Sunday, January 07, 2024

GUEST POST Snailbeach and the music of abandonment

The musician Eric Loveland Heath (E.L. Heath) writes about growing up in the Shropshire village of Snailbeach and his artistic reaction to it today.

I grew up amongst the ruined mine buildings of Snailbeach in the shadow of the Stiperstones. Not everyone can say that. 

A strange, dank and mysterious place, set high on a hill and far cry from the London streets I was used to. Further up, along the Stiperstones sat the Devil's Chair, where on a misty day the dark lord himself was said to sit. 

The Stiperstones themselves were his fault as well. Apparently he dropped them from his apron when the strings broke while carrying them to Wales to throw at the Welsh (somewhat confusingly for being heathens). 

If that wasn’t enough, there was a headless horseman - Wild Edric - who galloped here and there on the moor. As children, we just ran, dodging the many rocks, on cross-country races and what were meant to be sponsored walks.

Snailbeach has an odd place in my life; somewhere that had a great part in shaping who I am and what I do, but not a place I hold dear, for many and various reasons. A place you cannot really move to and belong, where the hills and the weight of history all around seem actively to repel change.

From the bus stop, when waiting for school or the bi-hourly bus to town (a 45-minute ride), the valley was often steeped in mist, with the plantation atop Bromlow Callow sticking out like a desert island.

As it was, I lived here from the age of 6 to 16, before moving down into the valley below, returning at the age of 26 to try and document the strange sensation of returning to a place well known after a period of change, but most of all to capture the odd atmosphere of the place, something that has never quite left me. I often note that this fits neatly into a pair of 10-year blocks, where the number 6 is a curious constant.

In its heyday, the Snailbeach Mine was considered the richest and largest lead mine in the whole of Europe, but by the early 1900s the buildings were largely in disrepair. When my family moved to the village they were practically falling in. Black Tom Shaft was busily collapsing into someone’s back garden.

In the meantime, the Shropshire Mines Trust had been to work, many of the buildings were restored or more structurally sound, tours were taking place down Day Level on the weekends. Though I cannot remember the exact date I visited, it was not one of those. Everything was closed up and, as ever, it was raining softly.

My intention was to record some sort of album of music inspired by the place. I'd already been playing around with a few ideas, sonic daydreams hewn from my childhood of sliding through the vast darkness of those long drowned tunnels below. I’d brought a voice recorder and tapped a few rusted up bits of machinery, made a rhythm from brushing my sleeve on my coat, and a clang from a stone striking the gate of Scott Level, located under someone’s house.

Along with a few photographs I took that day, I pieced together an album based around these sounds, working slowly, note by note, marking the various levels and shafts, the reservoir I played in during the summer and the steam railway, whose old tracks passed directly behind our back gate.

This became Snailbeach Mines Trust, released by Wayside and Woodland Recordings in 2010, and though the CD is long out of print, is still available digitally. 2025 will mark its 15th anniversary, and I am in the process of putting together a reissue to mark this; an expanded edition with further recordings from the time. Trust me, it will be worth the wait.

These days, Snailbeach is a site of special scientific interest and outstanding natural beauty. The White Tips I played on as a kid have long gone, covered by protective membrane. All around is green, nature has engulfed the mines once again. 

The Mines Trust still hold their tours, scurrying down Day Level, where a series of lights descend to mark the current water level. Below this point lie some 12 miles of tunnels and shafts, impassable to this day, leading all the way to the base of the hill. 

You can watch a short guided tour of the mine and the album filmed with my friend, the YouTuber Ginger Beard Mark. The album is available from Wayside and Woodland and Plenty Wenlock Records.

You can follow Eric Loveland Heath on Twitter and Instagram.

Now read Memories of Snailbeach in the 1950s by Christina Samson.

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