21 February, 2011

Brown's folly and Britain's bowels

The day definitely smelt of adventure at a scale very different from anything else I'd been involved in. Underground mine exploring. With two British blokes. Hard hats and head torches. Knee-pads! Packed lunch and energy bars. Everything else of course was the same. No points for guessing the colour of the sky. Grey.

The Brown Folly Mines near Bath are 18th century Bathstone mines. If you walk across the uniformity of British towns, you can be pleasantly surprised by a change in colour of the buildings. A yellow stone with soft honey tones. Most popularly used in the Buckingham Palace. The landscape of Bath is characterised by this lovely stone which was much sought after in the 19th and early 20th century. The Brown Folly mines were used uptil the mid 19th century to mine large blocks of Bathstone. It was also  used an air raid shelter and ammunition storage point during the two World Wars.

Bathstone giving the city of Bath its characteristic honey tones

J kept us entertained through the trip. Tales of different mines across the UK, his innumerable pairs of gloves and wellies, of shimmying across particularly tiny passages, being at the rear end and then having to tolerate someone farting a "fart you could chew on"! We trekked around Brown's Folly, a tower built on a hill for no apparent reason other than (perhaps) the breathtaking view it has of the charming city of Bath (which we discovered through a rather daredevil dash up some steps of very ambiguous character). After an hour of  walking we found our way into the mines via Muddy Hole. 

Brown's Folly. My see tower, must climb policy was rewarded with a lovely view of Bath.
But for all his stories, nothing J said prepared me for the world of the underground. The silence and eerie passageways. The dripping water and way our torches illuminated little windows to the past.  We were breathing history. An old rusting tool lying in a corner.  Some nails had fallen out on to the floor. Over the  stone, some charcoal inscriptions of an old miner. "Walter Harding, 1896". "G. Peacock 1901." And then next to it "Y. Peacock Junior 1931."

At places the mines had collapsed, leaving a sad trail of unwanted stones. At some places the dripping water formed beautiful intricate calcite structures. There were miniature stalactites and 'cave pearls' - ivory coloured little rounded calcite pearls formed by centuries of dripping water. The tiny bats, cocooned in their papery wings, hanging like miniature fruits from the walls. There were abandoned stables with troughs filled with water, as if waiting for their horses to claim them. The miners had ingeniously carved tiny channels into the rocks siphoning the dripping water into the stone troughs to keep them full at all times. We came across rotting wooden supports kept to keep errant stone slabs from coming down, now being eaten by fascinating varieties of fungi. The breakfast room where miners would have eaten. Tallies on the wall in coal, counting the number of stones quarried that day in some forgotten century. There were cart tracks on the floor of the horse-driven carts and rail tracks which the miners used to carry stone out of the mines.

Stone troughs filled with naturally dripping water

As we sat at "Clapham Junction", known thus because of the number of tracks crisscrossing at this particular place, the silence enveloped us. With our torches off, we were bathed in an inky blackness, so complete and alien in its embrace. When on, the light bounced off the yellow stone, dancing a spirited shadow dance over the abandoned rail tracks, over the names of miners long dead, over a few coke cans from a more recognizable era, over carbon prints on the stone where candles had been kept. 
Some places were huge rooms, created as the miners must have removed large blocks of stone, some places were a squeeze because they had fallen in. To see some stables dating back to the early and mid 19th century, we found ourselves on our tummies, squirming our way between the roof and a bed of rocks. Gasping between quick sessions of scrambling, I quivered to think of getting stuck in a caved in mound of stones. 

A very poor picture of the mines. Better ones here

In spite of spending five hours underground, the time to come back to the 'real world' came too soon. Amidst "Oh blimey, I don't want to get back overground!" and "Bejesus that was awesome", I knew I was truly in England. Gulping down some delicious Butcombe (seriously, butt comb??) like how the miners would have done after a day at work, I felt like I'd tasted a delectable slice of history.

13 February, 2011

"There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more."

- Lord Byron


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