Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The 3pm to Birkhill: Part 2

I enjoy caves and mines (even when I get stuck, see here), and a bit of industrial archaeology is always an attractive proposition. Birkhill Fireclay Mine is managed by Falkirk Council, in partnership with the Scottish Railway Preservation Society. Guided tours begin from the Birkhill station platform.

The mine is in the gorge of the River Avon. Fireclay deposits have been exploited here since the 18th century. The clay was valued for its high alumina content which allowed it to be made into heat-resistant refractory bricks for lining industrial furnaces, including those in iron and steel works.

Access to the mine is via a steep staircase which runs alongside the track along which the carriages containing the clay were pulled up to be processed. The buildings where this was carried out have been left to deteriorate and are not open to the public. However, there's a grand set of photos here which show what they were like just last year.

The modern mine was established by Peter and Mark Hurll Ltd, a fire-brick manufacturer based at Glenboig in North Lanarkshire. Three mines were dug at Birkhill, and it is the most recent of these which can be accessed.

Going into the third mine. Production reached its peak in the 1950s and by the 1970s there were six miles (10 km) of tunnels penetrating 823m (900 yards) into the ground. However, demand for its product declined and the company went into liquidation in 1980. The mine lay abandoned until 1987 before it was opened as a tourist attraction. Most of it remains flooded.

An excellent guide described how the clay was worked, and the life of a miner. A range of equipment and tools found in the abandoned mine is also on display.

The clay was laid down in the Carboniferous Period and visitors can see 300 million-year-old fossils, together with the imprint of ancient riverbeds in the sandstone roof of the mine.

The tracks come out of the mine across the gorge.

Looking up the Avon from the bridge.

Looking downriver, with the ancient woodland on the banks.

Our transport back to Bo'ness.

I was fortunate in 1965 to join a party of young people which travelled to the Middle East to do voluntary work for a couple of months, and see the sights of the Holy Land. To make it as inexpensive as possible we went by train. What a journey! Down to London, then across to Ostend. Then to Lublyana and Belgrade. From Belgrade through Bulgaria to Istanbul. Across to Haydarpasa, then a forty hour trip to Aleppo in Syria. On two of the nights I slept in the carriage luggage racks (I was smaller and lighter then)! Not a memory that I've recalled for many years, but the experiences came flooding back when I noticed these racks on the train back to Bo'ness.

That trip in 1965 was an experience of a lifetime. And it certainly gave me itchy feet and the desire to see many parts of the world, an ambition I have realised in the years since.

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