ONE RAINY DAY I was trawling online when I came across a short YouTube video about the Holme Bank chert mine in Derbyshire. The water looked to be crystalline, and as there seemed to be plenty of interesting photogenic subjects inside, I forwarded the link to my dive-buddy Robin Verbruggen.
“When are we going?” was his immediate response. I started to gather information about the site and, finding that it was on private property, gated and locked, decided to contact the land-owner, Joe Oldfield.
We sent him our cave-diving certifications and other paperwork, and were pleased to hear back that permission had been granted. Next weekend, we left Belgium for Bakewell.
A crane-winch outside the Holme Bank chert mine.
We arrived by shuttle in Folkestone on a Friday evening with a 200-mile-plus drive ahead, so it was late by the time we arrived at our hotel. We had a good sleep, and after a full English breakfast headed towards the mine.
The Peak District is a national park with spectacular landscapes that we could appreciate now in the daylight. The mine is near the River Wye, on the outskirts of the town, and it took us quite a while to find the tiny entrance in the upper section.
Next to this entrance is an old crane with a winch, and further on are the remains of the point at which railway trucks emerging from the mine would be unloaded and pulled back in. It was a fantastic view of faded glory.
We had the entire day to explore and dive the site, so decided to start in the dry levels, and to photograph them before diving. We geared up, and headed into the mine.
So what is chert? Found in veins in the uppermost beds of limestone sediment, it was worked into tools in prehistoric times, but its most useful purpose, recognised in the 18th century, was for grinding calcined flint, a whitening agent used in earthenware manufacture.
In 1772 the potter Josiah Wedgwood recommended Derbyshire chert as a major improvement over granite millstones, which left annoying black specks in the pure white flint. Blocks of chert were initially taken to Yorkshire and Staffordshire by packhorse or cart, but from 1793 considerable quantities went to the Potteries by road and canal, and later rail.