20/02/2010 – Christopher Adams, Simon (The Bead) Blaen, Tom Hughes
Honorary/none caving Badgers: Sarah Middleton, Jen Middleton, Andy Hughes (Tom’s Dad)
We were due to go down the Milwr Tunnels on Sunday the 20th but the weekend began with some Badger related antics on the Saturday. Chris arrived on the Friday at the Middleton household (Club Mothers parents), and then Simon (from here on: The Bead) arrived on Saturday morning. After Bacon, Brie and cranberry sandwiches we went to go practice hauling/rescues off a tree in my field. We were joined by Jen and Sarah who would be our test subjects. Chris who is recently IRATA level 1 qualified was given the job of rigging the tree, T he Bead and myself soon regretted this decision as it involved Chris using 239 points of contact to tie a figure of 8. After the world’s safest tree rigging was complete we had 3 pitches to play around on. We kitted up and The Bead tested the rigging. I decided to teach Jen SRT by telling her how to ascend and then sending her to the top, leaving the descent bit to The Bead to deal once she had gotten to the top. Jen was soon back on the ground and in one piece having picked up SRT remarkably quickly (new BBPC potential?).
Sarah seemed happy taking pictures and worrying so we tried to help by giving her more things to worry about by regaling tales of times we were in sticky situations or doing stupid things. I was the first to ‘die’ on the ropes and it was Chris’ job to haul me to safety from the top of a pitch, I’m not sure how this went since I was dead, but I think that hauling technique didn’t work. With a change of tact, Chris went to the ground to better test the rigging he was trying and soon enough there were 3:1’s as far as the eye could see with people were being hauled up and down the tree to their hearts content. Chris was soon doing his thing and teaching us how to haul people in various manners until it was approaching dinner time. Team boys left team girls and headed to my Dad’s house ready for tomorrows mine and spent the rest of the evening chavving up my car and drinking many whiskeys, what more could you want!
We awoke on Sunday at the unreasonable time of 7:45am ready for a day down mine (just without the whole slave labour and digging for 12 hours part). We filled ourselves with breakfast and headed over to my contact’s house that would be able to get us into the Milwr tunnels. The Badgers who would be descending were Chris, the Bead, and myself, with honorary badger (my dad) joining us for the trip. After a quick chat with caver ‘A’ about what the day’s plan was, caver ‘B’ arrived with extra kit and transport.
[I feel here is a good point to do some explaining of the current situation of caving in North Wales. Unlike the rest of the country, it seems that to cave in North Wales you need a degree in politics. There is political strife making northern Africa pale in comparison, just to do a simple cave. Jobs worth’s seem to come along to cave entrances at ungodly hours of the morning purely to stop other cavers going down, I don’t know why it’s like this but the issues it causes are endless. For this reason I won’t be naming my contacts and fellow cavers who guided us down Milwr as it will only cause unrest and difficulty for them. Anyway - back to the report.]
After a quick drive to one of the ways into the Milwr tunnels (which again can’t be revealed in case persons decide to barricade it with 10 tons of steel gate and concrete) we met up this the rest of the cavers that would be our guides for the day. Getting changed was fairly pleasant indicating that spring is finally o n i ts way , then after a short walk we were at our chosen entrance into the Milwr tunnel system. The entrance was gated but not locked and hidden away from walkers who may pass by without knowing what lies below them. The climb through the entrance was only 2-3 metres and dropped into ankle deep water, so after a quick shuffle down the 1.5m high passageway (which soon dried up as we progressed) we soon noticed tracks in the floor from old mine carts th at would have been flying up and down the passage 24 hours a day, 150 years ago. After no more than 10 minutes we came across our first bit of history, an old mine cart left abandoned from the day the passage was no longer used. Anoth er 5 minutes further down the passage lead us to an area marked off by orange tape where we were shown foot prints from the miners with the tell-tail sign of a hoof shape from the hobnailed heel and toe of wooden boot the miners wore 150 years ago - it was quite strange to think that the last person to stand on the soft malleable ground did so all that long ago. From here on the floor became quite unstable and quite a few fixed traverse lines were needed to negate the dangers of walking above drops of varying depths. It was a little unnerving walking across the original rail cart tr acks which had become free hanging in space with only the minimum support preventing them from plummeting. After a few traverses we came to the top of the main laddered section of the cave where the Badger members of the party weren’t sure what state the ladders were in owing to the suspect mounting points and wooden main structures which had evidently been soaked in mine water for quite some time. A few people went down and out of sight then called “ladder free” which suggested that perhaps the ladders weren’t as sketchy as they first seemed. Tomtom was the lead Badger at this point and as he approached the first ladder he could see that it was maybe 15-20m down broken up into 3 sections so he carefully descended the first ladder to some scaffold poles, balanced across to the second ladder only an arm’s reach away and shouted ladder free to The Bead. Tomtom got a few pictures of The Bead on the ladders then moved on to continue his descent, and although the images don’t display any particularly inspiring sense of safety, we were able to wedge ourselves between the rock faces for happy snaps and general debauchery for most of the descent.
As we continued our journey downwards, we bore witness to the pipe work weaving its way through the ladder network which fed the lower systems of the mine with fresh air and removed the bad air. Occasionally the only way to continue on our path was to traverse these 1 and sometimes 2 inch steel pipes (which weren’t particularly well braced) but eventually we made our way to the stream way level of the mine and begun walking past various ancient mechanical mining implements to the 10km stream way itself. It was a man made channel approximately 6ft across and had a 2ft wide cart track along the far side of it and stretched from the heart of the mine right out to the sea and was used to expel waste water from the mine system and presumably provided some capability of heavy transport by boat if needed. Once we had caught up with the others (having dragged our heels to pay unwavering attention to all the fascinating history that the others seemed so complacent about) we crossed over the stream way and begun a 3 mile walk down the cart track to the rivers side which would eventually lead us to the sections of the mine which were active as little as 40 years ago (the mine officially shut sometime in the 1970’s I believe). After a couple of hundred yards the track had sunk and was below the level of the river which meant we were resorted to wading through the stream water, tricky when the ground still had the original metal tracks on, mini sleepers and a corroded edge by the stream way side, all submerged and invisible through the murky water. The amusing combination of difficulties with terrain caused Tomtom and The Bead to lose footing although both managed to save themselves before being tugged by the not entirely mincy current of the stream.
Eventually the monotony of trudging subsided as we came across some concrete constructions which turned out to be old pumping stations, doubling up as a caving club rescue crib with emergency supplies, sleeping bags, clean water and various other items stored in several Darren drums. After another couple of minutes down the stream way passage we were shown another side passage which lead to a part of the mine that had since flooded and all that remained visible was the start of a 200m ladder system, eerily dark and mysterious, so with a little lighting Chris was able to capture the first ladder in a creepy green hue. On the way back to the stream way Chris wondered into a large open and empty cave which had stacking bricks at regular intervals along its floor that had been used in the second World War to store some of the countries munitions and gold supplies away from prying Nazi fingers and minds.
After a quick discussion of the best route through the remaining mine system based on the time we had left, it was decided that we would do a loop that would eventually bring us back to our current location. With this we were lead off to the left (which involved crossing the river using the rail tracks) and down a walking height passageway with the usual rail tracks on the floor. Every so often there were ‘rooms’ off to the side, these were in fact large chambers where materials had been mined out of. After a quick walk we arrived at what can only be described as a mini train station. There where bits of train scattered about and a homemade single cylinder 12 gauge diesel locomotive train on the tracks. This train had been used by the Grosvenor Caving Club to explore the mine up until fairly recently. As the rest of the group ventured forward Chris went off down a side passage to attend to natures calling. The next passage was a huge chamber, maybe 20m high, 20m wide and longer than my torch could reach. I tried to bring its size out in some pictures whilst waiting for Chris. Its only after I went looking for him that I discovered that he had found something to play with, Nitroglycerin. He was happily taking pictures as I realised I’d ducked under a ‘warning, explosives’ tape to get to Chris. I let him take some pictures before hurrying him up to catch up the rest of the group at the end of the large chamber where we were joined by some other cavers who seemed (from what I heard being discussed) to enjoy filling out forms and playing politics more than actual caving, strange people. We left the large chamber down a side passageway which came out in an even bigger chamber and were now in the most modern part of the mine. Technology had allowed the miners to construct a chamber 25meters high, 30m wide and a good half mile long. It was such a strange feeling to be in such an open space deep underground. It could be compared to the time machine in Daren Cilau, only man made, with four 90 degree corners. This giant chamber had chambers going off to its sides which were equally large, one of which was large enough to support a land bridge 10m off the ground which was then 5m thick.
We stopped in the main large chamber to have our lunch, during which we were able to look around and truly absorb the sheer scale of this place. The walls were white and the tracks down the middle of the chamber seemed to be made for toys, not industrial excavators. The chamber ended at a blast site where the end wall had been the subject of blasting to continue the chamber onwards, but the rubble had never been removed and the chamber had never been extended. The workings in this area of the cave were from as late as the 1970’s, and this was some of the last work to be undertaken in the mine before its final closure.
After lunch it was time to continue our loop back to the stream way which involved going back on ourselves to the first large chamber (which no longer seemed so large), but instead of going to the mini train station we scaled a sloped side of the chamber and up a very homemade looking rope ladder. After some quick scrambling and climbing slopes using a rope line we arrived at the side of another large chamber which was circular and had a steep scree slope on all sides leading down to a very nasty looking hole in the centre, easily mistakable from the scene in an early Star Wars film. Luckily there was a traverse line to clip in to for our side shuffle around the outside of the hole and no sand eating monster in the centre to prevent our passage up the other side. With some final r ope climbs and a small ladder we reached a level that we could walk around on in another series of passageways. After only a short walk we arrived in a room with a very deep circular hole and single rung ladder bars implanted down its core. There were a few spades leaning against a wall in the room which our guide pointed out were probably left in place out of respect for the miners who used to own them and died where they were left, as a crude form of headstone. We went up the ladder out of the chamber one by one which was approximately 10-15m long, and not for people who don’t like heights due to the lack of safety lines. The ladder was the first of three that eventually brought us out in a bit of a dumping ground which contained odd bits and bobs that didn’t look any more that 50 years old and joined onto what was the old main shaft into the mine. The mine shaft went down and up a substantial distance (150 metres up from our current point, apparently) and had once housed a lift for the workers. Fortunately they had fitted an emergency exit in the form of more ladders down one side of the mine shaft, providing us with a means to descend back down to the stream way. These ladders where fairly well endowed and went down in 5 metre slanted sections, much more substantial than those we entered the mine system on. After a relentless session of climb, ‘ladder free’, climb ‘ladder free’...... for god knows how many times to get to the bottom, we emerged at the stream way a little distance from where we had left its path earlier.
It was time to start heading out as we had explored all that we had able to in the time allowed, unfortunately this involved over an hour of walking upstream, which wasn’t going to be pleasant. With a final session of faffing and a quick bit of stalling we gathered the rest of our party into one group then began our long slog up stream. After about 10 minutes macho Chris got bored of the pace of the guy in front of us and sped off into the distance behind a lady who had joined from another caving club but set a fair pace herself, whereas Tomtom was quite happy at the given pace as although it was slow it was nice and constant. After most of time had been and gone the Bead and Tomtom met Chris at the junction which led off to the ladder climbs. There wasn’t much waiting around until the rest of the group had caught up with us and since we were all going out on the ladders we thought we’d better set off to avoid a bottle neck.
The climb up the ladders was actually not too bad, the sections were never too long to require cows tailing into the rungs for a rest and a few of them where slanted to give your arms a rest. Chris was doing his thing (taking pictures) which meant the ladder free shouts were becoming pointless again. Tomtom managed to get lost going up the ladders (impressive) when he left a ladder at the top rather than get off a metre of so lower by a side passageway but that was soon rectified. We managed to stay as a BBPC group from the bottom to the top of the ladders, with much spontaneous singing from Mr Adams. Once we had finally made it up the last ladder Tomtom was pretty warm so decided to use a dripping ceiling to have a shower.
Once we were all up Chris took some more pictures of me looking interestingly at some calcified logs which had broken down into strings of xylem then solidified then we headed off down the passageway. There were a few more traverses than remembered going back but soon the air was drafty which indicated that we where near the end. A quick crawl through some water and past old buckets and we could see daylight. With a short climb we were out of the cave and back into the fading natural light of evening. It was close to 5pm and we had been in the a little over 7 hours in total which could be signed off as a good length of time for exploration. We thanked our guide ‘Caver A’ for taking us down the mine as the demand to gain access is quite substantial and we were some of the lucky few to be granted an audience.
After we’d said thank you enough we went to clean our gear (play in a river). Chris happily lay down in the water before quickly remembering it was Wales, and February, and therefore quite chilly. We took turns in being manly and washing each other’s caving suit backs until our gear was cleaner than it had been for some time then following a quick change it was time to head back to honorary Badger Andy’s for a good hearty stew and many cups of Yorkshire.
The trip down the Milwr tunnels was brilliant, I would like to say a big thank you to our guide ‘Caver A’ and his group who kindly took us down there. It’s a shame that politics stop so many people from getting down there as it’s a truly brilliant place to visit. Having since been in contact with Caver A it seems likely that we will be able to get a tour for a large group of Badgers sometime in the summer so watch this space and register your interest by email if you would like to get involved next time!
TomTom (The real one)
[Ghost edited/written by Christoph A]