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West Horrington Shaft

Tony Jarratt

“…underneath the surface great stretches of the hills must have been honeycombed with old workings, now lost to sight.”  J.W.Gough, The Mines of Mendip, 1930

News of a recently revealed mine shaft at West Horrington (NGR ST 5737.2  4780.3, alt. 215m) was conveyed to the writer by Adrian Coward of the Somerset Wildlife Trust and on 10th May an early evening visit was made when your scribe descended on ladder for 15m to find that an equal amount of space lay below. Unfortunately he was not the first down as an errant field vole which animal lover Adrian was attempting to shepherd away from the shaft decided to take up base jumping, much to Adrian’s embarrassment! Returning later with more ladders, a lifeline and Henry Dawson the shaft was rigged using Nigel Taylor’s Land Rover, “ Stanley”, as a belay and a depth of 28m was reached to a blockage of rocks and earth with no side passages. The battered and grubby (but surprisingly alive) vole was rescued and Henry went down for a look. The entrance is a 0.8m square hole with half of the original limestone capping slab in situ, the other half lying at the bottom of the shaft, having apparently been snapped by a somewhat surprised tractor driver! A couple of metres down the shaft widens to, on average, 1.6m x 1m and has well preserved ginging for much of its depth. There are few obvious shotholes for the first 15m but below that they are plentiful indicating a working date of possibly the mid 1700s. The shaft was sunk on a narrow vein and is slightly off vertical with the dip towards the NE and there is a tiny natural bedding passage about a third of the way down. The minerals sought were most likely lead and ochre. Its dryness suggested either more workings or a natural soakaway below. Infilling this attractive and historical vein working would have been a pity and, if nothing else, it makes a great ladder/SRT pitch with a superb view over Wells, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels – particularly on this evening with massive thunderstorms booming all around and illuminating the heavens with sheet and forked lightning. It is situated 56m SW of the wall/fence junction and 15m into the field at right angles to the wall in a SSE direction.

Few written references to mining in this immediate area have been found though the adjacent Biddlecombe workings are well documented. On page 163 of the 1965 edition of Geology of the Country around Wells and Cheddar (Mem. Geol. Surv.) is the statement “To the south of the main orefield, the Carboniferous Limestone between West Horrington and the Haydon Farms is pitted by many shallow shafts with spoil heaps containing calcite, baryte and some galena”.  The explored workings of Prew’s Pot (ST 5704  4763), a similar hole at (ST 5737 4761)  and Horrington Hill Ochre Mine alias Tim’s Retreat (ST 5763.8  4779.1) are nearby. The latter reached a depth of 29m via shafts of 17m and 12m with a total length of 76m but had very dangerous ginging just below the surface. Adrian knows of village folk tales relating to extensive underground passages in the area but these may be merely legendary though it is interesting to note that the shaft lies on the line of the supposed tunnel leading from Simond’s Mine (ST 5700  4784) towards Khyber Rift (ST 5833  4802) and is almost that depth. Nigel Taylor once heard a local tale that a shaft in this area, infilled after the Second World War, was used as a dump for phosphorous grenades, machine guns and other defunct military hardware. He was unable to locate the site but named it Durban’s Shaft after the landowner of the time (1973). It will hopefully remain lost! Tony Durston (the friendly farmer who allowed us access to Hazlenut Swallet over his ground) is the current landowner and gave permission for a child and tractor proof lid to be fitted to the shaft. It was deemed an interesting project to dig at the bottom, partly to investigate possible connections with other hidden shafts nearby.

Capping of the shaft commenced on May 28th when the writer, John “Tangent” Williams and Ron Wyncoll cleared soil from the top of the ginging and prepared a steel frame to take the manhole cover. They were refreshed in their task with tea, coffee and biscuits kindly carried up from his house in the village by Adrian. Next day the first two returned with Bob Smith, Hannah Bell, Tony Audsley, Henry Bennett and Rich Witcombe to add a concrete surround to the cover and GPS locate Horrington Hill Ochre Mine, West Horrington Shaft, a blocked shaft with an obvious spoil heap to the south of the latter (ST 5740.0 4775.2) and another potential blocked shaft nearby (ST 5739.6 4773.5). Everything went remarkably to plan on this pleasant bank holiday Monday and the team even managed to squeeze in a few pints of Bath Ales “Gem” to replace lost body fluids. The manhole cover was emplaced on the 30th and some tidying up done that evening and on the following one by Anne Vanderplank (WCC), Tangent and the writer.

Digging commenced on Sunday 4th June when the portable alloy tripod was rigged up and a steel plate lowered down the shaft to provide limited protection for the face worker. Tangent and your scribe abseiled down to assess the job before the latter selflessly returned to the sun-baked surface to act as bag hauler while the former excavated an alcove to one side of the shaft in which to hide. The providential arrival of John Noble, clutching a bag of ice lollies, was welcomed and Tangent, flagging in the depths, was revitalised by one of these unexpected treats! Man-hauling then began and twelve bags of spoil came out after great exertion despite the use of jammers to grip the slimy rope. Meanwhile, below, our hero had opened up a hole in the floor down which a rock was sent and this created a minor avalanche down an apparent slope into an open cavity. Fearing that he was perched on jammed debris Tangent hastily tied on to the SRT rope before excavating further. He disinterred a metre long stemple standing vertically in the spoil and in remarkably good condition and it is speculated that this may once have been a climbing stemple wedged across the shaft into “egg and slot” niches. Several more bags were filled and stacked before a retreat was made to discuss the project over a few jars of, appropriately enough, “Mine” beer. The shaft was now over 30 metres deep.

A return was made on the 7th June when Tangent again descended the shaft while the writer and Tony A. removed another 14 bags of spoil – this time using Stanley the Land Rover for hauling. This was a distinct improvement on man-hauling as three or four loads came up at once but detaching them from the rope ideally needed two people (plus the driver).

On 10th June the writer and Tangent, later assisted by Bob, dug at the blocked hole until Tangent was able to squeeze down into some 3m of mined, descending passage with a floor of unstable rocks, mud and large animal bones – almost certainly the original shaft spoil heap utilised as infill and explaining its absence on the surface. Some digging was done at the end but abandoned due to the imminent collapse of the shaft blockage, a great deal of which will have to be removed before further progress can be made. This will be a long term project requiring a decent winch and much patience but the B.E.C. Mining History Section are convinced of its worth.

To be continued in BB 526. (Probably 527 depending on space Ed.)

1. Wilton-Jones G.   Tim’s Retreat – an ochre mine at West Horrington. Belfry Bulletin 372/373, April/May 1979. (West Horrington Ochre Mine).    

2. Barrington N. & Stanton W.   Mendip – The Complete Caves and a View of the Hills. 3rd revised edn. 1977. ( Biddlecombe Rift Cave and Simond’s Mine, Khyber Rift, Prew’s Pot and similar hole).

3. Tucker J.H.   Some Smaller Mendip Caves  Vol. Two. B.E.C. Caving Report No.9, August 1962, pp22-24. ( Biddlecombe Rift Cave and Biddlecombe <Simond’s> Mine).

4. Taylor N. Log Books & BBs 1-99, B.E.C. CD-ROM 1999.  (Brief reference to Durban’s Shaft, 1973 Log).

5. Green G.W. & Welch F.B.A.  Geology of the Country around Wells and Cheddar.  Mem. Geol. Surv. 1965 edn. (Biddlecombe and West Horrington workings).

6. Jarratt A.R.  MSS Log Book Vol. IV, 1988-1992, p.175.  (Simond’s Mine).

7. Anon. Simond’s Mine, Biddlecombe – a Re-discovery Feb 1991. Belfry Bulletin 459, May 1991, p4.