Apart from setting myself on fire there have been other occasions when the Grim Reaper has approached, but not tapped me on the shoulder. One such occasion occurred when I was in the sixth form in high school. There was a real interest in rock climbing with some of the staff and some of my friends and we had quite a bit of experience in Yorkshire on the abundant crags, Ilkley Cow and Calf, Armscliffe to mention a couple. We had also climbed in the Lake District and North Wales, so we were no novices.
A friend of mine and I decided we would head into the Yorkshire Dales to do a bit of exploring. He knew about Trollers Gill and that there were old lead workings so we decided to venture there with ropes, torches etc. to try our hand. Now these were different times to today and neither of us had access to a car and so we did what many did and that was get a bus. Not very glamorous, but not a problem when you are young. Anyway, ropes, and other equipment, packed lunch, fags and high hopes we made our way into the Dales. The weather was good. One of those warm days where matched with a keen sense of humour, made one feel good to be alive.
Now I can’t quite remember if the bus passed the Gill or how we got there, but we arrived. It was about 1971/72 and everything, apart from the countryside seemed to me to be in black and white. Trollers Gill is a very steep sided limestone valley. So steep it is almost a gorge. It is not often visited as there are more well known attractions in the area. I had never been there but I had heard of its legend. Similar to the beast in the Tinder Box, Trollers Gill was supposedly haunted by a giant dog with eyes the size of saucers. The beast was called the Barguest! To put your mind at rest, the monster was not the reason for my near death experience, but being in the Gill, it was easy to imagine how you would feel if you were there after dark. It did have a foreboding and mysterious atmosphere, even in a bright sunny day.
The only company we had were Dales sheep and they were dotted around the valley sides grazing on the thin Yorkshire grass. As you entered further into the Gill the valley narrowed the sides became more precipitous and shadow filled the valley floor. The rocky outcrops were limestone and their structure gave the impression of castle ruins, skeletal white against the green. As we walked the trail we saw evidence of mining. Workings opened into some of the cliffs, like open mouths they spewed a scree of white rubble. down the valley sides.
Advancing further into the valley we saw signs of more recent activity. A larger adit entrance was covered by a metal gate and clearly someone had started reworking the mine. It was obviously a small scale working, probably someone’s hobby and the gate had been built to prevent anyone from wandering in. As we approached, we saw that the gate was open and the lock missing. There appeared to be no one inside, but there were some tools and, old rails led into the mine. A small cart straddled the rails, but it appeared not to have been used for a long time.
Looking at each other for confirmation, we decided to explore. We had originally thought about climbing some of the crags, but this was always another possibility and we had come armed with the basics of torches and a few candles. Looking back, it was clearly not one of our best planned adventures. We entered the mine and the darkness became complete when we turned a bend and the entrance disappeared. At first the floor was smooth on either side of the rails, but as we advanced further into the valley side it became increasingly uneven and wetter.
Working only by torchlight we advanced carefully as we noted that sections of the roof had collapsed and the space above opened out to a height of many feet. We could see tunnels running parallel to each other and realized that what we were seeing was the result of parallel adits cut one above each other to extract the lead and that over time they had collapsed. We stood gazing upwards to the maximum the torch beams could reach. Our breaths hung as mist in the cold damp atmosphere as we contemplated what we were doing. Further on the rails disappeared almost vertically as the floor had collapsed and we assumed into lower adits. There was an open space of approximately fifteen feet. We shone the torches downwards, but all we could see was a floor of rock twenty feet below us. I am not sure which of us decided to drop a small rock down, but one of us did and rather that the crump of rock striking the floor below, there was a whoosh of the rock entering deep water. This certainly confused us. We shone the torch beams along the rails, following them downwards. The sleepers had long since disappeared, but the rails looked solid enough and stopped at the visible floor. I dropped another bolder and this time there was the solid crunch of rock striking rock. My partner followed with another and this time there was another splash as the rock hit deep water. I sat down on the side of the chasm and wondered what was happening. The ground below seemed solid enough, but the sound of the water contradicted that. “I’ll go down and have a look!” I said. We unraveled our climbing rope and I fixed one end to may carabineer, whist my friend found a metal post a little way back and secured this to act as a belay. I took a couple of candles with me and decided to slide down the tram rail. The angle was about eighty degrees and the rusty rail was about five inches deep by three wide. He took the slack of the rope and using the friction to prevent me sliding too quickly edged my way down. At this point I was in the dark as I couldn’t manage the climb whilst holding the flashlight. My heart in my mouth, I began to wonder the wisdom of what I was doing, but since I had started I could not turn back. The descent was accomplished without mishap and I found myself sitting on a rocky surface. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and took out my torch to see what was about. It then hit me! On either side of me the rock walls were a similar width to those in the passage above and where I was sitting was a solid platform of rock that extended about ten feet in front and behind me.
I discovered I was sitting on a rock jam that was lodged within a vertical drop. I shone my torch down and saw the black surface of deep water. I knew the answer to my conundrum. The rock I was on was the remains of the passage floor from above. When it had collapsed some of it had wedge itself in the space below and formed the platform I was now sitting on. The walls on either side were smooth and offered no means of an escape by climbing. The opposite ends to where I was sitting had no walls and the cavern just opened out in extending blackness. The only means of escape was along one of the two rails that had collapsed when the floor had given way. I decided to calm myself and explained what was happening to my friend. I told him to keep the rope tight as I wasn’t sure how stable the rock jam was. I decided to light the two candles so that he could get a good look.
This was probably not the shrewdest idea as we had no idea if gas was present. I can only assume this was not the case as nothing happened apart from the ghostly illumination of my dilemma. I was a lone figure, stranded like some character from Lord of the Rings in the Mines of Moria, huddled on the rock jam. To make matters worse, if that was possible, I realized that the rail I had climbed down hung over the open space above the water. If I had fallen I would have hung over water and not over the rock and there would have been no means of getting out, unless my friend could have pulled me up, which was very unlikely. A cold clammy sweat came over me. Luckily I had been totally unaware on the way down, but I had only one way out and that was back up the rail knowing my fate if I lost my grip, or couldn’t make it up the steep angle. We discussed the problem and I gathered my thoughts. There didn’t seem much point delaying. We knew it was unlikely that there was anyone else in the Gill, so we prepared. He checked his grip and I turned off my torch and stowed it in my backpack. The candle light was all I had, which was probably a blessing. My potential fate was partially hidden from me and I was thankful for small mercies.
Needless to say the grip I took of the rail was tight, almost to painful point and the moment I pulled my feet off the not so solid rock wedge, seemed to take an eternity. I was grateful for the rust as it gave me better traction and I was so aware of my balance. A wobble too far and I would have overturned and been suspended like some giant spider over a black bottomless void. Just writing this brings back the fear from so many years ago. My friend ensure there was no slack and I worked my way up the rail like some giant inchworm, breathing heavily with the exertion. Painfully slow and painful I got further up the rail. Probably due to tiredness I began to get the shakes. It is a feature of rock climbing, sometimes when you are physically tense the muscles go into a spasm of shaking. It doesn’t have a direct link to fear, but the timing in this case did add to my dread.
When there is no alternative it is surprising what the human body can achieve and finally I made the top and with help pulled myself over and just lay on the damp muddy tunnel floor. At this point I thanked all possible gods, fortune and even my friend. It took a while, but eventually I looked back down and saw the subterranean void lit in the ghostly candlelight. It took even longer to compose myself, but we continued our exploration. In a side passage we came across a seam of quartz. The crystal glittered magically in the torchlight and veins of bluish-black crystals laced through the white majesty. Galena! The lead that was sought by the miners. There was evidence of recent work in the shaft and it appeared that this vein was a new find and offered the hobby miner or miners some reward for their effort. For our own efforts we decided to take a couple of small samples of the quartz-galena. Geological hammers in hand we cut out a couple of pieces, felt satisfied with our days exploration and made our way out to reward ourselves with a packed lunch and smoke.
Sitting in the daylight I reflected on my fortune, my foolishness and how wonderful the world was. The crystal I had taken became a prized possession and a reminder of my mortality. I guess I never really learned as other stories will prove, but I loved that rock.
As a footnote my galena and quartz rock was stolen from my classroom in a school in Yorkshire when the school was broken into years later, but it reappears in my novels in The Moondial Series.