Treading the Tunnels of an Abandoned Mine in Wales

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  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    There’s darkness at the end of this abandoned mine tunnel.

    Outside there is sunlight and greenery and gentle breezes, but down here it is dark, damp and musty. Tunnels snake off around unlit corners, and no one knows for sure what lurks in the darkness. It’s an unnerving feeling being seemingly so far away from the world above. Fortunately for us, though, we’re only visitors – and vicarious ones at that – here out of interest rather than necessity. Yet it was a very different story for those who once labored here, mining for the minerals that were – and still are – so plentiful in this region.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    A rusty pipe snakes through this section of the mine.

    Garth Hill, in Cardiff, Wales, is part of the South Wales Coalfield region, an area rich in coal deposits and, in some parts, iron. For many centuries, people have been exploiting this fact. The nearby village of Pentyrch, for example, was once a Roman camp, the Romans having been attracted to Britain by its rich mineral deposits. However, even before their arrival, there is evidence that there was small-scale mining around Wales.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Light from above

    For most of its history, mining has been a backbreaking and hazardous occupation, as you can easily imagine looking at these old tunnels. During Roman times, slave labor was used to extract the precious ore, the ill-fated individuals chipping away with iron tools. It would have been a hard, miserable life, and for long periods – despite the shaft of sunlight seen in this photo – there would have been no ray of light for the miners. Well into the 20th century, conditions were still harsh, and until relatively recently, those who were sent down to endure them were the most vulnerable members of society: children.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Steel doors frame a chamber full of machinery.

    From the steel doors and machinery seen here, we might speculate that this mine was abandoned relatively recently in history. The heyday for Welsh mines, however, was during the 19th century – when mining fueled the Industrial Revolution – as well as the early 20th century. During this time, more coal went through Cardiff Docks than any other port in the world, and the mining of iron and other minerals also made up a significant share of its trade.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    This metal assembly stands where it was abandoned.

    Here, some kind of metal equipment sits in the tunnel; behind it, we can see only darkness… Most early mines in the South Wales Coalfield were “adits”. These are horizontal mines that are driven into mountains from the valleys, as opposed to vertical mines drilled down into the earth. There were several advantages to this type of level mining; for one, it is a lot easier and safer to move both miners and materials in and out of the mine.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Sunlight reflects off a dark pool.

    One of the limits for early miners was rising ground water, like this large pool, and until pumps were invented to drain this water, flooding was a real hazard. Adit mines tackled this problem by sloping upwards from the entry point, allowing the water to run out. Tunnels bored beneath the level of the drainage adit will inevitably flood, as will mines dug below the water table – unless, of course, the water can be pumped out using mechanical means or, as earlier in history, animal power.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    The tunnel continues almost horizontally.

    This long, straight tunnel, tapering off into darkness, is certainly spooky, although this hasn’t deterred previous explorers, if the graffiti on the wall is anything to go by. Mine exploration is a popular activity for various reasons. Some people are drawn to the history and archaeology of these old sites; others are attracted by the interesting geological formations exposed by the tunnels, or even by the sheer thrill of delving into abandoned subterranean passages.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Past visitors have left their mark.

    It looks like this mine had a visitor who was a music fan! Graffiti writing is, however, a breach of mine exploration etiquette, which suggests leaving things exactly as you find them. One of the reasons exploring abandoned mines is so interesting is that they can often be relatively untouched – the way the miners left them on their last day of work. As such, the inaccessibility of these underground tunnels is a definite plus.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    We wouldn’t fancy stepping into that water.

    If looking through these photographs gives you the urge to do a bit of subterranean investigating yourself, there are a few points to consider first. Disused mines, like natural caves, can be hazardous places. Indeed, in some ways these abandoned sites of industry are even more dangerous than natural underground formations, so some extra precautions are needed.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    The pool seems deep and dark.

    If there’s one necessity that stands out above all others while wandering through dark tunnels like these, it is of course a light source. In fact, quite a number of mine explorers set out with a flashlight as their only piece of equipment. This is not something that anyone would advise, but it does highlight the paramount importance of being able to see your way in such environments. A head flashlight is best (so your hands are free) and a backup is also essential.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    A pipe corroding in the damp environment

    As for your attire, it naturally depends on the type of mine you’re exploring and exactly how far into it you intend to go. When it comes to footwear, gum boots are advised over walking boots, since, as mentioned, mines without active pumps tend to fill up with water in places. Clothes, meanwhile, should be both protective and something you don’t mind getting muddy – a tough pair of overalls, for example.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    The pipe – perhaps used to pump water out of the mine?

    Since you’ll be in an underground environment with the possibility of falling stones or debris, a helmet is also a necessity. Even if something doesn’t drop on you, there’s always the chance that a low-hanging beam or jutting rock might catch you unawares. This brings us to another must-have for amateur cave explorers: a first aid kit. If you hurt yourself down here, it could be a while before you can get any proper medical attention.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Light painting the walls

    While you’re inside such fascinating spaces, it’s highly likely that you’ll want to take photographs of all those long spooky tunnels and intriguing pieces of old machinery. And to get good results in these surroundings, you’ll need a good quality camera and a tripod – as well as a lot of patience.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    This was most likely a pump

    Lighting can be the trickiest part about photography, and two of the best techniques are either waving a flashlight around while the shutter on the camera is open to get evenly-lit pictures (‘light painting’), or the more challenging method of ‘open flash’ – which requires an open shutter and pre-set flashes or slave units. Unfortunately, you’ll need to do more than point and click for great photographs. However, as you can see, the resulting pictures can be worth the effort.

  • Image: Lucy Chippindale

    Abandoned equipment left to rot away

    Old abandoned mines really are amazing places, and they can provide valuable insights into working methods used and conditions experienced by people in the past. We thank photographer and explorer Lucy Chippindale for sharing her mine photographs with us – so that we could enjoy this incredible underground environment without even getting our boots muddy!

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78910

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Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Outdoor Sports
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