THIRSTY JOB: Landlord and landlady Roy and Rima Chatterjee recreate the 1969 frogman photograph with Ian Mitchell
THIRSTY JOB: Landlord and landlady Roy and Rima Chatterjee recreate the 1969 frogman photograph with Ian Mitchell

A CHANCE conversation in a pub led to a keen dale diver exploring the murky depths of a well hidden two levels below the street.

Despite being a regular at the Old Well, in Barnard Castle, Ian Mitchell, 50, hadn’t realised there was a hidden well despite the descriptive name of the pub.

“It’d got chatting to some visitors,” said Mr Mitchell, a keen amateur scuba diver. “They’d been reading the history cards in the pub and told me about it.”

Mr Mitchell, who is more used to diving in the River Tees, said he seized the opportunity and asked Roy and Rima Chatterjee, who purchased the pub two years ago, if he could take a dive.

Mrs Chatterjee said: “We normally don’t let anyone down into the sub-cellar for health and safety reasons, but Ian said he was qualified and we were interested to know more about the well and what’s down there.”

When they purchased the pub, which dates to about 1795, Mr and Mrs Chatterjee installed lighting and two hi-definition cameras in the subterranean cellar. Monitors in the front bar and dining room link to the camera, allowing visitors to glimpse the ancient well. However on the morning of the dive the monitor broke so were unable to have the feed live in the pub itself.

Mr Mitchell had hoped to get video footage of his dive but the visibility was so bad he doesn’t believe it will show anything. He spent about ten minutes exploring the well, which is in a cave like room below the bar’s cellar.

Mr Mitchell, of St Mary’s Close, in Barnard Castle, said: “I couldn't see my hand in front of my face – it was so murky. I felt my way down three of the walls. The first wall went straight down. I was down about 25 to 30 feet but I wasn’t at the bottom. The second wall I went down about the same depth and I felt something like a cord or wire – a diver’s worst nightmare, so I came back up. The third wall narrowed off much like a funnel. I didn’t want to go any further with my training, but I know I hadn’t got to the bottom.”

DEEPER AND DOWN: Ian Mitchell descending into the well
DEEPER AND DOWN: Ian Mitchell descending into the well

It took two attempts for Mr Mitchell to extricate himself from the well itself after his air tanks became wedged. Fortunately the owners’ eldest son, Aayush Chatterjee, 22, was on hand to help guide him up the access ladder.

There were as many as 39 wells in Barnard Castle in the early part of the 19th century. All but two were covered over following a cholera epidemic in 1824 and it is believed the Old Well’s water-filled cavern is one of those two.

The last recorded time a diver was in the well was 1969 when the licensees were Peter and Kay McArthur. The Teesdale Mercury reported of Army frogmen who spent two hours in the well, which was used for brewing beer. At the time samples of the water, which gives off a distinctly sulphurous odour, were sent off to the local brewery for analysis.

Mr Mitchell said he is going to contact a cave diver group to see if they want to investigate further.