BLAENAVON, Wales, June 1, 2012 — In Wales, a tiny nation west of England, you’ll find over 400 stone castles, eleven million sheep dotting daffodil-covered rolling hills, narrow canals lined with colorful houseboats, wind-swept beaches with limestone cliffs, towns with names that are longer than most sentences, romantic moors and male choirs with the voices of angels. Scenic and romantic are gross understatements.
But there’s a dirtier, grittier side to this country as well, a side that’s easy to miss because it’s underground in the miles of tunnels, where men worked mining the coal that fuelled the industrial revolution.
In 1913, the valleys of South Wales had 620 coalmines, employing 232,000 men producing approximately 57 million tons of the black stuff. By 1975, output had dropped to a fifth of this, but still economically significant with 42 mines employing 30, 800.
Today, evidence of this once thriving industry has virtually disappeared. Most of the ‘tips’ (slag heaps) that once scarred the countryside have been landscaped or removed, surface buildings demolished and mines filled in.
But there’s still a place visitors can get a first-hand glimpse of the coal mining way of life in these valleys. Blaenavon, once considered a bleak pit town, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its industrial legacy that includes the world’s oldest surviving iron works and the Big Pit, one of only two remaining coal mines, now preserved as a museum. A highlight of any visit to the award-winning National Coal Museum is an underground tour led by former miners. The experience it creates is an authentic, not a Disney, version as we soon find out.
First, we store all of our cell phones, cameras and other battery-operated devices because of the real safety risks of the gases emitted underground. Then, we’re outfitted with a hard hat and a surprisingly heavy belt, the same equipment worn by the miners, before we’re ushered into ‘the cage’ (elevator) with our guide Jake. Nick-named ‘Jake the Snake’ by his fellow miners, he has an easy smile and is quick to crack a joke.
As we descend 300ft, he tells us that he started mining when he was 17 and loved the pits. As we walk through the mile-long tunnel, it’s hard to see what there is to love. It’s damp and more than a little eerie. It becomes even eerier when Jake begins to recount the conditions for not only the men, but also the women and children who used to work here.
“Kids as young as five worked 12-hour shifts underground as ‘trappers’, opening and closing ventilation doors.” Jake explains that since candles cost money, they would work in complete darkness. “Many went blind; many died.”
To show how dark it would have been, we are asked to turn off our lights. It takes a few moments as we fumble around with unfamiliar equipment, but finally the last light goes out and we’re in the dark. Pitch black darkness. We can see absolutely nothing and the only indication that there are people around us is the nervous laughter that occasionally erupts. A chill goes up my spine thinking of a lad my son’s age (eight years old) working in the darkness and what his thoughts would have been.
There are ghost stories, too, and some believe the mine is haunted by those who died in the many accidents that occurred. One member of our tour group swears she feels something pulling at her.
As we continue down the twisting tunnels, Jake explains what the mining process was in the different eras of coal mining. We learn about the wire signal system, Davy lamps used for testing gas (canaries, too) and how the drams had to contain only coal – no muck- or else the men wouldn’t get paid. In the early days, pay consisted of tokens redeemable in the company shop for candles, food and clothes. We’re shown the stables, which at one time housed 72 horses. They, too, would go blind from the darkness.
The 50-minute tour comes to an end and after the grim stories and the oppressive darkness, I’m relieved to go up to the surface, but glad to have experienced a real part of Welsh history - a history that’s just as important as the 400 castles.
Big Pit: National Coal Museum Open daily 9.30am – 5pm Admission is free.
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