Pit Props Passage, Speedwell - Phil Wolstenholme

Thursday, 21 March, 2013

Present: Boyd Potts, Wayne Sheldon, Phil Wolstenholme

This was a trip I've wanted to do for some time as the Pit Props Passage workings are of potentially great interest in the grander scheme of things geologically, and both they and the Whirlpool stopes are very important historically - and I had seen neither, so we decided to pay a visit to both. We got in on the first boat and I was relieved to see that water levels were much lower than they recently have been, in one case regularly overflowing in alarming pulses onto the visitor platform from the Far Canal. This time the water was much lower, though no warmer, and we made the usual frozen, gasping stagger to the iron gate and beyond - managing to avoid the sunken boat for once, which usually trips me up - with hilarious consequences.

Reaching Pit Props Passage, we slung onto the traverse line over the deep water (but most definitely still in the water)and grimly shuddered into the chamber beyond, which is surprisingly roomy, though completely dark brown from caked mud and very forbidding, with colossal collapsed boulders on the left, a murky pool ahead and two small openings at the end. The larger of these, an arch, appears to lead to workings above, but the way on is blocked by gravel and collapse. The right opening leads upwards into an ore-chute, excavated through solid rock (or possibly following a natural tube) and sloping steeply upwards for about ten metres - a handline helps, as it's extremely muddy. At the base of the ore-chute is a large stope excavated in the pipe - New Rake or Horsepit Rake, and a huge amount of poised gravel and deads make exploration of the interesting hole at the top rather risky.

Reaching the top of the chute, we found ourselves at a T-junction on a small vein, with pickwork everywhere, Right is blind, but left at the top leads through a tight squeeze into a larger natural chamber, with immense fallen boulders, and an old PB Smith dig (according to Wayne) on the right, heading down a phreatic tube with extremely rotten wooden supports, so that was avoided for now, sadly, but I'd like to know more on that one. We clambered up around the back of the boulders to find that the chamber corkscrews around into an even larger space -the whole cave is actually split by the boulders into two sections, top and bottom, but in reality is one large cavity in a sort of spiral. Climbing upslope on very loose gravel and mud, we were struck by the amount of stempling that has taken place by the miners - only two remain near the top, but the sockets in the walls indicate substantial working platforms below the roof, presumably working small veins up there, though there's not much to see now.

Halfway up the slope, the roof lowers, creating a natural arch before the final chamber, which again is of large dimensions, and beehive shaped - far more so than Leviathan as this actually has a domed roof. What's really interesting is that some of the walls of this chamber are solid, water-worn rock, whereas other parts are comprised of gravel and clay, very loose in places, and one can see how boulders would eventually just fall out of this loose matrix and tumble downslope. A very sandy wall (or rather, a wall of sand) prevented a climb up to the only possible lead we could see, and the whole place is rather sketchy, though very interesting, and I'd love to set some proper photos in there sometime.

After returning to the streamway we headed downstream to the Long Bypass to have a look at a certain dig there, but the entrance choke looked decidedely tight and possibly loose, and given that Boyd was getting cold and my back was killing me from being flat-out too soon after my injury, we decided to bail on that section and headed back up the Bung. Boyd decided at this point to go out, as he was freezing, so Wayne and I continued on up the streamway to Whirlpool passage.

The water was very low, and we headed upstream easily. I had never seen beyond the first stopes in the roof and walls - it seems more of an 'upper and lower deck' affair in reality, as the stream is often visible beneath through holes, or the stopes are visible above - it's all very 'open plan' compared to what I had imagined. I found a nice nugget of galena almost immediately too, which will go into the smelting bag. All the workings are in natural passage containing pipes and flattings - the miners chipped it out as they went, stacking the minimal deads behind them.

Reaching the Whirlpool, it was almost static, so we passed over into the final mined passage, which again was far larger than I expected, and driven in an oval cross-section along a pipe, At the end, now bone-dry and dusty, the passage reaches a 90° bend and a forefield, driven in a pink vein of calcite which visibly fizzles out toward the floor. There's a fantastic echo in this small chamber, and some very pretty mineralisation and some grafitti - 'AO, 19(obscured)'. I assume this will be 'Arthur Ollerenshaw, 1921', as I've seen this in Pit Top Passage recently.

After we'd explored as much as we could here, and conscious of time and the return frozen stagger, we abandoned a plan to have a quick look at Pilkington's Chamber, which would mean leaving via the Assault Course trapdoor, and set off for the iron gate instead. Luckily we timed our final arrival at the visitor platform just right, and managed to blag a lift back almost immediately, leaving us then only to negotiate the excrutiating hobble (on now-frozen stumps for feet) across to the unheated cafe building to get changed and try and shiver ourselves back into life.

A fantastic trip, and come summer, I am definitely heading back down there with the camera to do Pit Props chambers again. Thanks to Wayne for the lift and sorting out the boat, and to both he and Boyd for the company - good fun.