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Bill at Killhope Mine

Images: Bill Aitchinson ACA

Killhope is not, as the name might suggest, a Finnish death metal band, it is a place in county Durham where there is a museum that has been set up on the site of a former lead mine. As well as the museum, there are a number of other restored buildings, some impressively large clunky pieces of Victorian machinery and then there is the mine itself.

Before entering the mine we all had to put on helmets, rubber boots and take our lamps. While I have been on a couple of cave tours before, one very wild one in China and a very measured touristic one in Belgium, this was quite different as it was a tour of an underground workplace, whereas the others had been tours of caves as interesting natural environments.

Our guide started by explaining the geology. Once again the Great Limestone came up and once again I failed to fully grasp it. There were a lot of details but not much of a story to hold onto so I watched her wave her hands like she was directing traffic in slow motion.

There were twelve of us in the group and four of our party were children. This set the tour up as one with the children at the centre of it with their parents watching on and one or two strays like me to make up the numbers. The guide was good at involving the children and giving them things to do, so good in fact that the tour was pitched mainly for them. Here they are dropping grass into the stream to see which way the water is flowing. They were given the role of being the guide's 'little helpers' and so they were playing with mining tools, shining their lights on things, answering questions and so on.

We entered the mine trudging through ankle deep water. As the passage continued, we left the daylight behind us and the ceiling dropped a good deal lower. It was then that it struck me that at 1 meter 89, I  am completely unsuitable for mines. While I was crouched low at the knees and waist, sloshing my way through the water, I thought about my grandfather and great grandfather who both worked down mines. I am trying to track the family history right now, as I was told that my great grandfather was actually in Allenheads at one point, but I've not managed to pin this down just yet. In any case, they and other parts of the family worked in lead and coal mines in Northumberland and Lanarkshire and would have been only too familiar with this desperately unhealthy environment.

After a good while of walking through water and standing around in shallow pools, we entered a drier part of the mine. Here the guide show us how the lead ore can be seen in the seams running through the rock. She then said that what we were looking at was not rock at all but a fibre glass replica. For health and safety purposes, Killhope had constructed a visitor section to the mine where they took tour groups. They did at least made a reasonable job of it, but it did feel somewhat absurd to go into a mine to look at a replica mine.

Towards the end of the tour, the guide asked us all to turn off our lamps and count to thirty to experience the darkness. One of the kids put their torch on in the middle and we had to start again, but once the darkness settled it was powerful. I would have liked it to have lasted longer, a lot longer, since seeing it is one thing but really feeling it is another. It was, all the same, good to have done as I never normally encounter this degree of all consuming blackness onto which I began to project all manner of things that are in the eyes and in the head. I was talking to Alan from ACA who said he also takes people down the mines around here and his trips are more overtly experiential, giving time and a frame to really feel this unique and otherworldly environment. I want to go!

There was a moment of light relief when we inspected a miners' portable toilet. I had never really thought about it before but of course human waste needs to be removed from the mine. It would not be an option to just let it accumulate for months or years on end.

Coming back out and looking around the site I reflected that there is much made of the golden age of the British Empire, particularly today it seems. I had to then think about the living and working conditions of the miners back in the 19th Century, who I am a direct descendent of. That these men and boys should have to work in such a place as this for such miserable pay, that they would inevitably die early deaths, old men by the time they were 40, and that there was a constant supply of men so desperate that they would accept these conditions, makes me see only too clearly how this golden age is nothing but a lie. The wealth of a few was made on the backs of a great many. Today's Victorian nostalgia carefully downplays this side of the story and I see this aestheticising of that epoch as not co-incidental with the last 35 years of tory dominance when social mobility has been plummeting. The chances today of a young man from a mining family embarking upon and completing a Doctorate in the arts, are slim to say the least. Whilst this mine tour was in no way a political tour, it was a children's educative tour that threw in a little social history, I experienced it somewhat at the time and more so upon reflection, as a political one. This makes me think that I would rather like to take a overtly political mine tour with an ex-miner, perhaps even a former trade union representative, like my father was. I think, for example, it is no surprise Thatcher closed the mines and this sort of tour would, I suppose connect history with contemporary political activism. Buried in the mines are not only minerals, but also stories. Lets hear more of them.

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