Caplecleugh, Nenthead Mines (Cumbria): Ian Cummins, Leif Andrews, Adele Ward, Elise Ward (12 March 2017).
Since I first got a good sniff of what people do underground, I have heard many tales of Caplecleugh. A mine few people have been down. Possibly few people would want to go down, well – that’s Caplecleugh. I had been biting at the bit to head down, and with the go- ahead from Ian for Sunday my relentless questions might soon be answered. In our wetsuits, torches on, I eagerly skip naively towards the danger sign and metal grid that appeared to be the entrance.
This place I learnt is not for people who mess about, or want to play around with any of this business. Under the metal gate, we walk through the water, with fluctuating water levels between our ankles and our thighs. As soon as we left the daylight, all that was behind had disappeared. I knew that was it, no turning back, I had completely committed to this trip – for everything it was, and everything it would give me.
I have always heard tales of the shale falls, and that a simple knock could be catastrophic, as they are unstable at the best of times. This of course was at the forefront of my mind as we approached them, it was essential they were touched by nobody. Apart from Ian…. he had quickly come to realize that from the last trip things had changed and parts of the ceiling have come down…what now? Turn around? Take the long way? With all the bags and heavy equipment we had we wouldn’t have lasted long. Ian, much to our surprise, all of sudden shouts back “there is going to be a bit of noise now”. Adele looks at Leif, I look to Adele and with that Ian starts to pull on the ceiling. A massive piece of shale left hanging was a hazard for people knocking, so Ian safely removing it seemed more prudent than leaving it.
We then head though a more open passage of shale falls, often in deep water. The classic photo of the head in the arch was taken; Adele attempts to use her new top-of- the-range camera, but as I have discovered, simple is often better. Leif takes an amazing photo of me with the light reflecting off the water with his yellow kiddie camera – truly remarkable photo, for a truly remarkable place.
At this point already I was beginning to feel the cold, the stress of the shale falls was nearly over now. It was a small climb up after Toilet Box Junction where we began to assemble our SRT kit. We were heading for Archer’s Rise.
Each pitch up onto the High Level had its own challenges for me, the first being a horrible, muddy ascent up some rather stiff rope. Much caution was suggested to me as to not to touch the side of the ore chute, as this unstable side of waste could invoke a slip if touched. Once topping this pitch, carefully placing my feet, I follow my cow tails along to meet Leif who briefs us on the next ascent. Not that I would describe it much as a pitch, but more of a scramble though dirty wet mud. Leif clipped in, he heads off leaving me to ponder for a second, to think… right. I needed to keep it in check; this was hell, or as close as I had come to it. I loved a challenge; I would do just about anything for a hit of adrenaline. My mind was purely not ready for the realities of this all though. There has always been a way out, or at least the option. Not here. I had to follow this through; even though about 40 minutes in I had clocked… shit this is hard. Crawling through passages, regretting the night before and how I should have rested, but could I do this; stood there clipped to a bolt as my only lifeline from falling into the abyss. I had to, these being the longest 8 hours of my life.
Snapping out of my thoughts of the utopia of the world above, I am joined up the pitch by Ian and shortly followed by Adele. We all stand, confirming our sanity to each other for being in the place.
Not hearing a ‘rope free’ from Leif has me hesitant to clip on, but with bellows from Ian and Adele, we all justify a faint noise as the responding call from above. Clipped in and off I go. A point on the pitch where I could not ask for help behind or above, I push on till I see the glimmers of Leif’s head torch. Much wriggling needed to get past and up to where he stands. We sit opposite each other and let out a sigh of not relief but exhaustion. Leif asks “do you want to rest or push on”. I reply “push on” – the quicker I am out the better.
Archer’s Rise dig next, my nerves, already frayed, were about to be shattered. Leif gives me one of the most serious looks I have had, topping both my parents. “Do not touch the arch”. The sentence was running though my head, repeating it to myself. It was the utmost importance I didn’t. Leif hurls the bags up the chute, leaving me at the bottom, yet again contemplating just about everything in life. With the okay from Leif to clip in, I did so ever so hesitantly. I hoist myself up the first bit and turn to see an unstable arch facing me dead on. I start to shuffle up the route encountering much difficulty not to touch it. This knowledge of the fact that touching it could bring us all to a sad end was the motivation to get up. With a stern sharp word from Leif after wandering limbs clip the arch I begin to panic ever so slightly. Leif, as my only companion now, shows a more reassuring side to him as he could clearly see I was minutes away from not getting up. I paused on the rope, I wanted to get out but I knew I had to calm down first. I topped the route finally and sat in silence as I heard Adele and Ian’s voices, coming up. Adele asking “everything okay” Leif replies with, and I quote “I think Elise just had a life changing experience” – to say the least.
We carry on now following through the passage. Deciding we should stop for some food, with some sugar to maybe put some colour back in my cheeks, Adele distributing the Mars bars and pork pies. I remain in my silence as the others look down a deep, bottomless pit just near where we all sit. Now on the High Level, we had not long to reach the point for us to start drilling. In this moment in time, I ask the question “this is a through-trip right?”
Adele looks at Leif, Leif looks at Ian, and in that they all exchange a look of “how do we tell her we are coming back the way we came.
There is never going to be a nice way of breaking this news to me. So Adele gave it to me straight. My response – laughter. I did genuinely believe they were joking. Praying this was another thing Adele and Leif were trying to wind me up about. Ian speaks up to confirm the bad news. I feel that rush of adrenaline that up top I love, down here I just wanted to wee myself.
Lunch packed up, we set off for another walk though passages, all blending into one. I will not lie; the next hour of the trip is a blur. Not from bad memory, but from my brain just not wanting to remember it. I recall be stood there at the back as Ian drives bolts here, there and everywhere to create a safe pitch down yet another bottomless pit. I could have been stood waist-deep in that water for 2 minutes or an hour I could not tell you, the passing of time is so blurred and to think it was only yesterday. I remain in silence as Adele and Leif help Ian. I was no good to them, I was cold and scared. It takes a hell of a lot for me to admit the tiniest weakness to anyone. I did not need to say any of that. They all read me like a book. In that mine on that day I worked out for myself one thing. Fear is relative to what you have experienced before that point of feeling it. Leif, Adele and Ian were fine at this point, not scared, but I would like to think that they maybe were the first time they were down here. I don’t think I will ever jump to the conclusion that someone else can do something just because it is in their physical capability. Fear doesn’t stop you doing it; it simply stopped me enjoying it.
We packed it in for the day and started to head out. This time everything was a lot simpler than coming up. With ease we all put the pitches behind us and stop for a break at Toilet Box Junction. Leif points out that I haven’t said a word for a very long time. Some sugar was a much-needed solution. I had my first Double Decker that day; that is the most positive thing I had coming out that trip. Everyone tiring now, even Ian had adopted a steady run to his usual sprint. I knew that physically I wasn’t that tired and that would be helpful to the larger member of the group who maybe it is fair to say had a harder time squeezing though the shale falls.
I pick up the bag and literally hurl it thought the cave using everything I had left. Each corner we pass by I hope the next I will see some sunlight. I never saw the sunlight as when we got to the exit it was dark, pitch black. Either way we were out. I was half temped to start kissing the ground, but decided that would take too much effort so resorted to hugging the car. We stripped off and headed to the pub. I had learnt from my mistake last time of ordering a blackcurrant and lemonade, Adele kindly offers me a half of cider. I slightly turn my nose up as I feel I deserve a bottle of whiskey to sooth the nerves. To everyone’s amazement, Ian orders a full pint; we sit flabbergasted as we all realized why he doesn’t order them. The proportion of Ian and a full pint glass – it just doesn’t look normal. Pub conversations follow, as Ian and Leif recant tales of their explorations on other days. Normally on the journey home I sleep from the engine turning on to parking on the drive. This time all I could think about was every bleeding second of that place.
I issue my own warning sign on this mine, if you want to measure how mad you are, head down Caplecleugh and see how long you can last. The sense of achievement is truly bewildering when you have come out, but for me, personally to ever want to go back down there again will take a lot of metal resilience and about a week of pure sleep for it to be on the cards.
I would not recommend it for a family day out, unless like my mother you have a teen you would like to traumatise. All jokes aside, it makes Smallcleugh feel inadequate to its big brother, Caplecleugh.