A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
26 January 2014
Situated deep in the earth beneath a green and pleasant corner of southeast England, the Godstone Main Series Mine is a subterranean vault of hidden history. Its winding network of quarries and tunnels offer a rare glimpse into Victorian industry, but the artefacts within date back further still; from mere centuries past, to the frozen fragments of prehistory.
The Godstone Quarries
The labyrinth of mines and tunnels at Godstone in Surrey date back to the early 17th century, and have long been a valuable source of flint, or ‘firestone’. The Godstone Quarries consist of a total of five separate systems – the Roman Road Series, Main Series, Sawmills, Whitefield Quarry and Jones. These were eventually worked into one large network of underground tunnels, over the course of the 18th century.
Numerous collapses and cave-ins over the years have served to make the network all the more troublesome; whole districts of the mine have been rendered inaccessible, while some parts are now being excavated and explored for the first time in as much as a century.
Godstone’s firestone mine is not the sort of place I’d want to explore without a guide. Luckily for me though, I was able to tour these tunnels in experienced company – with the lovely lads from The Time Chamber, as well as a member of the locally based Wealden Cave and Mine Society.
We parked on the side of a leafy, rural lane in Surrey, donning helmets, boots and headlamps. This had once been a Roman road, a long, straight track through the English countryside that would lead us to the mine’s southernmost entrance. As we approached we passed other visitors; an officer marched past in the crisp military uniform of imperial Russia, a pistol at his belt.
On this particular day, we’d be sharing the mine with a film crew shooting scenes for a History Channel documentary. The mines, apparently, would be doubling as a network of tunnels located deep beneath the Russian capital. We passed carefully between crates of cables, cameras, props and refreshments, before ducking under a low, stone shelf and dropping into the darkened passage beyond.
Within minutes we had lost them. The tunnels at Godstone are so vast and complex, we could probably have evaded a dozen film crews down there and still been none the wiser. As we marched through the first few chambers and passages, heads ducked to avoid low-hanging ceilings, the four of us were quickly enveloped in a deep and timeless silence; broken only by the crunch of our boots, the shuffling of a paper map unfolded.
Although I had explored a fair few caves (and plenty of drains), this was my first actual mine. I’ve been to more since – including the Odessa Catacombs, the world’s longest network of underground tunnels. Back then though, in the summer of 2013, I was learning the differences for the first time.
Unlike caves, for example, mines tend to be far more prone to collapsing. Rather than random rock grottos formed naturally across the millennia, mines have usually been cut by hand, and sometimes against the physics of the earth itself. As we wandered deeper into the tunnels we’d see more and more examples of the ceiling giving way; in places propped up with wooden supports and drystone pillars. In other passages, the rocks had fallen to create impassable barriers – or worse, were still in the process of doing so. I was warned to not so much as brush against the fragile plates above our heads, for fear of something shifting.
The first landmark we came across was a chamber nicknamed the ‘Station’, a long, wide passage supported by a series of regularly spaced wood columns. The torchlight cast long shadows from these pillars, and the likeness to an underground rail terminal was easy enough to fathom.
While the oldest passages here were supposedly formed in the 17th century, it was the later years of industrialisation that enabled the rapid growth of the Godstone network; largely during the early to mid 19th century. For a long time flint was the most versatile building material available in the southeast, and Godstone was a prime source. This heat-proof rock was useful in the construction of ovens and furnaces too, and the material was in high demand with manufacturers – such as the glassworks at Vauxhall in London.
Towards the end of Victoria’s reign however, the demand for firestone diminished. As operations at the Godstone Mine began to wind down, some of the more easily accessible tunnels were taken over by French mushroom growers; the moist, dark and earthy conditions providing the perfect environment.
By the early 20th century, the mines were all but abandoned. It’s said the British War Department considered using the tunnels for explosives storage during WWI; later, during the bombing raids of WWII, they’d be used as an unofficial shelter by the residents of Godstone village.
This chamber and the passages around it felt open and spacious, their hard-packed floors swept clear of rubble. It was here that the farmers had tended their mushroom crops, an operation which continued into the early years of the twentieth century. Soon enough we came across the train tracks themselves, metal rails sunk firmly into the earthen floor of the mine.
In these tunnels, it was easy to see the evolution of the mining process. My guides pointed out the chest-height grooves that marked corners where passages turned; marks carved out by the yokes of oxen as they dragged carts around these twisting mazes in the 18th century. In the 19th century metal tracks were laid down, as the process became increasingly industrialised. On one wall, faded white graffiti would date the passage to 1872.
Not far from the tracks was another notable sight – the skeletal remains of an ichthyosaurus, embedded into the roof of a small side grotto. I was able to make out the shape of the dinosaur’s skull, yellow-brown fossil outlines in the rock; in the next chamber the ceiling showed parts of a dorsal fin, scattered vertebrae.
We left the tracks behind us, clambering through a tight opening where the passage had mostly collapsed. Barely a few feet high, I had to wriggle over the hard-packed rubble, under the broken rocks above as I pushed my tripod and camera bag ahead of me. There was virtually no room for manoeuvring here, and the tiny tunnel seemed to go on for ages; but after a few minutes of determined wriggling I came out the other side, headfirst down a dusty slope and into the next chamber .
We had arrived at a former entrance point, now serving as an emergency exit. Behind a rusted iron gateway, one narrow shaft led up by way of a ladder, to a manhole cover high above. This opened directly onto a main A-road, and from time to time we’d hear the heavy clunk-clunk of cars speeding over our heads.
Another exit, a little further on, had been blocked altogether; all that remained was a stone archway filled with mounds of fallen rock. With emergency exits like these, I found myself hoping for an uneventful day.
By this point we were reaching the northern end of the Roman Road series. There were more tunnels beyond, but collapses over the years now allowed for limited access. It had an irresistible appeal – the notion of these manmade subterranean passages, laboriously chiselled out of the earth and then blocked off, to be forever lost.
There are plans, however, to reclaim these forgotten networks; to crack open a time capsule of 19th century industry and labour. My guides showed me a recent endeavour, an elaborate new tunnel burrowed through one of these collapsed sections. We clambered up a steep shaft, into a channel reinforced within a steel scaffold frame. The walls here were shaped from plastic bakers’ trays, filled with tightly-packed concrete sandbags.
I found it intriguing to think that mining – one of history’s most notoriously foul and dangerous occupations – was here and now being celebrated as a hobby. More than simply exploring tunnels by flashlight, this project represented many hours of gruelling work; and yet, the excitement of uncovering the past through these tunnels was infectious.
In addition to tracing buried tracks and haulage routes, the analysis of pick marks and signs of wear are providing valuable new information about work methods. Meanwhile, others are correlating graffiti against census records, to find out exactly who was working these mines (and later, the mushroom farms).
After inspecting the progress of the project, we turned eventually to head back south – towards the series known as Sawmills and into some of the oldest tunnels in the whole network. We passed segments where the roof was in the process of a gradual cave-in, huge flakes dropping away to lay scattered in broken pieces at our feet. Here more than ever, we were careful to touch nothing. Just inches above my head, the plates were visibly cracking away from the solid rock… one nudge and they seemed liable to come loose.
Hunched over, almost double at times, we made our way down a series of long, straight and low corridors: a section of the mine named ‘Lumbago Alley’. Resting for a moment at the far southern end, I was pointed towards a small fissure in the wall – and another of Godstone’s more telling landmarks. I got inside the small, rocky opening, and had to wriggle on my front until I reached the end of the burrow. Here the roof rose up, just a little, enough room for me to turn around at least. There were a series of cut blocks at the far end, neatly arranged into a row of hefty tiles.
To save the effort of transporting large, unhewn boulders along the tunnels and out of the mine, during the large scale operations of the 19th century it was common practice to work the stone where it sat. Stonemasons would fashion smooth slabs in situ, which could then be extracted, stacked and removed without the excess wastage. The rocks in front of me now represented a part of that process – finished square slabs that had been abandoned right at the source, when the mining operation finally ground to a halt. As interesting as it was though, I nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief after dragging myself back out of that tiny crevice, and into the relative comfort of a cramped mine corridor.
By now we had made a complete circuit of the more easily accessible regions of the mine, and were just cutting across a series of smaller paths that would lead us back to the entrance. So far, we’d spent perhaps three or four hours under the ground. We came across a segment of collapsed tunnel, where recent explorers had cut through the rubble to install another modern, reinforced passage. As we clambered along the small shaft though, we ran headlong into a film crew travelling in the opposite direction.
The passage was barely wide enough for one person, so we found ourselves scrambling back along the gangplank, back down into the chamber we’d come from. The crew were setting up for a shoot near the emergency exit we’d explored earlier – and so we offered to help out, picking up heavy-duty tripods and sacks of cabling as we followed them back into the depths of the mine.
A little later we were stood around the rusted iron gateway, watching take after take of the same scene; a moustachioed man would drop down from the shaft and seem to sniff the air as he took in his subterranean surroundings. These were the rumoured grottos and caves located deep beneath Moscow, and after trying the iron gate, finding it rusted off its hinges, the protagonist would venture deeper into the labyrinth in search of the lost library of Ivan the Terrible.
I was both surprised, and impressed, at the time and effort required to film just this two-minute segment. By the time the director had settled on his perfect take, and the crew began packing up their gear, winding cables and stowing away props, we were ready to call it a day as well.
We left the way we had come, back out through the southern entrance on the old Roman road. Sunlight and fresh air came as a relief, naturally, but I also felt a little regret at leaving the mines behind. There was definitely something timeless – perhaps even a little bit magical – about the ancient rock walls, the solemn stillness of the tunnels. My head was filled with dinosaurs, mine carts, bombing raids and the secret treasures of Imperial Russia; as I stepped blinking into the light, the world above ground couldn’t help but look a little fleeting and trivial in comparison.
 There was, in fact, another route I could have taken to walk around the blocked passage. This way just sounded like more fun.