sites I had in mind for a mining weekend. The first was a wade up the Gripps drainage level which would ultimately bring us into a complex system of stopes and shafts with lots of 'deads' to dig through to pastures new. The entrance to this adit lay about 2-3 kilometres down the Abington road from Leadhills and conducted drainage water from the workings below the village and surrounding area.
My previous experience of this place was perishing, endless waist depth wades, shafts rising to the surface where sunlight filtered through the cracks of the rotting railway sleepers that capped them. Water pouring through the deads, bats swarming about upset by our presence, and high passages out of reach because ascending techniques were in short supply to us in those days.
But what the hell is that? A Safari Park? A whopping great fence with barbed wire topping circumnavigated the whole area. It took up the whole valley as far as you could see, it did, from well below the adit entrance right up to Leadhills village. Maybe they've introduced wolves to the area!
The road drew parallel to the fence. Large red signs every fifty metres were now hanging on the steel mesh. The first sign was a white Skull & Crossbones on a red background. The next sign was 'Danger of death, sudden landslip and flash flooding', and so they alternated all the way to Leadhills. I think it all meant that you weren't really to stray to the other side of the fence, it suddenly looked like site visit No. 1 was temporarily suspended.
On to site No. 2. As a youngster this was always my favourite because it was relatively dry. The Glengonnar Copper Mine was down in a depression at the roadside between Wanlockhead and Leadhills. As the youngest and lightest member of the now defunct Glasgow Speleological Society I was always volunteered by the others to go into things they were not happy with. At the time I thought I was really popular and it took me a while to realize my roll was an overgrown miner's canary, to the extent of being expendable.
On one occasion in this mine, I was put down a sixty feet deep shaft on a forty foot ladder then lowered the last twenty feet on washing line that had been extended by lengths of baling twine. My main concern was that the water I was going to land in would flood my wellies. This concern soon changed; when it was time to be pulled up the twenty feet to the bottom of the ladder, the haulers couldn't grip the muddy twine to take my weight. The line was reversed; I tied the baling twine round my waist while they pulled on the thicker wash-line, where I eventually arrived at the top of the shaft looking like an egg-timer and totally numb from the waist down. (Or was it from the waist up - I can't remember.)
I indicated left and pulled the Landrover down the rough track to where the entrance should go in under the road. No entrance. The whole face had been bulldozed over covering the complete area in metres of rubble and earth, then grassed over. Mmm! Site No.2 up the spout.
Never mind - keep the best 'til last. We drove on a mile then cut down through Wanlockhead passing the Lead-mining Museum, then past the old beam engine which has recently been renovated and out towards the Glencrief drainage level on the outskirts of the village. There's still enough in this place for a weekend underground.
Glencrief was a fantastic place. Our first experience in this lead mine was via a 120 foot ventilation-shaft on the hillside. This shaft was descended (again externally volunteered) on a home-made electron ladder, with ferruled rungs that left your fingers in tatters, connected to two home-made rope ladders constructed of 3/8inch hawser-laid nylon (I think!) with knots supporting the wooden ply rungs.
This shaft dropped you onto a roadway which was railed, and a short distance in towards the direction of the main haulage shaft stood a line of bogies full of bright sparkling galena. It was like finding a treasure. Various fixed laddered shafts and ore conduits led you down to the main hoist level, which was also drain level, where a large shaft at an angle of 60 degrees with rails up to the surface was used for hauling the ore out. This also continued down into flooded lower levels; where the upwelling from the shaft created a standing dome of water, caused by the hydrostatic head u-tubing from flooded workings at higher levels in the surrounding hills. This aqua-dome was about eight feet in diameter, two feet high and continually collapsed outward before flowing off down the drainage level to exit in the valley a kilometre away where we were standing right now. The air shaft has long since been capped so the drainage level is the only way into the workings.
The wetsuit was a good last minute decision. The way in was once down into a subsidence a few yards upstream from the waters point of exit; now it was all excavated, cleared out and a 36inch concrete pipe conducted the water to daylight. At least one place is still open.
Excellent, I thought as I pushed forward on my hands and knees through the two-thirds-full tube of fast flowing water. I recall this place with suffering. Hours off numbness, shivering and intense cold was the reward for the amazing sights within. Swimming trunks, boiler-suit and pumps with bare feet were the caving garb at that time for excessively wet places. There was some sort of inherent, built in phobia about going home with a load of wet clothes. God knows why, it certainly didn't offer much insulation but it sure killed off the athletes foot.
After 15 feet the concrete ended and passage began. But instead of standing up into air-filled headroom the roof of the passage was slightly below the top of the concrete pipe, giving 10 inches airspace at the best. I eased lower into the cold water and swam forward into what should have been familiar territory. Although I could see the bottom it was beyond reach, (a common problem when you have short stumpy legs) so there was nothing for it but to continue swimming. Gradually the roof lowered and my helmet was constantly scraping along forcing me to hold my breath as I went from high point to high point to find air pockets my head would fit into. Four inches airspace, as far as I could see, so I kept wallowing upstream confident in the knowledge that the gradual uphill gradient of the floor would pay dividends eventually. The passage will rise and access will be available as long as there is no roof declination to take away the air gap. Eventually, and after a very critical 6 foot splutter there was suddenly a marked difference in airspace. Soon I was swimming with 2 clear feet above me, then 3. A minute later I was wading chest deep, then waist deep. Thigh depth; it was almost back to the way it used to be.
Oh bugger it! Ten yards ahead there was a wall of rocks and white water - the roof was down. The way on was totally sealed by a massive collapse. Water spewed out from the rubble at ceiling level indicating total back-up behind the fall. Site No.3 up the Swannee.
That was Glencrief, Glengonnar and Gripps all gone - just as well it was sussed out first. It looks like the mining weekend to the Lowther Hills has just been knocked on the head, so it was back to the Museum for a coffee and a browse.
Next stop was Leadhills village to look up an old acquaintance who I haven't seen for 25 years; founder member of the Glasgow Speleological Society and local mine expert. If he was still alive I'm sure he'd have come to grips with Gripps - well he is still alive and here's what happened.
happened. Apparently with Gripps the passage collapsed totally sealing the drainage water and preventing its escape to the outside world. The water backed up inside the hillside until it was welling out the shafts on the same level as the village. With the water table now a few hundred feet higher than it should be, combined with the honeycomb of workings that were now full of water, total catastrophic destabilisation was now threatening the upper valley and village. A relief tunnel was driven into the shaft where the water was welling out at a level that should lower the water enough to safeguard the village; but the area between the relief tunnel and Gripps drain is still completely waterlogged and remains in a state of expected slump which would allow all the millions of gallons of trapped water to be released as a density flow down the valley.
Hence the fence - there are no wolves!