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Down in the pits of Dudley

Plans for the largest underground attraction in Europe will be put to the popular vote this week as part of the £50M people's lottery. Jessica Rowson reports from 50m below.

Underneath the Wrens Neat Park in Dudley lies a huge six stoey cavern. Left over from limestone mining, it site abandoned, making the news only when a partial collapse strikes or a local child strays too far into the depths and needs rescuing.

However plans are afoot to bring these limestone workings, which played a key role in the Industrial revolution, back to their former glory. The sheer size and scale of these mines are breathtaking, and are of national and international importance for their geology, paleontology and industrial heritage.

"It's historical, geological and absolutely unique," says Professor John Burland, a world expert in ground engineering who helped to stabilise the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and is working on the project in a consulting role. "There is no equal in the world.”

Stepping into the 18m high cathedral gallery, one part of the stepshaft mining complex, really is like stepping into a church. The soaring ceiling is a tribute to Victorian mine engineering.

"What amazes me is how on earth they built a hole this size with a pick and shovel," marvels Ken Loach, Mine Manager.

Underneath the Wrens Nest Park in Dudley lies a huge six storey high cavern. Left over from limestone mining, it sits abandoned, making the news only when a partial collapse strikes or a local child strays too far into the depths and needs rescuing.

However plans are afoot to bring these limestone workings, which played a key role in the Industrial revolution, back to their former glory. The sheer size and scale of these mines are breathtaking, and are of national and international importance for their geology, paleontology and industrial heritage.

“It’s historical, geological and absolutely unique," says Professor John Burland, a world expert in ground engineering who helped to stabilise the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and is working on the project in a consulting role. "There is no equal in the world.”

Stepping into the 18m high cathedral gallery, one part of the stepshaft mining complex, really is like stepping into a church. The soaring ceiling is a tribute to Victorian mine engineering.

"What amazes me is how on earth they built a hole this size with a pick and shovel," marvels Ken Loach, Mine Manager.


The reason for the uniqueness of the mine lies in the geology. Plate movements have caused a 'buckle' in the strata. Instead of lying vertically, the strata rise vertically up and then down again, causing a 'bump'. The vertical seam is then mined, leaving 18m voids behind, the equivalent an underground 6 storey basement.

Different layers of strata can be seen as you move along the underground space, providing a timeline for the last millennia. Mined rocks are rich with fossil deposits and around seven hundred different types of fossilised sea creature have been found in the area.

"Earth movements turned the strata on its end and the canal [which the Victorians built to transport material] runs through it," explains Borough Geologist Graham Worton.

The cathedral gallery is only part of the complex. The Victorians used canal boats to get the workers into the mines and the limestone out, leaving a network of underground waterways.

They lead to the stepshaft canal basin, the largest in the UK, measuring 2.5m high by 5m wide by 67m long. This acted as the main artery for the mining operations and sprouting from the canal basin were four large vertical limestone mines; one of which is the surviving Cathedral gallery.

The canal basin and the tunnels are all largely intact today, as they were engineered for longevity by the Victorians.

"The canal building dates from 1775 to 1805 and is some of the oldest in the UK," confirms Dudley Borough project engineer Roger Morgan.

However, the mines themselves, from where the materials were taken were designed to last as long as it would take to get the workers out of there. Every last ounce of mineral was extra wages to a miner, who got paid by the amount of material he mined and so they would strip the mine bare and then retreat.

"There's been little or no deterioration in the basin. It was built to last and it's lasted," said Loach. "However they would carry on robbing material as they abandoned the mines."

It is the glorious six storey caverns that are so badly in need of restoration now. In a typical mine, miners would extract the material in the band of rock, leaving pillars untouched to support the roof.

However at Wrens Nest, this situation has been turned through ninety degrees and the pillars only work as long as they are in compression. As the mine starts to relax, the pressure is relieved off the horizontal pillar and causing slippage and failures.

Dudley Council hope to stabilise the mine by using rock bolts, stitching or similar methods and open up the complex for the public. Plans also include new tunnels that go through abandoned mine workings and what is thought to be the first inclined underground lift in the world, which would take visitors from the canal basin up to another mine nearer the surface called the Seven Sisters and a new visitor centre.

Without the money from the lottery, the council will still need to stabilise the mines to mitigate the risk of a serious collapse. However the method would involve infilling the mines and closing them off to the public, denying both scholars and the public the chance to learn from them.

"It's transformed our understanding of the world. We can't lose this," says Worton. "If we don't get the money, the only thing we can do is fill it in and leave it to mothball. It gets harder and more difficult the longer we leave it."

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