Tunnel or a waterfall? – Exploring Borrowdale Graphite Mine

Nearherewayaway graphite mine 1


Mine exploration can be dangerous and great care should be taken when heading into disused mines.

I am abseiling down into a graphite mine in Lake District on the wettest day of the summer. Why am I going underground again? I thought I figured out that I don’t like dark tunnels. Outside, Sourmilk Gill is roaring and little streams are painting lines on the hills.

This time I have a head torch and a few people with me so the fear of the dark does not take over.

In fact, I am enjoying the winding paths that are suddenly interrupted by huge drops. Abseiling further down into the mine is like a quick visit to a cellar to fetch a new jar of jam, a bit uncomfortable but very casual. I see lights twinkling ahead and listen to the voices of my friends bounce from the walls.

Nearherewayaway graphite mine 4

It is all very nice until we reach the point where we are supposed to abseil down a little stream. The heavy rains have been feeding the stream generously and now we are facing an indoor waterfall. The green line of the abseil rope disappears into the tunnel with bucketloads of water. Is it safe? An escape exit is right there, we could just bail.

After a good while of going up and down the shower-abseil and shouting to each other over the booming waterfall, we decide that the route is safe enough and we have all the gear needed to climb back if there are any blockades.

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However, when I’m tying a rope to a bolt, I realise that my fingers are too cold to co-operate properly. Waterproofs are seeping through and little puddles in my shoes have numbed my feet completely. I don’t function when I am cold and I know it. I decide not to continue into the tunnels. I know it is a smart decision but I feel like a quitter.

I’m not the only one freezing and we split into two. We watch the others disappear into the waterfall and use the escape exit to get out of the tunnels into the pouring rain.

But don’t worry. I’m not done yet.

NEarherewayaway graphite mine waterfall

After a walk down the hillside to the exit tunnel, we are still cold and getting even wetter. We decide to go to the tunnel and meet the other half of our group at the bottom of the last abseil.

We crawl through the entrance into a slightly flooded tunnel. “It’s okay, there’s water up to my knees but the tunnel isn’t blocked,” said the one who checked that the bottom exit was safe. I undermine all the hard work of my waterproof trousers as I wade into the icy cold bath that reaches up to my upper thighs. It tingles.

The tunnel continues straight on for at least a hundred metres before it climbs out of the water. I have no sense of distance underground so I might be lying.

It is quiet. Only the slow wet movement of our steps breaks the silence. When I shine my torch up, the ceiling of the tunnel reflects from the water creating a row of beautifully symmetrical arches. Everything is very still.

At least it is not raining in here.

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