What lies beneath the old mines of Skinningrove?

PUBLISHED: 17:13 10 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:07 20 February 2013

Loftus Mine c1900, courtesy of Tom Leonard Mining Museum Archives

Loftus Mine c1900, courtesy of Tom Leonard Mining Museum Archives

Skinningrove was once at the centre of Tees Valley's steel industry, and Loftus Mine had its own gas works, furnaces and railway. Today, only the mine remains, but if you don a hard hat you can still venture underground Words by Karen Bowerman

As I drove towardsthe tiny coastalvillage of Skinningrove, 15 miles east of Middlesbrough, it was strange to think that a grid of tunnels, six miles square, ran through the hills barely 60 feet below.The tunnels belong to Loftus Mine, the first ironstone mineon Teesside, built after the discovery of the Skinningrove seam in the 1850s.

The seam turned the small, agricultural community into a thriving mining town - right at the heart of Teessides steel industry. Months later, the iron rush began, and for the next 100 years the region produced a quarter of Englands iron (nearly sevenmillion tons a year) earning it the nickname Ironopolis.By the1950s it was a different story; mines were being abandoned across the North East, with companies unable to compete with cheaper imports.

Today, Skinningrove with its whitewashed houses and stone church lies quiet again. The gas works have disappeared, the railway sidings are a car park and the mines stables, offices. In the hills farmers have returnedto the land.

But Loftus mine remains, and now forms the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, offering visitors the chance to experience life underground in the 1800s.Our tour took us through the massive ventilation shaft and on to the North Drift, one of the mines haulage tunnels. Here, in a small hut, men and boys (some as young as seven) clocked-in for work, collecting their buttys (small tokens with numbers on) so shift leaders could keep track of who was underground.Armed with buttys and hardhats we entered the drift.

The arched, brick tunnel sloped so imperceptibly that I bumped my head several times before reaching the pit bottomIn the mid 1800s all miners wore were flat caps. When safety issues were eventually addressed (in the 1930s) they were given papier-mch hats instead!The highlight of our visit tookus to the rock face.

I stood, shoulders hunched, in a shored-up tunnel, which only 160 years ago smelt of horse manure, candle wax and sweat.The woman next to me dug out her gloves; a girl shivered. But back then it would have been warm - and attractive to rats!Our guide showed us how miners used to work: drilling holes (by throwing spear-like tools at the rock for up to 45 minutes), loading explosives and lighting the fuse or squib. This cost them dear (in both time and money) if it failed to ignite: hence the expression adamp squib.We lit our own squib, ran for cover and waited for the blast.

A few seconds later a boom echoed through the drift. We returned to find fallen rocks and smoke that would have made a pyrotechnics expert proud.Our group, eight adults, entered into the spirit of things, congratulating each other heartily.

We were assured that when the wheelbarrows containing our pay came over the hill (accompanied by the localbobby of course) wed be duly rewarded for our efforts!As I left Skinningrove and headed into the hills, I wondered what my bank manager would think if I trundled my wheelbarrow of shillings towards him, requesting a deposit.

Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, Deepdale, Skinningrove, Saltburn, TS13 4AP, tel: 01287 642877. Open: Apr-Oct, Mon-Sat, 10.30am-3.30pm.

Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum

The print version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of North East Life

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