Saturday, 27 June 2015
Deeper and Down
The mist had closed in, to the extent that I wasn't quite sure where we were. Our footsteps on the slate road sounded as if they were coming from somewhere distant, while the giant five-ton rocks lined up on either side of the road loomed, one by one, as dark sentinels in a milky world. No matter, we were on the pit road and it would be safe- there would be no blasting or activity today, I had made sure of that.
For months now, the sounds of thunder and falling rock from the big hole had been mingling with the screams of the zip-wire thrill junkies, their cries carried on the wind to this side of the hill. My curiosity was piqued by the constant noises. I wanted to go up to the badlands and take a quiet look over the edge of the opencast...
On the way up, it quickly became obvious that the weather topsides belonged to a different world. It had been a warm summer evening in the valley. Now, the mountain glowered above us in his dark war-gear, a tattered, black mantle of cloud above his head. Trouble was probably afoot.
Generations have scraped and blasted the back out of this old place; beginning in the early 1800's with a few nibbles here, some discreet adits there. Later, there was more serious, organised delving into the igneous bowels of the beast, past the Tuffs and Microgranites, Quartz intrusions and Breccias, past ossified Shale beds until finally, slate was found, deep below the horizon of millions of years. Into the dark , empty belly of the mountain, hewn by countless gnarled hands, other treasures were placed. For a while it was given the misguided status of a bolt-hole for the chosen few, worried about the ultimate folly of nuclear war. The thought of royalty and capitalists emerging from the main adit into some post nuclear dawn, to be picked off and eaten, one by one, by the survivors of a hideously misshapen, zombie benefit claimant underclass who ultimately inherit the earth...it has a certain charm.
Thus, we found ourselves descending into the pit. The lid was blasted off many years ago, leaving a gigantic scar and a lot of gangue rock to be got rid of. All this accomplished by a couple of blokes and a lot of bang. These days it helps to have a big Cat or two, some all-terrain tippers and a line in slippery talk to distract the bank manager. The old boys round here still talk of the "old man" with unconscious irony- the generations tapping away on the ribs of time, men that gave their lives and passed on the knowledge now carefully measured out between the rock falls. They say there's no respect for the old ways, but that has to be uttered sotto voce in this place.
We came to a gathering of huts that looked as if it had fallen victim to a post-nuclear zombie attack. Everything was smashed or burnt and the office ransacked. One of the surviving folders in a filing cabinet was labelled with the name of an old part of the quarry. I felt warmth at the use of this old term, as if somehow there was an echo of respect amongst all this chaos. We walked further down the road, taking nothing, touching nothing, leaving just our footprints.
A brief movement of the wind parted the curtain of mist, revealing a working face, guarded by the inevitable big Cat. I was astonished to see how deep the pit had become- the big chamber we'd seen a few years ago was now marooned high above and an adit had been exposed, iron rails pointing out like the legs of a dead insect. We took photos before the mist fretted back in, swirling everything again to grey.
There are no treasures now, save the slate, which is all they, the delvers, diggers and agents of destruction ever wanted. All this mischief ... for what? I don't know; it was always thus, except that in the past, the cost was measured in human suffering. Up here, the few that pass rarely glimpse the cleverly concealed pit or smell the diesel. They hurry by, as if passing a beggar with a gigantic bowl on the street. We kept looking back as our truck grumbled down the steep road, until the mountain disappeared gradually from view behind the mist. Back up there, a corrugated sheet, coming loose from the eaves of one of the utility structures, was scraped one way, then the other by the wind. Marking a few seconds in the endless stretch of geological time.