Going underground in Derbyshire’s only remaining lead mine

Changing drill holes ready for blasting

Changing drill holes ready for blasting - Credit: Archant

Sally Mosley visits Milldam Mine at Great Hucklow to meet today’s ‘T’owd Men’

Mark and Johnny, both highly experienced miners

Mark and Johnny, both highly experienced miners - Credit: Archant

Since Neolithic times men have mined our Derbyshire hills for ore and minerals. Initially using antler picks then lump hammers, mining equipment has certainly improved and evolved over the centuries.

The Romans settled in this part of England from the first century AD as they discovered it was rich with galena (lead ore) which they named plumbum. Medieval miners were known as t’owd men. However the most prolific and profitable era for lead mining was probably from the 18th century to the end of the 19th century.

The Peak District is proud of its industrial heritage and mining history, with lead mining thought by many to be a thing of the past. Few may be aware that lead ore is still being extracted deep below ground and I went on an adventure to see what could be described as the only lead mine in Derbyshire.

Old Mill Dam Mine at Great Hucklow was originally worked for lead until 1885. At that time miners discarded other minerals they found as waste, but it is now these spoils and discarded veins that are rich pickings, financially viable in the 21st century mineral market. A hundred years after its closure the new Milldam Mine opened in 1985 to extract fluorspar and barytes with lead ore as a by-product.

Dave, a seventh generation miner

Dave, a seventh generation miner - Credit: Archant

Instead of using the original deep shaft on the edge of the village to access the mine, it was decided to re-open as a drift mine with a large tunnel entrance from a new site situated nearby in an out-of-sight sunken compound. Interestingly the unusual strong walls that enclose it are made from tunnel linings left over from the construction of Carsington Reservoir.

There is little to show on the surface apart from a cluster of cabins and mining machinery that lead towards the gaping mouth of the tunnel entrance, but once within it is like entering another world, a deep dark labyrinth.

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When Daniel Defoe travelled through the county in the 1720s he came across a lead miner and described him as being a ‘subterranean creature clothed all in leather with the appearance of an inhabitant of the dark regions below’. Today’s Milldam miners are certainly more colourful, dressed from head to toe in ‘high vis’ outfits, although they still wear heavy leather belts to which they attach their safety lamp and self rescue kit.

After a health and safety induction I was kitted out appropriately – no Bradder Beaver hat, candle and kibble – with a battery powered lamp, a self rescuer (gives an hour’s breathable air in smoke/fumes), hard hat, high vis jacket and a pair of ear plugs plus visitor’s tag on the ‘in the Mine board’.

Scooptram loading crude ore into a dumper

Scooptram loading crude ore into a dumper - Credit: Archant

Miners of old would have struggled and scrambled down shafts then walked along narrow levels to reach distant workings, many staying below ground for days before returning to the surface. Milldam Mine is a complex network of tunnels just large enough for wheeled machinery to operate and negotiate and I was to be chauffer-driven by Paul in a 4x4!

It was exciting to descend into the mine, not unlike a theme park Black Hole ride. At times the sides were supported by steel arches and timbers but for the most part we drove between walls of solid limestone, rough and hewn. With 300 feet of shale above us and 350 feet of limestone below, we were to follow the Hucklow Vein taking us deep beneath the hillside, heading east in the direction of Eyam.

The mine operates on levels called Subs, with workings currently taking place on Sub 2 with the development of Sub 3 recently started. In time, there are plans for tunnels to be driven as far as Sub 6 some 650 feet below surface where they will reach the last of the minerals before the volcanic horizon cuts off the mineralisation at ‘rock bottom’.

Following the vein can be fortuitous to landowners above no matter how deep the miners dig as royalties have to be paid. Every year a representative from Milldam attends the ancient Barmote Court in Wirksworth.

Johnny preparing to blast

Johnny preparing to blast - Credit: Archant

Suddenly the tunnel began to twist and turn with regular side workings (slits), becoming an underground warren of routes. As the vein turns then so does the tunnelling!

We made our way to Sub 2 at the western end of the mine on the North Vein where there is an ebbing and flowing waterfall on one of the headings (rock face). This can drip or pour depending on weather conditions on the surface. All water in the mine eventually makes its way down a sough (man-made drainage channel) to Stoney Middleton from where it flows into the Derwent. Regular checks are in place to make sure there is no pollution.

Around the corner on Slit 1 East was a heading where a pattern of drill holes was being charged with explosives for blasting. It was exciting to see Colin charging sticks of gelignite into a succession of holes around a central bore called the ‘bull hole’ using a long pole. These were primed with detonators and wires for a sequential explosion that would be split seconds apart and instantly reduce a 4 metre square section of solid rock to 100 tons of rubble.

A thin red fuse wire was laid down the main tunnel to an exploder battery where we took shelter in a slit (side working). When the blast went off there was a loud ‘duph’ noise and a strong rush of air whipped past me followed by silence and a strong smell like sparklers.

One of the headings with a drill rig

One of the headings with a drill rig - Credit: Archant

We hurried back to the car before smoke engulfed us. Onwards and downwards the 4x4 bumped and jostled to the eastern end of the mine. By now my bearings were well and truly gone! At one point we met a large dumper truck, one of four that carries between 8-18 tons on a 45-minute round trip to the surface. Momentarily there was a ‘high noon’ of headlights before we reversed from the single track into a side tunnel.

Shortly afterwards we passed the entrance to the old workings of Black Engine Mine where the shaft is now designated as an emergency escape route. In a crisis miners can be winched out to emerge on farmland near Bretton. Old mine workings are generally marked on mine plans but test drilling is carried out when in the vicinity of them in case they contain water or the old lead miners waste.

Eventually we arrived at ‘C’ West level where Phil the driller was working on one of the long-hole rig drills like a massive Black & Decker that bores deep into the rock. He also uses a puma, a hand held drill and modern equivalent of a lump hammer. Dave is a seventh generation miner who first went underground at 18 and has worked in coal and gypsum mines but now drills at Milldam. During his career he has worked at Hucknall, Billsthorpe, Welbeck and Daw Mill, all have since closed.

John was operating the massive ‘Thunderbird’ like Scooptram. This remote controlled loading shovel was filling a dumper truck in the narrow tunnel, with only inches to spare, its bucket almost scraping the solid rock ceiling. These big boys’ machines are like Tonka toys on steroids. But they are not playthings, requiring skill and precision to operate and no room for error.

Nearby I was shown a stope (large man-made void) with a central column of patterned rock. On the surface above is a colourful landscape, a kaleidoscope of fields and woodland, but below exists a monochrome underworld splashed with occasional headlights and illuminating stripes from high visibility jackets. Most of the tunnel walls are drab grey stone, shored up by dust-covered timbers but every once in a while my headlamp picked out an embroidery of minerals – seams of glistening galena and sparkling spar.

Down the mine is a world away from life on the surface. This is generally a man’s world with no mobile phones and no women, just a brotherhood of miners with genuine camaraderie to get them through tough conditions and four days of working 10-hour shifts. The 20 or so miners at Milldam range in age from Josh the junior at 22 to Paul the oldest mine worker at 64.

The mine produces high grade minerals which are then processed at Cavendish Mill a few miles away. Initially fluorspar looks like brown sugar but in different forms it is used in numerous manufacturing processes to make substances such as non-stick pan coating, propellant for inhalers, covering on welding rods and even parts for mobile phones. The lead ore is ground to a powder and sold to China, whilst barytes is used as a white pigment for textiles, paper and paint.

Milldam was closed in 1999 by the then owners Laporte Industries and became Glebe Mines, but was put onto care and maintenance. However, the world market for fluorspar has changed and in 2012 it reopened under British Fluorspar, a subsidiary of Fluorsid and is flourishing. With 100,000 tons of crude ore extracted annually and a high grade mineral vein to follow, the future is looking good for Milldam and its t’owd men miners.

My thanks to Gary Goodyear (General Manager), Rob Ridley (Mine Manager) Richard Ellis and all the miners of Mill Dam for allowing me to visit and for making the tour so interesting and enjoyable. Long may they keep the ancient Derbyshire mining industry alive!

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