Sunday March 5th 2017
Members present: Adam Walmsley, Joshua Young, Mark Sims, Martin Albacete, Rachel Findlay
After chatting with Chris in the morning, we elected to rig the pitch as a single hang down the centre of the shaft which, whilst not ideal in some respects, would at least mean that we weren't rebelaying off bits of pipe of unknown vintage, potentially diverting ourselves towards further questionable suspended pieces of industrial heritage.
After unlocking the shed, we gathered around the large metal grill, with virtually nothing visible beneath. Having diverted our trip to take a look at the shaft from part way up the previous day on our way into Rampgill Mine we knew roughly what to expect, but standing on the grill above the drop felt a little different.
Irrational fear is a strange sensation, and I think all of us were feeling it here to varying degrees. We were all happy enough with sizable pitches, and I was reminding myself that at 100 m deep this was no larger than Gaping Gill or Titan, and less than half the height of the entrance to Deep Vein Dong in China, which I'd had the thrill of exploring a couple of years ago. But there was something ominous about Brewery Shaft. Perhaps it was the large rusting pipes descending the full depth of the shaft that gave a stark measure of scale for as far as our lights could reach. This gave no room for our imaginations to make up a more comforting sense of scale as so often happens, such as in Gaping Gill where your mind can pretend the floor comprises grit and small pebbles when viewed from 100 m above. We shivered in the cold draught.
Rachel was looking suitably uneasy, understandably because for her this was the largest pitch she had faced. Thinking back on how grateful I'd been earlier on in my caving days for people more experienced than myself pushing me out of my comfort zone, I told her she was rigging. While she murmured something about not doing it and not having done her harness up, I backed up the end of the rope to a large piece of iron-mongery and handed it to her to carry on. I knew she'd be pleased when we were back at the hut.
Rigging from the metal girders holding up the grill in the centre of the shaft did little to help with anyone's unease, and the clamber down to the Y-hang a foot or two below the grill was one of the more intimidating pitch heads I've encountered. As if our sense of the scale of this shaft hadn't been illustrated sufficiently, lowering the full 100+ m of rope down the shaft provided a further reminder of the depth. As always with big pitches though, tension rapidly ebbs once the familiar routine of SRT kicks in, and one by one, we descended to the bottom. A special mention must go to Martin here, who performed some impromptu not-entirely-planned maneuvers whilst getting on to the pitch head that looked a bit like tricep-dips, and managed to make even Adam feel a bit uncomfortable about the whole situation.
The descent was somewhat eerie, surrounded by huge pipes and abseiling passing old workings disappearing off into the hillside. When I arrived at the bottom, the others had disappeared off and I clambered down past the enormous separating tank to the water level. The disturbance of silt by the others had left the water completely opaque, making it impossible for me to judge its depth, but thankfully there were no nasty deep surprises. In the compressor room there was all manner of equipment to see, mostly on a fairly massive scale. It seems surprising that it was economical to leave so much equipment there, but a visit is much better for it.
After Adam had joined me at the bottom, Rachel, Martin and Josh returned from their explorations and set off back up the shaft and we went to take a look at the water wheel further down the passage. It was a really impressive size, and in reasonable condition, but that certainly couldn't be said of the supports and other paraphernalia around. We wandered back to the small Pelter wheel used for generating electricity, trying to decipher what all the surrounding machinery would have done, before wandering back over to the shaft base waiting our turn to ascend.
While we waited, sitting on some of the copious ironmongery, Adam realised that his borrowed pantin was a left-footed one... whoops. After a small amount of cursing, we twigged that I could just send mine down after I reached the top, and Josh's rope-free call soon came down from the top of the shaft. Unfortunately rope-walking continuously up 100 m is not feasible, for me at least, so I forced myself to take breaks of about 10 s after every 20 or so steps, hoping to retain some energy for the top section of the shaft. Like many big pitches it proved more impressive on the ascent, but frustratingly it was punctuated by some fairly sharp stomach pain for me. Hanging half way down an abandoned mine shaft was no place to be having some sort of digestive disaster, so the aim of the game turned to minimising time on the rope. Thankfully nothing worse than discomfort ensued.
Adam arrived at the top not long after I did with the aid of my pantin. Foolishly I'd not insisted we agree on a fee before I'd sent it down the pitch to him. He handed me the main pitch rope and I started to haul it up, but the friction over the edge of the grill was causing real issues. I gave Adam my traxion to pass the rope through to help the situation, and I carried on hauling until the rope went taught after another 5 metres or so. Oh dear. I'm pretty sure they were our exact words. There was no hope of seeing what was going on at the bottom, and even three of us pulling couldn't dislodge the rope from whatever it was caught on. There was only one option left on the cards...
It wouldn't have been particularly fair to send Rachel, Josh or Martin back down, so it seemed like there were two options. Both Adam and I were showing signs of reluctance, but thankfully before I made a resigned offer to go, Adam did exactly that. I generously said he could borrow my pantin again, and even more generously I waived the fee entirely. Then he even had the cheek to ask to borrow my gloves! Unbelievable...
Some kind folk brought us a pot of tea while we waited for Adam's return trip, and before long I was once again hauling the rope up the shaft. It was a relief when the coil at the bottom came into sight! Brewery shaft is a magnificent spectacle, and well worth a visit. Having read up about what all the pipes and machinery were for and how the systems worked, it's even more impressive.
We didn't take a camera on our trip, but a quick Google when we got back soon found some excellent photos from Chris Howes on his website (wildplacesphotography.co.uk/galleries/reportage/brewery-shaft/) taken when the shaft was lit up and with a winch in place.
It was a great trip to top off a really enjoyable weekend. It's also worth mentioning that the bunkhouse in Nenthead was ideal to stay at, just metres from several of the mine entrances and the Miners Arms pub. The Victoria Inn in Alston (10 mins drive away) was also a great choice for a curry on the Saturday night.