Saturday, 21 May 2011

Secrets from the Belly of the Bare Hill

Foel Gron is a fascinating place, especially if you are a climber or a geologist. It's not pretty, but the way the rock has been laid bare by successive generations of exploitation leaves an intriguing, haunted landscape.
The huge, daylit cavern, strewn with countless sharp chunks of newly fallen slate, was one of the highlights of our first visit last year. It was as spectacular as it was unexpected, the towering walls inside the chamber lit by a golden beam of warm light from the summer afternoon sun, streaming in from an entrance punched out from the rock. I'd remembered it long after I'd forgotten my annoyance at not being able to explore further because, at the time, we didn't have powerful enough lamps.

Now, it was a year later, and we had more than enough battery powered light to cope with the dark mysteries of the mine. But this time, it was the sun that fell short of requirements. Dark clouds rumbled over the sky, heavy with the promise of rain.  Right away, the atmosphere of the place was different. There was a brooding, sombre feeling as we walked through the chaotic sea of slate where the mine had been untopped, marvelling at the huge long shot blast lines in the rock. The people that ripped this place apart had certainly meant business. We reached the entrance, probably part of a chamber underground at one time, but now exposed like a guilty secret.

The place needs to be explored with great stealth, as rocks fall continually from the roof. There were several lethally sharp-edged, huge boulders on the floor that hadn't been there last time. A good strong mining helmet wouldn't be much use here, although somehow it does make you feel better when you wear one. We picked our way as quietly as we could down into the chamber. The old slate waggon was still there in the gloomy pond, quietly oxidising in the clear, dark water. The sloping floor was a crazy jumble of unsteady slabs, so each step had to be taken with care. A fall among these rocks had to hurt...I'd rather not put it to the test. . We eventually made it to where we'd reached last time. Our lamps played around the walls of the cavern, noticing things we'd missed. A low tunnel hidden by a massive pile of rubble...another passage, leading behind a new roof fall. I turned around, dislodging a chunk of slate.
There was a hoarse, terrifying cry as a raven took off from a ledge, high up in the roof of the chamber. He or she flew with effortless grace out of the entrance where a discussion began with another raven outside. The bird flew back in again moments later, settling once more on the nest. Now, we had to move about with even more care so as not to disturb the creature again.

We explored the low tunnel. It was flooded and the water was very cold, but the most intriguing thing was that all the underwater surfaces were covered in a sugary white deposit. In our 46 mines explored to date, we'd not seen anything like that. A little more mooching around confirmed Petra's suspicion that the most recent roof fall had rendered the back of the chamber unsafe. Ten ton slabs were perched, ready to fall at any moment, their edges sharper than a kitchen knife. We were both bitterly disappointed, as we felt sure a way could have been found to another chamber, deeper into the hill.

We made it out again without disturbing the Raven, or the roof of the cavern. I disconsolately mooched about , while high above me, two holes gloomed out from another chamber. They were inaccesible to most mortals, although I had read that an explorer had climbed up to one, only to find that it opened out onto a deep, dark place with no way of getting down inside. I kicked about at the base of the cliff, thwarted. Then Petra pointed out the remains of a very low tunnel that had been almost completely eclipsed by blocks of rubble at the foot of the cliff. We hadn't spotted it before.
Petra squeezed her way in almost before I'd decided it might be possible. She grinned at me from inside. The game was afoot again!
I was nursing a sore back from a silly fall the previous week on some damp slate slabs, so the shimmy in to the adit was accompanied by some interesting curses...but it was worth every vertebra stretching moment. We were in a comparitively spacious adit which led on to a massive vertical drop into a dark abyss. We'd found another large chamber, illuminated by the eerie light from one of the holes above. Shining the lights across, we saw that the opposite wall contained a counterpart adit to ours, marooned when the miners drove further down. Frustratingly, the drop looked a big one and there appeared to be no safe way in, except by abseiling. That entrance across the divide was so fascinating. Why do we mine explorers always hanker after that which is just out of reach, or is that simply life?

We shone the torches around and Petra spotted a rust-filigreed old shovel sitting against the wall. A chunk of flat-bottom tram rail was lying in a pool of water. Then, our eyes becoming accustomed to the place, we saw a branch off our adit, masked by the darkness in the tunnel. There'd been a fall, by the looks of things but it was still possible to shimmy carefully up and see that another dark chamber beckoned. This might need some serious effort, best left until the back was fully recovered. We weren't disappointed, though. The hill had given up another of it's secrets, and I'll be writing again once I can stand up properly!

Next time...


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Your second photo has beautiful lighting and really captures a sense of scale.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks Graham. Glad you liked the photos!

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