Cultural heritage is something to be proud of wherever you come from. This weekend, we decided to tick one of my many Welsh adventures off the list and go explore The Big Pit National Coal Museum up in Blaenavon – and we had the best time!
The weather kept changing its mind between momentary glorious sunshine and overcast with outbursts of rain but nontheless, the scenery was beautiful – The Big Pit is actually located in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My proud little Welshman stood gazing lovingly over his homeland and I can’t deny that I felt proud to be an honorary Welshie. My own family has mining history too back up in County Durham, so it filled me with questions to ask my mother and grandad when I next see them; it was so interesting learning about stuff that’s so relevant to your own life and background yet still so fresh in historical terms. Anyway, back to the museum & tour itself.
Rob and the other tour guys we can’t speak highly enough of; so friendly and chatty and so so knowledgeable about their subject being ex-miners themselves. They carefully strapped our harnesses & headlights on and locked away our valuables before we squished like sardines into the lift, ready to go below-ground (very authentic). Rob went on to tell us how fast this lift was descending and how much faster it would’ve been back in the day – and still is in other much deeper mines – as well as how many would fit into one of these lifts in a typical day, which alone was enough to make me glad not to have to do it everyday!
At the bottom lay one of the trucks the horses used to pull through the mines, 72 of which resided at The Big Pit, each truck carrying 1 tonne of coal which was sent up to the surface and away to peoples’ homes. These horses were allowed out ‘on holiday’ for 2 weeks of the year and the rest of their lives were spent underground working the mines. I’m not a big fan of horses but the extremity of the constantly damp conditions and fellow resident rodents down there gave me a huge respect for these animals, lugging tonnes and tonnes of coal miles through the mines day after day.
On top of that, children as young as 5 were sent down to work in the mines opening and closing the ventilation doors, until at about 9 years old they were old enough to work the mine face itself. Young girls weren’t exempt it turns out; their job was to crawl on hands and knees up and down the steep mine faces tugging along a trolley which men could dispatch their coal into, so I can only imagine how heavy it must’ve gotten and how realistically quite terrifying that must’ve been, crawling on your own through sweaty older men all day. (This is in fact why young girls were banned from working the mines some years later – it was deemed inappropriate for them to be around men who were often half or almost fully naked due to the heat of working at the deep coal faces at such a young age and I can’t say I disagree).
Rob said to us “hold your hand out in front of your faces and when I count to three, turn your headlamps off. 1, 2, 3.” Darkness. And I mean seriously: Pitch. Black.
When you think about it, when was the last time you truly couldn’t see anything? Not even the tiniest fleck of light or at least the outline of your hand in front of you? If it hadn’t have been attached to me I can honestly say I’d have had no idea where my hand was, and I can imagine after hours on end of this darkness which the children on the doors went through I definitely think I’d have been going mad and starting to lose it. We were told that the shift patterns were 12 hours long both for the men and the children, meaning that in the winter these miners never saw daylight; so much of their lives were spent underground that these horses became their children and these fellow men became their family. The camaraderie that stems from such close-knit communities in such extreme conditions is something that always remains truly admirable to me and something totally key to survival, I imagine. A problem shared is a problem halved an’ all that.
Further along the line came a small railway track which the carts were transported through the mines on once the demand became higher than the horses could physically take. This was incredible in itself because of the way it was operated: one child would be placed at the top of the track and the other would go along the track with the cart to the coal face – which could have been miles and miles away. Once full, the child with the cart would simply squeeze together two electrical wires running along the wall adjacent to the track, generating a bell ringing at the other end so the other child knew when to withdraw the cart. These electrical wires themselves were live, including those Rob showed us on the day, which if they sparked when methane gas was present (a by-product of coal extraction) led to potentially huge explosions within the mine itself. This was sadly the case with the Senghenydd colliery disaster of 1913 which killed 439 miners, men and children alike. As cliché as it sounds, this really brought it home for us as we stood in a mine… surrounded by people… underground… almost pitch black… nearest exit literally miles away…
As I said, heritage is so important. When something really relates to your own now privileged life it not only makes it so so interesting but also so so real. Back at the surface there were several other reality checks such as the showers and lockers with personal stories and contents within them that really made everything so touching and inspiring. My boyfriend was beaming with excitement the entire time and even came out of there wanting to be a miner for crying out loud… but the sense of pride in their work was what was really touching; these men went to work day after day after day knowing that their suffering and intense hard work was fuelling a growing nation, heating homes and powering trains, driving the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom which we have relied upon to develop our lifestyle today. This pride shone through from Rob and the other ex-miner tour guides and really made the day for us, we had the utmost respect for these guys; they were there, they lived this.
I’d really recommend a trip to The Big Pit National Coal Museum if you’re ever in South Wales, or perhaps you live here and you’ve just not had chance to go yet. It’s free entry just like the other National Museums in Wales, though there are donation boxes around the place and a lovely cute shop at the end filled with Welsh-ness; local beers, Welsh silver jewellery, cheese and chopping boards (above), that sort of thing. You also don’t need good weather for the underground bit, just make sure you’ve got a few layers on cos it can get pretty chilly down there. There’s just so much to see and learn about we were absolutely fascinated; I think it’s so important to understand and appreciate these things, history is a part of us after all.
Diolch i chi a hwyl am nawr,
*featured image courtesy of Visit Wales