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Home > About Mine Exploration

About Mine Exploration

This page hopes to give some introduction to mining and quarrying in the UK and answer frequently asked questions about mine exploration as a hobby.

UK Mining History

The UK has a rich and varied mining heritage stretching back hundreds, and indeed thousands, of years.

From prehistoric metal mines through the huge development in mining driven by the industrial revolution to today's remaining large scale underground mines and opencast quarries, mining and it's legacy are all around us.

Look around you and you'll see evidence of mining and quarrying, be it working or abandoned mines, or the end result of the labour. Every stone building and bridge, every slate roof, every road and civil engineering project, every piece of machinery forged from metals dug from UK mines, all were extracted or use materials extracted from the ground.

Today the UK mining industry is far smaller than in its heyday. Entire communities once existed around mining; and mining was a way of life not just a job. It is hard to imagine how significant our mining industry has been to the development of the UK as we know it today.

So why explore disused mines?

All this activity has left a fascinating and varied legacy. No firm figures exist for the extent of the UK's underground kingdom, but it must stretch to many thousands of miles.

Couple that massive exploratory potential to spectacular mineral formations, formidable technical challenges to further exploration and the excitement of finding a new location and it is easy to understand why mine exploration is such a rewarding hobby.

Mine exploration also appeals to many people with an interest in industrial archaeology or history, both on a professional and amateur basis. Many artifacts remain preserved in our mines, safe from vandals and trophy hunters, and often lying where last used by a miner.

Finally it is impossible not to be impressed, and a little humbled, by the sheer physical achievement and effort that the miles of tunnel and massive stopes and chambers speak of. Techniques and mining vernacular may have varied around the country, but the effort, risk and comparative lack of reward for the miners did not. We can only guess at the hardships endured by the men, women and children who worked underground, or above ground in quarrying, in days gone by.

Few mine explorers can be failed to be moved by this connection with history, the feeling of walking in the footsteps of long dead miners; or the eerie quietness of an abandoned mine working, a stark contrast to the bustle and noise that would have accompanied mining.

Is mine exploration the same as caving?

No, mine exploration is a different activity to caving. Cavers favour natural cave formations, mine explorers explore disused mine workings.

That said, often people will have an interest in both, and much of the equipment and techniques used is common to the two hobbies.

I'd like to go mine exploring, what do I do?

Firstly, take care. Whilst any club or web site will say don't simply head off underground with a torch, many do. If you do choose this approach please take absolute care, be aware of potential risks, and respect access conditions.

Far preferable would be to make contact with other explorers in your area, through one of the web sites that cover the hobby. Most explorers will be happy to take a newcomer to the hobby on a trip and introduce you to this fascinating and rewarding passtime.

Alternatively many caving clubs arrange mine exploring trips, so you may find a club in your area.

What equipment will I need?

The equipment required depends on the type of explorations you are undertaking, as a minimum you will require:

  • Boots - most favour welly boots rather than walking boots especially if exploring a wet mine.
  • Headlamp - the best you can afford, your life depends on light, and carry a backup at all times.
  • Oversuit - mines can be dirty so an oversuit or boiler suit is a very good idea.
  • Helmet - a builder's helmet will suffice for walkabout mines where there is no risk of the helmet falling off, otherwise a proper caving/climbing helmet with lamp bracket is required.

Please also remember essentials like food and water, a first aid kit and read the disclaimer paying attention to exploring etiquette.

Once you are ready to begin SRT (single rope technique) to further your explorations then additional equipment is required, this will be covered in a separate article.

What about underground photography?

Underground photography is another very rewarding aspect of the hobby, and presents many interesting challenges.

Most underground photographers favour digital over film, however underground photography will quickly reveal any shortcomings in cheap digital cameras.

A good 'bridge' digital camera (a camera situated between compact digital cameras and DSLRs) is probably the best compromise between features, cost and size.

As a rule of thumb flash photographs tend to light only the foreground and often show up moisture and dust in the atmosphere. To get good underground photographs there are two common approaches, both of which require some time to set up, and a tripod:

  • Light painting - otherwise known as waving a torch around to evenly illuminate all areas framed in the photograph whilst the camera shutter is open. Halogen lamps often introduce an artificial warm glow in light painted shots, however modern LED or gas discharge lamps give a much purer white light.
  • Open flash - similar in that the camera shutter is left on bulb or a long timed exposure, however illumination is provided using pre-set flashses and slave units, or by moving around within the shot firing flash and taking care not to introduce shadows. Open flash is harder to master and slower to execute but can yield some amazing results.
  • Massive flash bulbs - using 60W, 100W or even 300W flash bulbs, some great effects can be achieved using this technique.

What might limit my explorations?

Many factors may limit your underground explorations, for example:

  • Access - mines are often on private land, or have access restrictions placed on them, please respect any such access conditions.
  • Decay - usually roof collapses in tunnels or chambers, or decay of false floors cutting off access to further sections of the mine.
  • Water - most mines required pumping whilst worked, and once abandoned will flood to their natural level, this may render part or all of a mine inaccessible.
  • Experience/skill - furthering exploration often involves rope work and specialist equipment, such skills take time to acquire. The underground is an unforgiving environment and all party members must be competent if undertaking more extreme explorations.

What about the dangers?

As has been observed, the underground is an unforgiving environment. A simple injury that would be an inconvenience on the surface, like a sprained ankle, can turn into a major epic if occurring many hundreds of feet underground. Be aware of all dangers you many encounter, including but not limited to:

  • Sudden drops - edges, shafts, bridges. Take care near edges, be observant of shafts and use rope protection when crossing bridges.
  • False floors - false floors are a hidden danger, they typically span stopes in metal mines. Be aware at all times of the possibility of false floors, it is often hard to tell a false floor from a normal tunnel floor, especially if the floor is covered in water.
  • Roof falls - roof falls do occur, but unpredictably, and occasionally triggered by noise or vibration. Be aware of recent falls and keep an eye on the tunnel or chamber roof for obvious loose material.
  • Bad air - foul or unventilated air which may make breathing difficult.
  • CO, CO2 - commonly known as 'black damp', concentrations of these gases will make you feel sleepy or out of breath and will eventually lead to unconsciousness and death.
  • Methane - commonly known as 'fire damp', an explosive gas that is most common in coal mines.
An archive photograph, miners at Vaughan Lead Mine (date unknown) An archive photograph, miners at Vaughan Lead Mine (date unknown, photo courtesy merddinemrys) A typical view of a level in a Welsh slate mine A typical view of a level in a Welsh slate mine A copper formation in a north Wales copper mine A copper formation in a north Wales copper mine Beginning a pitch using SRT to descend safely Beginning a pitch using SRT to descend safely Various slate quarrying artifacts Various slate quarrying artifacts A bridge over a chamber in a Welsh slate mine A bridge over a chamber in a Welsh slate mine Safely descending a deep mine shaft Safely descending a deep mine shaft Wisdom LED Miners Lamps Starless River - Caving Store Moore Books: Specialist BooksI.A. Recordings: Mining and Industrial History DVDs
Disclaimer: Mine exploring can be quite dangerous, but then again it can be alright, it all depends on the weather. Please read the proper disclaimer.
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