On Friday we met up with my sister and her family and went to the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon. It must have been more than 20 years ago since my last visit. I had wanted to take the kids to the Big Pit for ages. Their great grandparents were both coal miners, so mining is part of our family history.
When the Blaenavon mine stopped working in the early 80's, it became Wales' National Coal Museum, with old miners acting as tour guides. All the guides and workers at the pit are still ex-miners, although only two used to work at the Big Pit. One of them is John, our guide for what was meant to be a 50 minute tour of the old mine workings. But before going underground, we were equipped with hard hats, miner's lamps and emergency gas masks. All "contraband" had to be surrendered before entering the cage lift in which we would descend 300 feet (90 meters) into the old mine. "Contraband" included all smoking materials and anything fitted with a dry battery. We had to leave our 21st century gadgets behind before entering the historic mine. All cameras, mobile phones, digital watches and car keys had to be surrendered. Below ground lurks the ever present danger of methane gas that could be ignited by the smallest spark. My daughter gripped my hand tightly as we entered the cage and began our journey into the dark depths of the earth.
In all there are 26 miles of tunnels in the mine and we only explored a small part of the workings. But what we saw was enough to give us a glimpse into the tough and dangerous world of the coal miner. John, our guide was a real character. There was no doubt that he was in charge as he led us into the inner workings of the Big Pit. The old miner was a real working class hero, full of information and friendly banter. Woe betide any member of the tour party who had the temerity to ask a stupid question! At one point John told us to switch off our helmet lights. The darkness could almost be felt. You could not see your hand in front of your face. Eyes could never adjust to such utter blackness. Small boys used to work ten hour shifts in that darkness, opening and shutting doors as they heard pit ponies approaching. Here and there I spotted rusting, disused drams, the kind of which were filled with "black gold" and hauled to the mineshaft by the ponies.
We were shown the stables, still replete with the old horse's names, "Thunder", "Hercules" etc. When the mines were nationalised in the 1940's, the hard working ponies were given two weeks to scamper above ground when the pits closed for "Miner's Fortnight". These days, we tend to think of nationalised industries as inefficient monopolies. Many of them were in the 1970's & 80's. But when the mines were nationalised, miner's safety, pay and conditions were vastly improved. John led us through a seemingly endless series of passageways. We saw old conveyor belts, heaped with coal dust, frozen in time since they stopped transporting coal into drams ready for the journey to the surface.
Our "50 minute tour" complete, the party ascended to the ground level. We had been underground foe an hour and a half . One of the surface workers joked that they were going to send out a search party for us. But we had not suffered a collapsed tunnel, or methane gas explosion. It was just that time had passed so quickly without our digital watches, that we didn't realise the minutes were ticking away relentlessly above ground. It was John who made the tour so enjoyable. In him we had an authentic human guide, sparking with ready wit and full of insider knowledge. You don't get that with one of those automated "press button 7 for commentary" audio guides. The banter between John and his mates was a reminder of the time when the pit was alive with workmen, whose lives depended on each other during the hours they spent cutting coal from the seams that still glimmered in the mine.
After the underground tour came an opportunity to explore the museum's above ground features including the dramatic Mining Galleries and the excellent Pit Head Baths Exhibitions. With the decline of the Welsh mining industry in the 1980's it is difficult to imagine the time when coal was king. But Welsh coking coal powered the British Empire and Welsh anthracite burned brightly in the hearths of most British homes. In 1901, 18 million tonnes of Welsh coal, amounting to 46% of UK output was exported overseas. In the 1970's a miner's strike brought the country to its knees. Industry was reduced to working a three day week to conserve coal stocks. Electricity supplies (mostly generated by coal) were were cut, plunging homes into darkness. I still remember our house being lit by candles during the period. But the days of King Coal were numbered. In 1985, Arthur Scargill led the miners on strike in an endeavour to halt the closure of a limited number of unprofitable collieries. The strike was a failure. Most of the Welsh coalmines were closed and with them a way of life perished for ever.
Or did it? Someone in our tour party asked John if rising oil prices would mean a return to coal. Our guide pointed out that a hundred years worth of "black gold" still lay undisturbed in the Welsh coalfield. Who knows if men will once more risk life and limb to keep the home fires burning? Many ex-miners bitterly regretted the closure of the pits, meaning an end to the camaraderie that is born of shared danger. But others were relived that their sons would not have to follow them into the darkness. Will we see a new generation of Welshmen called into the service of old King Coal? That remains to be seen.
The role of the Christian faith in Welsh mining communities was highlighted in the exhibition. An old family Bible and photos of huge chapels were among the items on display. The money in miners pockets helped to fund the building of many Nonconformist Chapels. The 1904-05 Revival was given a mention. It is said that during the revival, the colliers held prayer meetings deep underground. Such was the change in the conduct of the men who worked with pit ponies that the poor animals were left confused. They were used to being sworn at and treated harshly. But the newly converted colliers treated the ponies with a new gentleness and care.
I highly recommend a visit to the Big Pit. Our visit was informative, engaging and deeply moving. The men who worked underground were honoured but not sentimentalised. My grandfather, Vernon Llewelyn Davies, a miner in Risca pit was one of them.
Like all Welsh museums, the Big Pit is FREE!