The trouble with awe-inspiring landscapes is that the camera can never do them justice. It is not merely a matter of scale, depth and perspective… the lens can capture all the details accurately. It can hold a frozen moment of beauty forever. But it will seldom take your breath away in that indefinable manner that ‘being there’ in the presence of wonder will do.
We had seen the little museum and gained a reasonable understanding of the science and archaeology. We had even watched the introductory film. We were both open-mouthed when we actually stood in the presence of the entrance to the mines. It is hard to explain why. It is not just the sheer scale of the workings, nor is it knowing that the mines were created four thousand years ago with antler picks and stone hammers. It is nothing to do with knowing how many miles of tunnel have been discovered so far, or the complexity of the smelting process by which the green, copper-rich malachite was turned into metal. It is not even marvelling at the level of technology that took the Stone Age into the Bronze Age.
The nearest I can come to describing the feeling is to say that walking out into the morning and seeing the mines spreading out below, feels very similar to walking into one of the great Gothic cathedrals. There is that same sense of awe and wonder. The same feeling that here the hand of Man reached out to something he saw as divine and was touched in return by Its essence.
That probably does not sound as if it makes any sense. We think of mines as commercial ventures…dark, dirty airless places, or the horrendous open-cast affairs that rape and destroy mountainsides, leaving ugly scars and irreparable damage. These mines felt ‘other’ than that. They were not divorced from Nature, but part of it, colonised by flowers and lichens, birds, horseshoe bats and many small, busy creatures. The earth seemed not so much plundered as harvested.
As we entered the narrow passageway of the entrance, we were entering a sacred place. If the earth is seen as the body of the Mother, then we were walking through her veins. The precious minerals, mined with such diligence by our ancestors might, perhaps, be part of her central nervous system; crystals are used for communication even in our own uber-technical age after all. I wondered about that and remembered a valley full of crystal where the idea of communication-by-minerals had first come to mind, feeling as though we were almost on the edge of understanding something…
We had the place almost to ourselves as we squeezed through narrow passageways, making the inevitable comparisons with the process of birth. On each side, there were glimpses into other tunnels, so narrow that only small children could have mined them. That is an odd thought for the modern mind, yet the children must have worked alongside their parents in the flickering shadows cast by the tallow candles. The mines were part of the community and, although the work would have been dark and dangerous, there is no lingering whisper of distress in the stone.
Beneath our feet, grilles were windows into even lower levels. Much of the mine is still closed to the public, but nine levels of tunnels descend 220 feet into the earth and over five miles of tunnels have been found, created over a period of a thousand years. It was not only malachite ore that was mined; the green stone is well known today as a semi-precious gem and is still used in jewellery. Once it was finely ground and used as a pigment in ancient cosmetics and paint, but here the main focus was for the making of bronze. Blue azurite, gold chalcopyrite and even native copper were extracted as well as the malachite.
Those with an interest in the healing properties of crystals will already be wondering about that cocktail of minerals and what it must have been like to spend one’s life within a cocoon of them. Balancing, enhancing, positive stones all of them… their meanings well worth researching for those who choose to delve further into the idea. If our ancestors, so intimate with stone, were sensitive to such energies, they must have truly felt the embrace of the Mother keeping them safe within her womb.
On every wall you can see the marks made by the tools and hands of those who carved the caverns from virgin stone. Antler picks, four thousand years old, have left their traces and bring their wielders close as you walk through the tunnels. In places, ancient walls block older tunnels, still holding their secrets and waiting to be explored. Then, you turn a narrow corner and find a window on wonder.
I am not a fan of coloured lighting in caves, but here, the cycling colours were a perfect way to highlight the level upon level of excavation in the most astonishing cavern. It is one of the largest prehistoric, man-made caverns in the world, carved out only with antlers and stone tools. When it was first rediscovered in 1987, there was only space to crawl into the cavern; it had been backfilled with rubble. It took the team five years to reveal the full extent of the space and the multitude of levels that honeycomb the walls, leading into the central cavern. Layer upon layer of workings, both higher and lower than you can see… it is an utterly incredible sight!
We had to go back and see it twice, waiting till a couple had passed before testing the acoustics and taking a reading. It is not just mind-blowingly huge, it is also beautiful and feels somehow full of life, with shadows casting faces from every angle in the shifting light. And no matter how many pictures we took, we would not capture even a fragment of its presence.
Outside, the story was the same. What should have seemed like a damaged landscape had a ‘rightness’ that spoke of a respect and a harmony with the earth that we have lost with industrialisation. Although it could well have been an alien landscape, perhaps it is we who have alienated ourselves.
On the surface, there are the usual information points. A smelting shed shows how the bronze was made… not really something that could have simply been discovered by the accidental burning of a piece of malachite as one gentleman we passed was suggesting. On the other hand, there is an area that demonstrates how flames can weaken stone, making it friable and easier to mine.
At one point the path leads you above the 470 ft deep Vivian’s Shaft, dropping straight down into the earth. It was when the landscaping project was first proposed that local enthusiasts decided to explore what was thought to be merely an old Roman mine worked by the Victorians. Deep within the shaft they found bones and stone tools that would carbon-date the mines and alter history.
Both above ground and below there are a bewildering number of entrances and passageways, promising many more discoveries. The lease for the mines were purchased by four passionate local people who continue to protect, explore and uncover one of the most amazing prehistoric sites I have ever seen. Not just for the sheer physical endeavor that the site represents, but for the sense of place and purpose. If you get chance, it is more than worth as visit. As for us, we were leaving the womb of the earth to head for the hills and a meeting with a druid…