Being a Layer is a tricky and demanding business, and not just for Caleb’s sandwich wrangler. A rigorous training programme is in place to cover every eventuality and, in preparation for our shady sponsors demanding that we obtain a long-hidden relic from an abandoned tomb (you’d be amazed how often this happens. Damn sponsors…) Paul and Neil spent a cheerful Saturday exploring the limestone mines that honeycomb the area below Wiltshire’s picturesque Box.
We quickly attached cheap head torches to builders’ hard hats and then, preparations about as half-arsed as was possible, we met up with a few of the local underground community.
Box Freestone Mines was a source of limestone from Roman times until the 1970s, when mining finally ceased for good. Freely accessible until recently, the entrances have been gated off for safety and preservation of what is now designated a site of Special Scientific Interest.
A brief stroll through sunny woods brought us to a barred entrance in a hollow; even yards from the entrance, the change in the air temperature was palpable, bringing a chill to the summer morning.
Ducking down to scramble through the entrance we were confronted with a small chamber full of tumbled rocks, with litter and graffiti evidencing the incursions of local youths. The graffiti is a shame, as in places in the mines it obscures the writings of miners from hundreds of years ago - some official mine business, some in the same vein of its modern counterparts and some hauntingly poetic.
The survey maps of the mines, laminated A3 sheets, show the incredible extent of the tunnels. The maps have almost biological look, dendriform, resembling old biology textbook drawings, dead ends and short passages branching off longer passages that join sections of the mine. Once inside it is tremendously difficult to match the map to what you see - below ground your sense of direction is thrown off; one part of the mine looks much like another and falls have changed the layout over the years.
The ceilings are pitted with pick marks, corners indented with grooves cut by the ropes that hauled stone. There are pockets in the walls where scaffold planks were inserted and others, soot-stained, that held lamps and candles. The hardship of working down here must have been incredible.
Making your way about the passages is a demanding business - even the uncollapsed passages are uneven and damp underfoot and, in a helmet and head torch, just strolling these easy corridors needs concentration. Some parts of the mine are flanked with piles of stone too small or uneven to be worth removal, representing a hazard as they are prone to easy collapse.
Navigating the falls gives an insight into the dangers that must have accompanied the mine workers. Huge stones have fallen from the ceiling, leaving gaps to be traversed with great care. Some rock with weight on them and the noise they make brings a thrill of primal fear - an almost subsonic, percussive grinding as much felt as heard - it is easy to imagine that sound and cracks opening in the ceiling, the panic of men trying to clear the area.
Scrambling, climbing and sliding, we travelled through the mines, stopping off to see stations where stone saws were sharpened, crane points and wells. Again, we marvelled at the physical demands placed upon the miners. After photographing some of the better-preserved mine workings, the party split, some of the more experienced cavers taking the youngsters in the group out while a small group of us tried to find the way towards a section of the tunnels pressed into military use.
At once, the incredible difficulty of navigating was apparent. There are few unambiguous reference points and it is difficult to whether the marking on the map is the tunnel in front of you without making a brief exploration. This makes progress incredibly slow.
On your own, the little cone of light in front of you is all you can see. The absolute dark is always in the periphery of your vision, as you move, it seems to follow you, as if chasing you along. It’s really quite disconcerting.
Finally, after one wrong turn too many, we abandoned the attempt to see the military tunnels for another time. After a brief stop off at The Cathedral, a huge cavern where daylight streams in through a hole in the roof, we made our way to the Back Door, crawling on our bellies to a tiny grate that released us into another little wooded dip.
As an introduction to caving, we couldn’t have been better looked after. Our guides were confident, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. We were a little disappointed by the absence of Doug Maclure, rubber monsters and Morlocks but I assume that our guides were saving those for a subsequent expedition.
Our attempts at taking pictures were disappointing but others have made far less of a hash of it, so in lieu of our blurry efforts, take a look at http://www.mineexplorer.org.uk/boxmine.htm
The extent of the mines beneath the hill at Box is astonishing. They are a wealth of historic and scientific interest and if you’re offered the chance to visit, we would highly recommend it. If we get a chance to shoot a video down there and you fancy starring as a cannibalistic troglodyte, drop us a line…
Layers out (safe and sound!)