Thursday, 4 April 2013

Big Pit

A visit to an old coal mine may seem a strange topic for a trans blog, but do stay with me. It was a step into a man's world, with close-up contact with basically tough men, and therefore the potential for some challenging encounters. Quite apart from daring oneself to go underground!

It was the final day of my Spring holiday in South Wales - although it was a cold and windy day, and had a Midwinter feel. There was a lot of snow around.

Big Pit is part of the National Museum of Wales. It's on the edge of Blaenavon, a mountain town at the head of one of the Valleys. It was called Big Pit because its workings eventually extended for a huge distance underground: miles and miles of tunnels. It closed in 1980, and three years later was reopened as a 'living museum', with most elements of the former working mine preserved and in full working order. There's a lot to see, and admission is free. I even managed to park for nothing. My only expense was lunch at the cafeteria up at the pit baths building. I thought it wise to eat before I went underground. It's always best to be fed and watered if you're going to be trapped in the dark by a tunnel collapsing. I'd brought a torch too.

Here's a few scenes of what the place looks like above ground, made all the bleaker by the snow:

The three key buildings are the red-painted pit head, with its tower; the red-painted shed-like winding house, which works the steel cables that loop around wheels in the pit head tower, and hoists the cages up and down; and the 'modernist-style' buff-coloured baths building on the hillside above. There are also other buildings and storehouses, as well as railway tracks for wagons and locomotives. The mine was connected to the national rail system, and was a big producer of high-quality coal for a very long time. 

From the outside it all looked scruffy and workaday. Inside certain of the buildings, things were clean and modern (and warmly heated!) for exhibitions, and video presentations, and toilets, and for having something to eat and drink. But most of the site, inside or out, had been left in its 1980 state. So you queued to go underground in surroundings that any former miner would recognise; the pit baths and lockers were just as the men would have used them; and there were dram (coal trolley) rails to trip over, and much else to bump into or knock your head on.

I had a good look at the various exhibitions first. There were of course ground-level storerooms and stables and smithies dating from the 1880s, and I went into the winding house to see the giant electric machines winding those steel cables up and down. There were all kinds of wagons and mechanical things left outside to rust. There was also cleaned-up and repainted machinery to examine indoors:

There was a video pesentation that made you walk into the hillside to see how miners did their work. I think we were shown facsimile scenes, but they looked so realistic that I wasn't certain about that. But the main exhibition was inside the baths building, reached either by steep stairs or a zigzag path. I did wonder why the baths were situated so far from the pit head, and built so much higher up the side of the valley. But actually it's pretty obvious, once you imagine how it was when the mine was working, and how its immediate vicinity must have been black with coal dust. A physical separation meant that once clean, the men would stay clean for their journey home.

Big Pit had baths because it was such a large mine. Small collieries had to make do without. This was an important matter. If a miner couldn't wash before going home, he travelled home in his dirty, smelly and damp working clothes, and once indoors - especially in the old days of miner's cottages with no bathroom - could not get properly clean. This wasn't healthy for him or his family. And inevitably the fabric of the home would get filthy, to the despair of his wife. Being able to shower all the grime off made a huge difference to a miner's day. 

The baths at Big Pit were the very latest thing when built in 1939, completely modern and up to date, and were nationally acclaimed. They still looked very acceptable today (for a working man at least!). There were individual cubicles, which some older men, with strong notions of modesty, must have appreciated:


It wasn't easy to pay rough jokes and tricks on people here, such as reaching over and turning one of the taps off, to scald or freeze the victim. On the other hand, the individual cubicles meant that any man with a grudge, wanting to land a quick punch on someone else, could do it in some privacy, especially if his mates huddled round and made a temporary screen. Safety was paramount below ground, and grievances had to be set aside for the duration of the shift: personal scores were settled in the noise and bustle of the shower room.

It was a little odd standing for a while in a men's shower room. I hadn't been in a place quite like this for a very, very long time. Not since school. I felt I had no right to be looking. It especially felt strange taking some photos. But you can rationalise it by telling yourself that you'd have no qualms taking pictures of ancient baths at Pompeii. Even so...

There was a system to follow. The miner would come to work in his clean clothes. He had his very own 'clean' locker. Shedding his clothes, and draping a towel around himself, he then went into another room where his own 'dirty' locker was. This contained his working clothes and hard hat, which would have dried out overnight, because the boiler that provided heating and hot water for the showers also circulated warm air through all the lockers. Donning these, he went (if he worked underground) down to the pithead, and waited his turn to be hoisted below in one of the two cages - seventeen men at a time at Big Pit. Then, having completed his shift, up he came again. He would then shed his working clothes and hat, shower himself clean, towel himself dry, and dress once more in the ordinary clothing that he had left in his 'clean' locker. 

Fathers and sons might have adjacent lockers. I dare say people swapped lockers around to keep families and neighbours together.

The exhibition was a mine of information (pun intended) about pits and the people connected with them, including their home and social life, and the work (and conflicts) of the miners' union. A few shots will give you the flavour:

There were Davy lamps, and all kinds of other equipment. And what miners wore. It was an education. It was also a great opportunity to acquire a large vocabulary of specialised mining terms in Welsh! (Jenny please note) The message was gentle but insistent: miners were worthy of deep respect; and their latter-day image in the mid-1980s of vulgar and violent troublemakers out to bring Maggie Thatcher's Conservative Government down was a misrepresentation. I have to say, it was very easy to be persuaded that all along they had been the salt of the earth. It was quite undeniable that these were brave men who had faced, at the very least, gruelling hard work in very uncongenial circumstances. It was also undeniable that prior to nationalisation the miner's life was full of danger, full of injury, and likely to make his wife a widow without compensation. The black coal dust fatally damaged the lungs, if accidents did not kill him outright. I felt after seeing all this that every miner had a right to walk tall.

And this was before I went down to the pithead, for my underground tour, to find out what it was like in the tunnels! First, though, the cafeteria, and a real miner's meal. Faggots, chips and peas, washed down with two cups of tea:

Then, armed with my free ticket, I waited to be called into the cage room:

I was in the midst of a batch of seventeen people, including three children. We were each given a white hard hat with a lamp on it that was connected to a heavy battery container on a belt that also had a bad-air rebreather attached to it. This was a real mine: we'd all need basic things like light and a means to filter out poisonous gasses, just in case. An ex-miner helped you on with the belt, and adjusted your hat and lamp. This was rather close-up and personal! I passed. My goodness that belt was heavy! We all chatted to each other a bit, and enjoyed the novelty of the hats and lamps:

While we waited for the next cage going down, we were asked - no, made to - leave any 'contraband' behind. This was any gadget or device containing a battery, and of course any cigarettes, matches and lighters. Anything that might spark, and ignite inflammable gasses. So guys had to leave their SLR cameras behind in a locker, and girls had to do the same with their bags. I handed over my bag (with camera, phone and torch in it) with an inward sigh. No underground pictures! 

We crowded into the cage. These could take two fully-loaded drams in the old days, that's at least two tons of coal, so really there was no danger of our combined weight snapping the steel wire! The big miner escorting us down said there were automatic brakes anyway, and we wouldn't be moving faster than six feet per second. He was very reassuring. But one of the children, a little girl, whimpered about going down into the dark, as there were no lights in the cage apart from the beams from our hat lamps. The miner held her hand, and she was all right.

Once at the bottom - it was only a fifty-second journey, as the workings on show were the older ones only 300 feet down - we set off for a subterranean tour that lasted almost an hour. Apparently we walked three-quarters of a mile altogether, stopping at things to see now and then. I was struck by how uneven the floor was, and how low the roof was: I'm five foot eight, and had to crouch a little. I soon learned the right technique. But some of the guys kept on bumping their hats on the steel girders that supported the roof. It would be a bit wearing to walk any distance like this if you were really tall. Perhaps it was best to be short and stocky. 

I noticed that many of the supporting girders and props looked distorted. The miner himself drew attention to it. Tunnels were subject to ground pressure from all sides, and were constantly being squeezed. The loads were immense, and prop maintenance was vital. He explained how, as each section of the coalface was hewn away, roof props went in as a matter of urgency. Many of these had been in place for decades and would be all right for a long time to come. But after the mine closed in 1980, and the machinery in the more modern (and deeper) part was got out, and regular maintenance ceased, those workings soon caved in or flooded.

Quite a lot of machinery was still in position. One of the more modern bits - from the 1940s or 1950s I suppose - was like a huge flat chain saw on wheels. It was used to undercut the coal face. The miner wryly said its nickname was the Widowmaker, because it created so much dust. A guarantee of pneumoconiosis.

The restricted height (and width) of these older tunnels prompted me to ask the miner how all the massive machinery we'd seen had been put into position. I was at the front edge of the group, all eyes on me, and of course my voice sort of rang out unnaturally loud and clear. Thankfully it was a voice that did not led me down! The answer was that all the machinery came down in pieces, and was then assembled in situ. I also asked about the coal conveyors. The flexible moving belt seemed to be made of heavy-duty rubberised carpet. Did it ever break, and if so, what did they do? Again, there was nothing to indicate that I'd been rumbled, that my voice had somehow let me down. The miner took me perfectly seriously, and showed me a section that had been repaired with a metal joining band, and explained how it was fixed onto each part of the belt. 

There was usually water gurgling at the side edge of the tunnel, in an open pipe. We were told that water ran through all the tunnels, and channeling it to one side was the only concession made to the requirements of a public tour: when the mine had been working, every tunnel floor might be a wide and shallow river of dirty water.

At one point, the miner got us all to turn our lamps off for half a minute, and the complete darkness was utterly overwhelming. You'd be very disorientated - and frightened - if your lamp failed. In the old days, before electrical power was installed, all lighting came from Davy lamps, and before them, candles. In the days of child labour, a little boy or girl might be in charge of an 'air door' - a wood-and-canvas hinged door that stopped bad air drifting about within the mine - and if their candle blew out, they'd just have to wait there, alone and presumably petrified, until a miner came along and could relight their candle.

Before mechanisation, pit ponies were used to haul coal about in drams, and we saw an underground stable. Our miner assured us that they were well looked after, working shorter shifts than the men. But they still spent years and years living underground in near total darkness. Some died underground. Our miner told us how they were got to the surface. Once rigor mortis had set in, and the pony's legs were stuck out stiffly from the body, each leg was sawn off. In that way, the whole carcase could now be fitted inside a dram and trundled along to the cage, for disposal above ground. I wasn't quite sure this was information I'd really wanted to hear, and certainly not with children present! But hey ho, I suppose I now knew how to get a dead pony into a Mini.

Miners and horses were not the only living things in the mines. While there was something for them to feed on, mine tunnels were infested with rats and super-large cockroaches. That's why miners packed their food in a metal tin that snapped shut, also worn on their belt. This pleasant item of information led on to what a miner did when he wanted to go to the toilet. Well, there were no toilets at all. He dug a hole at the side of a tunnel, did his business, shovelled dirt back on to it, and tried to remember where he been, for the next time! Yuk.

We were shown a coalface, we handled some coal, and heard a few more anecdotes of mining life. Then we returned to the cage and the journey up. 

What an experience! Provided you don't mind miners' humour, I thoroughly recommend Big Pit as a place to visit. If only to understand what it was to be a miner, and why Welsh collieries in particular were so special.


  1. Fascinating! The life of a miner must have been exceedingly rugged, regardless of their country of residence. Thank you so much for sharing!



  2. thank you for sharing your trip and adventure into the coal mine.
    my dad is from pa usa and it was said that if one knew the way when the mines were active one could walk under ground for several towns.
    the major story in the area was when smaller co. bought out the larger bankrupt co. they got careless and dug out the support pillars of coal which created a major cave in under the Susquehanna river. it created such a large whirlpool that to close the hole the local officials ran a rail spur up to the river and put almost 100 very larger hopper train cars down the hole to help "seal" it up.
    the bigest worry for my grandfather who was a night watchman for one of the mines was sinkages under one's home and street and the rats near the mine area.
    the other problem was the chance of underground fires where whole towns were acquired by the mines and feds so that the underground fires could be "dug out" with giant diggers with special spoke wheels without rims.

    now history is being repeated with more mess from irresponsible drilling using the "fracking drill system" to bust up shale to pump out the natural gas. the main difference is that these co are new to the scene vs the coal co. whom had previously sold the surface rights to build houses but were there before the houses. this is not the case of the nat. gas drillers as they came after the houses and the side effects they cause include well and river pollution.
    anyway thank you again for sharing and giving us an in-site into this very dangerous profession


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