Looking down, head torch reflecting off the crystal clear water and making patterns on the tunnel wall, something stood out from amongst the slate riverbed. Something straight and wooden looking. It was a wooden sleeper from the mine railway tracks. Seemingly preserved for over 100 years by being constantly wet.
I found this discovery quite moving. In recent years very few people will have walked along the river bed of that mine tunnel. Just the occasional staff member, that’s about it. But how much history is contained within every single sleeper. How many people walked that same path all those years ago? I found my mind wandering: did they have any light (I already know they had to buy their own candles so tried to use them as little as possible, I also think candles would have blown out as there can be quite a draft in the tunnels?) How did they keep warm? Were the sleepers uniformly spaced so they could walk along them in the pitch black without falling?
I took a moment to reflect on my thoughts. In the constant cold I was stood there, in my work wear, wellington safety boots, jumper, coat, water proof, hardhat with head torch. I was thinking about how hard it was trying to install equipment in those conditions. That made me think: what would it have been like without modern clothes and safety wear? What would it have been like working with huge heavy lumps of slate, wet, in the freezing cold?
It wasn’t just the cold they had to contend with. There was the use of explosives, the noise, the fumes, the smell. The unrelenting dark, with men and boys staying in the mine from early morning until late in the evening, never seeing the sun during the winter months. There was the continuous threat of a collapse and risk of death. Fortunately, I didn’t have to contend with any of those things.
One thing I did find incredible was the amount of perfectly clear water. In the days of mining, pumps were used to keep the chambers free from water. How reliable they were I don’t know, I imagine there were a fair few failures, almost certainly leading to peoples’ deaths. Pumps are still used today. Water, though, flows everywhere underground. There are streams, pools of water, constant drips. There was even a waterfall as one higher level tunnel met the area we were working in. How hard must it have been to work in those conditions with little protection? How cold must it have been for the miners if they got wet through?
I certainly found the whole experience very emotional. I don’t think I can really comprehend the adversity faced by the men and boys who worked down the slate mines. As I stood there, looking at the sleeper, listening to the waterfall, alone with my thoughts, I realised just how lucky I am to be working and living in the 21st century, but more than that, I’m exceptionally lucky to have my job. A job that exposes me to environments and locations that most people don’t even realise exist and allows me to encounter first hand a small part of our history. But most of all, a job that allows me to have an emotional connection with that history making it feel even more worthwhile. Working hundreds of feet underground isn’t the most pleasant environment to work in, but I wouldn’t change anything about the experience and look forward to the next time.