In 1851 my great great grandfather Samuel Cross, then aged 40, was a lead miner working the rich veins of ore in one or other of the lead mines then at peak of production here in the south Shropshire hills. His father and uncles before him, brothers and neighbours too, all were employed here. Some years later his sons would also wield the pick and shovel, processing the ore above ground or hewing it from the bed-rock deep below. Large sprawling families, industrious and God-fearing, eking out a living - the miner's wage supplemented by a patch of land and good husbandry.
Towards the end of the century economic forces and foreign competition sent the industry into decline and the labour force had to seek employment elsewhere. Thus began the great Cross diaspora. My family went in all directions and now I have returned.
They are all strangers to me of course - the blood that runs through my veins is probably quite dilute by now- nothing in common but this slender thread of ancestry. I've studied the census returns and pored over parish records and I've gathered a lot of facts and statistics; I know who was who's neighbour and who married who - but am ever more curious about their day-to-day lives. I would like flesh put on these old bones.
This evening, via a narrow gated entrance in a hillside in Snailbeach I waded stooped and damp into the miners' world. Lit for us by the luxury of torchlight - no flickering, guttering candles for us - a rough hewn landscape revealed itself - hard and wet. These 'levels', long abandoned and only lately valued as part of our industrial heritage, are extensive - it's hard to grasp their scale and breadth and to comprehend that this labyrinthine complex was made by manpower and a little black powder. Hard and dangerous labour indeed.
We venture what seems like deep into the system - though I imagine unfamiliarity makes our journey appear longer than it actually is - and stand, somewhat in awe, in a 'stope'. This cavernous void has been mined out - this is the space that's left when the vein of ore is removed. Above us, nothingess for as far as a torch beam reaches. Somewhere - outside - way above, is a wooded hill, dappled shade and sunlight.
I put my hands on the rough hewn walls and feel the wetness that seeps through slim fissures and soaks the dark rock. It's chill. We turn out our torches and stand in utter blackness. No one moves or speaks. It takes a leap of imagination to see this as a workplace; to visualise its exhausting physicality, the loud and ugly brutality of the act of breaking rock, the smell of mud, sweat and explosive, the banter and camaraderie of shared experience. I try. With eyes wide open staring into black and my hand gingerly groping for the roughwet wall, I am sharing. Their world. Now.
Outside again it is still evening and the air is warm and sweet. Over the Long Mountain the sun is throwing a golden light down across the valley. We all stand tall again, remove our helmets and trudge down the lane, en route for home. Ever it was thus I suppose at the end of the day.
Home into the sunset with a fragment of song:
'Where it's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew.
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few.
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
it's dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.'
To the east reflected light on clouds over the Stiperstones
To the west, the setting sun over the Long Mountain
Rain tomorrow perhaps.