Low barren hills slide beneath grey skies towards a grey sea. The only prominent feature to trip up the eye for miles is the skeletal frame of a rust-red winding tower, an evocation of the cold, hard toil of industry, and the hardship of its loss. The landscape is bleak, the persistent drizzle is cold, and I am at the pit head of a coal mine with a companion called Jones. What else was I to expect from a weekend in Wales?
The coal mine in question is the Big Pit, which had been an operational mine from 1860 to 1980 and during that time a vital source of the steam coal that powered Britain’s engines and ships and kept an empire on the move. My ‘new thing’ for this week was to follow in the footsteps of the thousands who had once worked beneath the valleys by donning a helmet, cap light and belt, and descending a 90 metre shaft in an original cage lift to participate in an underground tour.
These tours are led by ex-miners whose first-hand knowledge of life at the coal face provided a personal connection and raw sincerity unusual and invaluable in a history tour – even if all the historical detail our miner guide imparted cannot necessarily be verified (his two favourite time periods being “back then” and “in our grandfather’s time”; not particularly precise frames of reference when standing in a mine that functioned for 120 years with a tour group whose ages ranged from around six to sixty).
It was however a tour on which impressions and understanding were lessons more important to take away than precise facts and figures, and an hour’s walk through the cold damp tunnels of an original mine does much more, in the opinion of this humble history graduate, to bring to life the lives of miners than any amount of reading. From the day a young boy was employed to sit in the pitch dark for twelve hours at a stretch and operate the tunnel doors (which for the sake of ventilation had to be kept shut) until his eventual retirement or death, a miner’s life was hard, dark, dirty, painful and invariably short. Until 1842, women and young children laboured alongside men, often pushing the drams of coal mined by the menfolk; thereafter, boys over ten still pushed the drams or tended to the pit ponies that replaced women, or instead (for the employment opportunities available to ten year olds in nineteenth century Wales were indeed plentiful) worked alongside men at the coal face, shovelling the coal their elders had hacked out. Working in teams of two, a man and boy would be rewarded for a dram of coal with a token which could be exchanged for food and essentials only at a store managed by the cooperative or individual who also managed the mine – thus the workers that stoked Britain’s industrial revolution and enabled vast enrichment were trapped in a closed, unfair economy.
The dangers this monotonous life entailed were also brought vividly to life by the fact that the mine, for all it is a tourist attraction, remains a dangerous place to be. Gas levels are still checked three times a day and all visitors must surrender their watches and other battery powered possessions (including, therefore, cameras) before entering so as not to cause a spark and ignite an explosion. In the unlikely event of such an explosion occurring, and in the even unlikelier event that one should survive it, all visitors are equipped with gas masks which provide an all-too-short one hour’s grace to find your way to safety.
In the nineteenth century, thousands died in such explosions, but the occupational hazards of mining were not restricted to large-scale disasters; if one was not killed by an explosion then suffocation could get you; or a flooded shaft; or the collapse of a wall; or the crush of a dram; or that most pervasive and undefeatable killer, dust. It must be quite a thing, to spend your working life in darkness only to miss out on days in the light because dust has drowned your lungs.
Our miner guide’s story was, in sum, one of lives as bleak as the landscape above.
It was also however a story of nostalgia. As for all that mining was a hard life, for many it was life, and our guide, along with several members of our group with mining connections, recalled with fond nostalgia the days when mining thrived, and expressed regret at its decline. “It’s sad” our guide said of several mines, “that it’s now closed. But maybe one day it will open again.”
With such contrary and sad discourses running through the tour, it would have been quite easy to emerge back above ground thoroughly depressed.
Yet in life, humour has a way of sparkling even in the deepest, darkest hole. Our tour was not therefore without its moments of comic relief, my personal favourite coming courtesy of that most unlikely of subjects, pony-eating rats.
Miner guide: “So what do you think they used to catch the rats?”
Tourist, tentatively: “A cat?”
Miner guide: “Something a bit bigger than a cat.”
Child, seriously: “A tiger?”
As if life down the mines wasn’t perilous enough.
The Big Pit National Coal Museum is in Blaenavon, South Wales, adjacent to the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage Site. Underground tours of the mine are free. http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/bigpit/