Note: the mines are on private property and are very dangerous
The following article is from the South Wales Caving Club Newsletter - July 1958 (note1)
There are also 2 hand drawn maps of the mines to go with the article: map 1 / map 2
Exploration of the St Hilary Lead Mines
Some little while ago I was chatting with one of my fellow workers about caves and caving when the subject came around to old lead mines. My friend, a resident of St Hilary suggested that I should go and have a look at their local mines.
A geological map of the area was consulted and St Hilary was found to be lying in a limestone tongue extending down from the north of the county. A six inch to the mile map of the area was then considered to the west of St Hilary. In sight of the winking lights of the new ITV aerial a number of shafts were marked on the sides of a dry valley leading down towards New Beaupre house. There was also a cave marked bearing the name of the Ianto-Francs cave. My friend had also told me tales of large caverns to be found down the mines, so a small group was assembled and on 23 November we et off towards St Hilary with thoughts reaching Jules Verne proportions.
We arrived at St Hilary and climbed a track on the south side of the valley, past a small rock outcrop and our steeds, trusty of course, came to rest at the top of a shaft. That shaft, being the nearest we decided to explore first. Sixty feet of ladder was dropped down (secured at the top of course) and a descent was made. Alas, the ladder ended about six feet above a very shaky looking floor of rubbish consisting of everything from tin baths to motor car headlights and old radio sets. Seaton Phillips who made the descent decided that it was too risky to jump onto this unknown matted mess of wet soggy mattresses, flock type of course, so he came up and it was decided to go and have a look at Ianto-Francs cave and leave the ladder where it was.
A small level was found in the side of the valley which went in for about thirty feet, dead straight and totally uninteresting except for one bat, that is if you find bats interesting. Could this be Iano’s hole? “No” said an interested local bystander. “Ianto’s cave is ‘igher up the wood an’ folks do say as ‘ow it goes thro’ to Old Beaupre of Llantrithyd ‘oll.” Both distances being in the region of 2 miles we assumed, making the usual allowance for local imagination it could be about one hundred yards long. Actually it was about 75 yards long and it turned out to be a level that had undoubtedly been a natural cave that had been widened by the miners in their pursuit of local ore. The walls showed plenty of signs of natural formations.
We went in for about 15 yards and we came to the bottom of a shaft down which wood had been thrown. We soon got though this and the mine extended through several crawls to the bottom of another shaft at the bottom of which were old tin baths, motor car headlights and old radio sets, and above our heads a ladder hanging down – our ladder!!!
From a junction half way in a further passage was explored and this brought us to the bottom of another shaft that was completely blocked by rubbish.
Next on the agenda was a rather large shaft bearing the name of the bell Mine. Mrs Jenkins white donkey fell down here in 1924 or was it 5? RIP. Another local was encountered at the top of this shaft who told us a rather woeful tale of a party of Air Force chaps from nearby St Athan who went down this shaft and started to die of suffocation at the bottom and who had to be hauled up so quickly that they were catapulted all the ay back to St Athan, so undaunted we set off down the Bell Mine.
About forty feet down a platform of rubbish was encountered which looked insecure but which is, in fact, quite safe. A further pitch of 20 feet and a steep scree of 10 feet landed us at the bottom. At the bottom were 3 passages, one to the right, one to the left and one straight on. Candles were lit and left in deep pockets, not ours, to test for the supposedly foul air and they were still burning several hours later. Because we were facing that way the centre passage was taken first. This was partly natural and very much not so partly artificial opening out every now and then into small natural caverns.
We came next to the bottom of another shaft and after surmounting a mountain of empty paint tins and old galvanised sheets we were able to press on. We soon came to a left hand, right angle bend in the passage with a narrow rift going straight on that was well calcined. We then came to the bottom of yet another shaft that was completely blocked: a length of about 100 yards. It was not until we reached the surface again that we found that this last shaft was only 16 yards from our first shaft at the end of Ianto Francs cave, and it is quite reasonable to suppose that there is a connection between them.
The right hand passage was tackled next. This proved to be a short passage ending in a blank face 15 yards or so long. A bat was found here that was unknown to us, among the many lesser horseshoe bats dwelling in the mines. It was the same size as the lesser horseshoe but much lighter in colour, and it had a differently shaped face. The left passage was much the same as the right one, but a small junction led to a rather pretty grotto. That was as far as we got that day and sound or sign of Mrs Jenkin’s donkey.
A second visit was made to St Hilary the following weekend. This time we were accompanied by a group from the British Nylon Spinners Caving Club who were to explore Bell Mine. There are 18 openings altogether but most of them have been blocked with rubbish or tree trimmings for the whole side of the valley has been cleared of trees, and what is better than to have some kind soul to dig a lot of holes for you to put your useless branches down?
The BNS crowd went down Bell Mine and we then let our ladder down a narrow shaft in one of the few spinneys left. Stones thrown down the shaft indicated a depth of about 100 feet, so having 80 feet of ladder down off we went and we were surprised and pleased to find several feet of piled up at the bottom. There were 2 ways on at the bottom so we chose the right hand one and set off along that.
After we had gone a short way we came upon the skeleton of a dog laid out in the same order as when it had laid down to die. Pressing on we came into quite a large cavern with a passage to the right which went in for a short way, and to the left a passage – natural – through a horizontal rift with a rather shaky entrance. The passage was lined with stal’ bosses etc. The rift soon opened out into a passage at the end of which we found another dog skeleton laid out as before. We then made our way back to the shaft and entered the left hand passage where we found yet another dog skeleton intact as were the other two, so we decided to name this e=series ‘Dog Shaft’. We had to leave this passage unexplored as we were pushed for time.
The next weekend Mel Davis had a good old scout around St Hilary and found a shaft on the top of the wooded north side of the valley which we all explored the following weekend. This shaft went down for 50 feet and ended up in a small cavern with a small natural passage leading off. We went through a squeeze and ended in a small natural chamber with a rift passage leading on, but this alas was blocked by boulders and although we managed to loosen them the roof of the chamber shook, rattled and rolled when we attempted to move them. We left them where they were and made a hasty retreat.
We also tried the shaft near the bottom of the valley on the south side. This we decided would be the most likely place to find natural passages but all the shafts were completely blocked by wood.
On 18 January we went back to St Hilary to finish our exploration of Dog Shaft and this time we took a compass and a tape with us. We carried out a rough survey of Dog Shaft left hand series. We went in past the skeleton of the dog and we soon came under a well water worn aven going up for about 30 feet or so. We climbed this for about 20 feet but it was getting smaller and it did not lead anywhere but up. A short way on another aven was discovered to the right of the passage. This one was also well water worn and much wider than the last but only by about 10 or 12 feet high ending in a horizontal rift.
Pressing on a little further we came to a ‘T’ junction, the left passage went in for a short way and ended in rather a lovely grotto. The right hand one was the main passage and after a short way it divided. We took the right hand fork over a wall
And followed the passage which after a crawl ended in a 5 foot pot with a passage leading away from the bottom to the left. This brought us up into a fair sized chamber with one which was completely covered in dogs tooth calcite. The passage went on and we came to a crossroads. To our right a wide passage with a very flat roof, which went on for a short way and ended in a very high aven. Straight on another aven, and to our left the passage continued and brought us back to the wall where we had started. The length of the system was about 600 feet.
The 3 of us would like to thank Mrs Davis for her help in life lining us and for having warming fires ready for us when we came up. She has found another use for old branches other than blocking shafts.
Sone of the things we noticed in these mines and others now to follow all of the skeletons that we found in Dog Shaft were lain down on the left side. Do all dogs die this way? The mines followed seams of dog tooth calcite in which we assume that the galena was found for there was very little evidence of it. The methods the miners used to climb the rifts to work them are quite interesting. The method is to place small logs of wood across the rift and form a stairway or working platform. I am sure that if the mines were worked today the miners would always be on strike for the mines are full of tight squeezes and low roof passages.
As a result of all of these visits we have found that the area does not hold any great caving attraction but it was well worth it for the mining interest and it was jolly good ladder practice and what is more, we all had lots of fun
Additional information provided by Mr Davis
Veins in the Carboniferous limestone have yielded ore in Carmarthenshire, near Mynydd y Garegg and farther east in Glamorgan where they were worked mosty about a century ago. What Walter Davies described as a ‘belly or ore’ was worked near Bishopston in Gower, whilst in the Vale of Glamorgan there are shafts and levels at Pentre near Llantrithyd, and the remains of more extensive workings between St Hilary and New Beaupre where there are about 18 shafts from 60-70 feet deep and from 50-140 feet apart. They are connected along their bottoms by a level entered from the hillside and appearing to represent a natural fissure widened for the purpose. Explorations by members of the South Wales Caving Club show that the roadways extended for about 600 feet and opened here and there into small natual caverns.
The galena was associated with calcite in narrow vertical veins, and a simple form of overhand stoping appears to have been employed in working it. Small logs were wedged across the narrow rift, formed as the ore was excavated, in order to provide a crude staircase enabling miners to reach the roof, which grew steadily higher as the vein stuff was removed and was in some parts about 25 feet above the floor of the level.
Note 1 http://www.swcc.org.uk/aboutswcc/newslett/archive/No_24.pdf (sourced April 2016)
Important information (provided by Ewart Schofield)
The mines that are still open are pretty precarious. They are on private property and if you fell in, there's a very good chance you won't come out as no one will know. They are also deep, narrow and vertical. One of the owners is currently fencing them off but this is ongoing. The mines are on several bits of land. There's also the risk of lead gas being present. Should you fall in, this may have an affect on your health.
The main underground system is beneath the open pasture land near to where the football field use to be. These shafts have been filled in but they are still unstable and now and again drop.
The mines survey didn't pick up on all the shafts. One is definitely unrecorded and may be the deepest. It's also potentially the most dangerous.
Could I also ask the person who is dumping their rubbish in one of the biggest shafts to stop. Your recent unwanted collection of CDs needs to be disposed of properly, not chucked on someone's else's land.
18 July 2016
In the hot summer days some villagers used to have a kip in the entrance to the cave as it is so cool. I think there are loads of amazing memories that folk in the village have. Billy (Bill clay) remembers feeling the bombs go off on the downs during the War. Granny Clay use to tell us about the old ox that drowned and its cart that sank in the village pond behind pink lands, warning us how deep it was. (All 2 foot of it).