Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Tuesday, 19 July 2016
Ghost Trains through dangerous places
Stepping over the stickiest of yellow mud, I made my way to the wooden office and put on the miner's helmet and battery pack. The pack also had a box on the waist strap which - I was told - monitored gasses like carbon monoxide and methane. There was no canary.
This stone mine had been closed during the war for use as a bomb-dump (see above), then someone had the bright idea of digging four feet out of the floor rather than the exhausted walls. This not only provided tons of good quality stone, but also provided the head-room needed for modern equipment.
Down in the centre, we all switched off our headlights and experienced something close to total darkness, with only the spark of an occasional neutron from some distant galaxy, piercing our retinas on its way to Australia and beyond. Without a map or a guide, you would get lost down there and be compelled to eat your candle.
At each junction to a side passage, curtains of thick plastic had been put up to assist the air-flow from the giant fan on the surface. Shockingly, the silence was broken by the sound of a diesel engine heading in our direction at great speed, then - with a blast of a horn and a blaze of blinding light - a machine pushed its way through the curtain as we pressed ourselves against the narrow walls to get out of its way.
As suddenly as it had appeared, it disappeared again as it sped madly off into the darkness. It was just like the Ghost Trains of the old fairgrounds of my childhood, except this time I was on the outside.
The end of the tour involved climbing up a relatively shallow shaft, and our guide pointed out the blackened ceilings on our way. Anyone guess what caused the blackness? I answered 'torches', but it turned out to be gunpowder burns from when they used to blast the stone out - in the 17th century! These were the days before they sawed the stone up into neat blocks.
I once ordered some rare Chilmark stone. The quarry is/was right in the middle of RAF Chilmark, so you actually have to sign a copy of the Official Secrets Act if you visit it, then they give you a pass and you walk between the offices and bombs to the mouth of the mine. The RAF base could well have been there simply because of the mine, when they filled them with bombs. One third of all bombs dropped on Germany were stored in a small, disused mine a quarter of a mile from my present workshop.
At the entrance to the steep shaft, there is a series of warning signs - a couple on general safety, one for silica dust in the atmosphere, and one yellow and black classic warning of Radon gas. Everyone who works down there stays as white in the Summer as when they went down in the winter. This is not a healthy place to work.
There is one danger which they did not warn me about, and that is the little diesel train which pulls the stone to the surface. They day I went down, they started the train and took it half way up the shaft with my stone on it, then it lost traction on the wet rails and came hurtling down, out of control. The driver managed to jump clear before it hit the buffers, and I pressed myself against the wall as it passed me by inches.
I had to have the stone re-cut and went back another day to collect it. A small price to pay for staying alive.