Torch beams flicker off the faces of awestruck explorers and against the vast stone walls of the Cathedral – yet imposing though this place certainly is, it is no Christian place of worship; indeed it might be deemed as close to the bowels of hell as to the loftier reaches of heaven. Pitfalls and other dangers lurk in the gloom, but so too rare treasures. Antique, decaying machines materialise in the glow, whispering of times past when men toiled here by the thousand to earn their daily bread. This is the Box Freestone Mine, an Aladdin’s cave for the UK’s mine exploring community.
Named after the nearby village of the same name, the Box Mine of Wiltshire is made up of a massive network of disused mining tunnels. It is known to have been worked since Roman times and was gradually enlarged over the centuries – reaching its peak stone production in the 19th century, before a steady decline that led to operations ceasing altogether in 1968.
Those who venture into the Box Mine today must do so via one of several entrances in wooded quarries. Once underground, finding a route is extremely tricky. With over 90km of passages, it is easy to get lost if you are not careful to keep your bearings. Moreover, the darkness is almost total, so losing light could make it impossible to exit the mine. Carrying multiple light sources and spare batteries is a must.
In spite of such risks, the Box Mine’s deep, multi-layered history ensures it is an exceptional place, as anybody who’s even begun to investigate its enormously complex system of tunnels will testify. Rigsby is a seasoned urban explorer who has visited and photographed many sites around Britain and further afield, but he still reserves a place in his heart for the Box.
“For me there are two main things that make Box a special place to explore,” Rigsby told Environmental Graffiti. “The first is the artefacts left in the quarry like old tools, cranes and workers’ graffiti. These things really give you a good idea of what quarry life was like. The second would have to be an area known as the Cathedral, which is a 100-ft shaft that was used to haul stone out. When the sun shines down the shaft and lights up the chamber it looks magical.”
Yet despite the luminescent allure of a location like the Cathedral, the Box Mine holds darker threats, some of which would remain unseen no matter how much light were cast on them. The ground beneath one’s feet is not always sound, and shafts may lie concealed under debris in the black. Suffocating bad air, meanwhile, is a potential peril in the innards of any mine; ask anyone who has been down into one.
“This was one of the very unstable parts of the mines,” explains explorer Nathan Roker, referring to one particular expedition in the Box. “Clambering over rocks the size of cars, looking for one fall straight ahead, when actually there are five falls going in every direction. We decided to go back the easy way, the way we knew, and it was at this point we could smell something wasn’t quite right.”
“Someone was burning somewhere and we could smell it from all the way deep in the mine back to the entrance,” continues Roker . “Getting to the smaller, un-surveyed links, the burning was now more fumes and gas. We could see it through the torch beam and taste it in the air. It didn’t taste good. We made a hasty retreat back to Cathedral, ever aware of the gas we had to walk through, and the complete lack of any ventilation.”
Despite the fear and adrenalin, Roker and his group kept their cool, and returned to discover the source of the fumes: a candle burning away with sausages cooking over it, and the whole lot belching thick smoke. Another group who had arrived after them were responsible. Carelessness wasn’t the word. “Blatant fucking ignorance” was more like it. Rigsby doesn’t mince his words.
With or without human negligence, Rigsby agrees danger comes with the territory: “There are lots of hazards in Box. The first is the sheer size of the place and how complicated it is to navigate. Box is made up of three A3 maps and without them you would have no chance.” No chance indeed – and yet the scale of the maps themselves can be deceptive, while the layout of the mine may change slightly due to collapses.
As workings age, the ceilings of passageways and chambers can fail. “There are lots of places in Box where the roof has fallen down,” concludes Rigsby. “In these areas I take lots of care not to touch anything that could result in the roof falling on my head. Also when you have to climb over a fall, if you slip or trip it would be easy to break a bone. There are a few deep wells that if you fell down you would have a job getting back up.”
Of course, facing fears like precipitous drops is a mine explorer’s lot, and the Box Mine has enough prizes to make it worthwhile. Besides the Cathedral, there are other impressive features still present, including work benches, great timber supports, stone working saws and – tucked well away – brick sculptures such as the famous ‘robots’, which stand like figures of pagan mythology.
The workings in the Box Mine are generally large, which means most of the way is well above head height, with not much in the way of crawling parts. Occasional airshafts appear overhead, while trains can sometimes be heard below passing through the adjacent Box Tunnel, a two-mile railway tunnel built under the direction of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel between 1836 and 1841.
The Box Mine itself was used to extract limestone, which served as the material for many of the buildings in the local area. An added surprise is that the mine complex also had military uses during WWII: as well as the three main sections of the mine – northern, central and southern – there is a Ministry of Defence installation in the east comprising abandoned old wartime tunnels.
These days, the Box Mine gives refuge to more animal than human occupants, as the site’s chief biological interest lies in its roosting bats. Used year-round by the winged mammals, the caverns’ main purposes are for hibernation, breeding and post-breeding activities. It is believed the mine’s size offers stable humidity and even temperatures favoured by the bats. Up to 10% of the total British population of greater horseshoe bats uses the mine at times, plus several other species.
Intrepid mine explorers and the bats that inhabit this spellbinding underworld seem to agree that Wiltshire’s Box Mine is a subterranean space if not to be revered, then certainly deserving of the utmost respect.
With special thanks to Rigsby and Nathan Roker for permission to use their photography in this article.