As lads we were keen speleologists, given the great number of abandoned metal mines in the area. Mines are not, in general, as beautiful as natural caves - no sparkling stalactites, calcites and pearls, but they have a strange attraction as places that men have built, and worked their often short lives away in. Mines are also considerably more dangerous, held up with wooden props that turn to chocolate cake over the years, and rotten iron staircases and ladders. Just the job, then, for young fellows...
we might use tough, economical LED flashlights, but they were yet to
be invented. Conventional torches, or at least the ones we could
afford, are fragile, fickle, and just eat batteries. We therefore
used carbide lamps - crude, smelly, dangerous, and utterly reliable.
These lamps (if there is anyone here young enough not to be familiar
with them) consist of two chambers - the lower of which one fills
with Calcium Carbide "rocks", and the upper with water. An
adjustable needle-valve allows water to drip slowly onto the carbide,
and their sizzling reaction produces acetylene gas. This gas, led by
a tube to a flat ceramic nozzle on the user's "hard hat",
burns with a noisy, luminous, almost white flame.
Acetylene is seriously energetic stuff, H-C=C-H with a triple bond
between the two Carbon atoms, which makes it good for the welding and
cutting of metals. Old garages, before Acetylene in cylinders became
commonplace, often had a generator, a big version of the lamps and as
often as not home-made from an old pressure cooker.
one day we are proceeding along a low drift. We've been here before,
and know that it leads to some interesting chambers, but today the
lower half of the tunnel is occupied by a swift-running stream.
Advancing doubled-over is hard work, but it's not too far. The roof
is so low that we can no longer wear our back-packs, and so, as is
usual, attach them to our belts with a lanyard and let them float on
ahead. Food, cigarettes are in waterproof tins, and our spare carbide
(we might spend the weekend underground) tied up in a length of
motorcycle inner tube, to keep it dry. The chap in front of me,
hearing a hissing noise coming from his pack, pulls it towards him to
see what gives, and Whooomf!, the escaping gas catches fire, BIG ball
of flame! In his panic he retreats past us up the tunnel, but,
forgetting the lanyard, pursued by the flaming bag.
hurt, at the end of the day, apart from one lad who nearly drowns, so
hard is he laughing...