We gather in the dim space afforded by the overgrowing ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). The trees provide some shelter from the rain, after all, it is July in the Peak District. The key is brought forth. The old iron gate swings open. We step down into a small stream, and through the gate, passing under a stone reading “DEEP ECTON: DRIVEN 1774″. A tunnel arch leads inward, towards the heart of the hillside.
My wellingtons are in muddy water. The pavement beneath, which I cannot see, is uneven. The daylight fades, but my eyes have not yet adapted to the dim torchlight. Stumbling forwards, reaching out for the walls. Tracing my hand along the wall to steady myself, missing my footing as my hand discovers crumbling gaps in the walls. The dwarves that once worked this place left over 100 years ago; they must have been dwarves, for sure they were smaller folk than me, for I keep banging my helmet on the odd out of place stone in the ceiling. We are in Deep Ecton Mine, once the source of the Peak District’s copper.
After a short while, plaster gives way to (limestone) brick. Little nooks appear, presumably once filled with candles. Then the brick gives way to a rough unlined tunnel through the bedrock. The horizontal tunnel we are walking, stumbling, along would have been called an adit by the dwarves. Its upward slope is imperceptible save for the fact that we are walking through a stream; running downwards and outward to rejoin its brethren waters of the Manifold. My eyes are adapted now, and my foot and inner ear give me mostly steady passage.
We pause at the first “chamber”, a swelling of the rough tunnel. A crawl above a pile of rock debris, “deads” as the dwarves called them, leads to a much older, smaller, adit. Its roof has fallen in, now blocked and unsafe. A narrow shaft leads upwards, presumably once connecting to the surface. The surface, and all evidence of the outside world, seems very distant now.
Passages leading off into the gloom. Stepping over discarded ironwork, occasional rocks (fallen from the roof?), and… tramway sleepers. The adit would once have been busy with minecarts. I see a little metal tag marked with “A6″ (a modern survey tag). One dwarf has mezzotinted his initials, IB, into the wall with his pick. The whole thing reminds me of, well, what else but Colossal Cave (and damnit, why didn’t I think to try saying “PLUGH”?).
The “IB” chamber has a big rectangular hole in the floor. Full of water. We are on the lowest dry level of the mine (the entrance that we used is only a few meters above the River Manifold). Just around the corner we come to the main attraction. A huge vertical cavern, or pipe. Big enough to contain a house and extending upwards in a complex series of natural shafts, platforms, and other connecting chambers. The house would have to float, for the “floor” of the cavern is a gigantic pool filled with crystal clear water. No plant infiltrates, and no animal stirs the mud. A tiny waterfall chirps and trickles its way down into the pool from some higher cavern. Downwards, through the water, we can see that the pipe continues. Occasionally we can see massive wooden props, essentially whole mature oaks trimmed to a rough rectangle, fitted across where they once would’ve supported platforms. The mine continue downward, as does the pipe, for at least another 300m. But the underwater areas remain unexplored since a diver’s death here in the 1960′s.
This pipe is where the copper was. Formed when the bedrock flexed and cracked, allowing copper carrying water to seep in and deposit its lode. Of course the dwarves took all the copper, but we can see occasional spots where copper has remineralised and formed a greenish colouration on the walls (copper carbonate?). All around we can see places where the bedrock has bent into huge curves, cracked, and the cracks filled with worthless calcite (by contrast, the limestone bedrock nearer the entrace has no calcite veining).
This pipe was formed by hacking out valuable copper ores. The next cavern is 10 metres across and big enough to stand in (and in parts up to about 8m high). It was dug out not for copper, for it never contained any, but to house an engine. It is the engine chamber. Housing engines for pumping water out of the depths. Engines powered not by steam, but by horse, and by water. The amount of effort involved is quite incredible: all that worthless rock removed to create this large room, rivers diverted, engines installed, a vertical 300m oak beam (bolted in sections, naturally). All just to remove water so that the lower sections of the mine could be worked for their copper.
Then the tour was over. We had to make our way to the endgame before our batteries ran out and the cave collapsed (just kidding, another text adventure reference). Whilst we had been underground for quite a while, it didn’t take us long to go back along the adit and reach daylight and the smell of fresh air, a smell you really appreciate when you’ve been underground.
Thanks to the staff of the Peak District National Park who used their own time to give us the opportunity to see the mine and benefit from their experience.