The Eston Hills above the industrial area of Teesside are peppered with numerous mine workings – the legacy of a 19th century iron rush brought about by the detection of a huge ore seam located by the Bolckow & Vaughan Company who quickly set about exploiting it. It’s discovery was the main driving force behind the large-scale industrialisation of the area, and it’s intense surge in population through the mid to late 1800s.
This odd looking, long abandoned structure that looks very Silent Hill-esque in the mist present on the day of my first visit, is an 1876 Belgian designed Guibal fan house; used to ventilate a section of the Eston Mines known as the Lazenby Pit. Inside would once have been a huge steam powered fan 9m in diameter – more reminiscent of a paddle style ‘water wheel’ than the bladed design you might expect. This would have turned at around 49rpm, which doesn’t seem like much, but would have been sufficient to draw out the stale air inside caused by excessive dust along with gases released from the use of explosives; thus making the drifts slightly more habitable (although probably not much more pleasant to be in). Prior to the introduction of these fan houses, mines were often ventilated (rather counter-intuitively) by lighting fires beneath the working levels which would create an updraught, expelling the bad air through an upcast shaft. The obvious risks of using fire underground with flammable gases and materials hastened the search for a less risky form of air extraction – this was just 1 of 15 fan houses in the near vicinity built in the latter half of the 20th century, that serviced the area’s extensive network of ironstone mines.
This particular example is known locally as the ‘SS Castle’ on account of the ’S’ shaped wall ties used to maintain the integrity of it’s cavity walls, and was constructed from slag strengthened cement which would have been easy to produce owing to the large number of blast furnaces in the area at the time. The Eston mine was one of the last to close in the area as the ore veins were gradually exhausted, and extraction ceased in 1939 after close to a century of operation. The chemical company ICI then took over the area in 1945, establishing their headquarters nearby, and planted trees on a large section of the hillside which have grown around the fan house, resulting in it’s current isolated position.
Now, SS Castle is a regular haunt for the local youths to hang out and drink covertly – on the two separate occasions I visited, it wasn’t long before some groups showed up. On the first, around 10 people showed up and quickly set about drinking – I made myself known and said hi. They didn’t seem unfriendly, but with around 10 of them there, the moments of peaceful exploration were certainly gone so I trudged back through the quagmire that’s formed around the fan house and came back the following week to explore the interior. Inside is dark, but with enough light entering from the grate (that I believe would have housed the fan’s axle), to see by without making a torch a necessity. Obviously nothing remains of the wooden fan, which was probably broken down and recycled, but you get a good sense of it’s scale when peering into the housing. The mine drift goes for only few metres, before you hit a flooded section, and beyond that it looks purposefully sealed with debris – no doubt to prevent the curious and unprepared from coming to a premature end.
The fan house sits on privately owned land, with numerous public rights of way snaking through it and in 2013, a large 214 acre portion, including the SS Castle and other mining site remains went up for sale for £475,000. The Friends of Eston Hills organisation was formed with the ultimate goal being to raise enough funds to buy the site outright and take it into public ownership, so that access improvements could be made along with preserving the mining site remains and raising a monument to those who lost their lives in the Eston pits. They didn’t quite make it, but did succeed in raising enough to buy a section around Eston Nab. From what I can tell though, a buyer hasn’t been found for the rest, so perhaps there’s still some hope left…