IT’S DARK WHEN WE MEET Fabrice Couraud at the village square at the end of January. Fabrice organises the diving in the old limestone mine of St-Même. We follow him by car along a small road winding between the houses, and stop at a gridded access point in front of the dark mass of a cliff.
We enter a vast gallery and follow Fabrice’s car for a kilometre or so through a forest of massive limestone pillars that support the ceiling more than 10m overhead. We park a few metres from the crystal-clear water that has quietly engulfed the mine.
Fabrice briefs us on the structure of the former extraction area. We will follow the red line in a 300m loop, a simple route suitable for our first dive after the long trip from Belgium.
It will familiarise Hedwig with the scene and help him to make any camera adjustments for tomorrow. He has long sought such an artificial underground site for photography.
We kit up on old cut blocks of stone, and move to the shallow water. We swim between the remarkably white pillars to the start of the line that marks the cave passage, and dive into the turquoise water halfway down the gallery.
At 5m we encounter the rusty steel gate that once secured the mine, like a ghost skeleton in the middle of the gallery. We spot older stone blocks a little further away and I pose in front of them.
A little further on, at the foot of an ancient well, the bones of a dog looked to have been there for many years. Visibility of up to 25m allows us to fully appreciate the place and enjoy its imposing volume.
The quarry reveals a typical configuration of limestone extractions, with aligned pillars at 20m intervals forming a checkerboard configuration.
Everywhere we look, we see abandoned cables, tools, chains, winches and pieces of timber. The electrical power network is still in place, and insulators still support cables running across the ceilings.
We stop to take pictures of an old glass lightbulb, still intact, before reaching the end of the loop.
St-Même-les-Carrières is a quiet village 20 miles from Angoulème, where the winter sun paints houses in honey and amber colours. A large number of English retirees enjoy the charm, lifestyle and pleasant climate of the Charente region here, now that the days of stone extraction are long gone.
The last operation, Fèvre, was closed in the early 1970s. For four centuries village life had followed the rhythms of the daily stone-mining. The extraction area extends 3km south of the village and the stones that made St Même’s reputation were used to build Bordeaux Cathedral and many official buildings.
The stone was transported by boat on the Charente river, and sent as far away as Canada. It even forms the pedestal of New York’s Statue of Liberty!
As more and more stone was demanded, the workers dug ever deeper into a limestone vein more than 50m thick. At its peak, the underground work spread over 60 hectares and 60m beneath agricultural land. The volumes are far more impressive than those of similar mines elsewhere in Europe.
When Fèvre stopped pumping out, the groundwater took four years to stabilise at its present level, flooding the lower of the three levels over a 10-hectare area.
AFTER A COMFORTABLE NIGHT AT the Chez Anne B&B in the village, run by a lovely couple of Londoners, we enjoy a good breakfast made with local products and go to find Fabrice.
There are four possible routes through the mine, from 150 to 700m, and this morning we would follow the blue line, a 550m loop in the western section that runs through Fèvre following the electrical and pumping systems.
Visibility is even better today and our maximum depth is 20m. Graffiti left on the white walls by workers a few decades ago look as fresh as if written the day before. They record mined tonnage, life in the village, and are sometimes a little naughty.
The limits of different rock veins are written in red on the white pillars – “Ram”, “Jaune”, “Crème”, the rusted remains dot the galleries in contrasting colours.
Arriving near the base of an old pump, to our surprise we see a lithographed tin barely corroded by rust and time. This waterproof and very solid box marked “KUB Bouillon” had been used by workers to store carbide for their lamps.
Two pumping pipes pass through the ceiling to the intermediate floor, also flooded at this point. The desire to explore a little on our own is overpowering, but we’re here to take a series of photos.
We pass over a small construction serving as a room for workers on their breaks and an office for the mine supervisor. We see electric cable, a lamp and other pipes passing through the ceiling also – no one knows what lies above.
Old stories tell of several horse-drawn carriages, having fallen into deep flooded pits surrounded by agricultural land, but nobody can say where they are, and much of the mine remains to be explored.
Our last dive is on the orange line – the “cavern line” used for initiation dives because it is shallow enough to allow divers to surface quickly.
The place has its interest, however, and it allows open-water divers to see the mine and its artefacts safely.
In the corner of a room a little below us we can see an old wooden cart, incredibly preserved, that was pulled by donkeys and horses to bring the blocks from the depths.
Fabrice takes advantage of time in the afternoon to continue installing a pink line, going 25m deep into the quarry and which will eventually loop for more than a kilometre.
IT’S TIME TO PACK OUR GEAR and hit the road, having first promised to return in a few weeks’ time for some proper exploration. The eastern part of the quarry and the intermediate level to which all the pumping pipes ascend are mainly unexplored. This place is an overhead-environment must.
|The Municipality of St-Même-les-Carrières allows diving in the mine under the supervision of the Aquatek dive-school and Fabrice Couraud.
Cave-diver certification is mandatory, but guided or discovery dives are also available on request, www.aquatek.fr. B&B at Chez Anne, 200m from the site (www.chez-anne.net). For other accommodation visit www.gites-de-france.com