Last last year I read Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, the first novel in his Century trilogy. The book follows the fortunes of a number of families in the UK, US, Germany and Russia. One family comes from a mining community in South Wales and the story paints vivid picture of life down the mines. Last weekend I got to see for myself whether that portrayal was realistic when I visited Big Pit National Coal Museum.
Big Pit is in Blaenavon, Wales set behind what is now an industrial estate in the town. You can imagine though that at its height it must have dominated the town as a major employer with two shifts a day streaming in and out of the works.
My Dad, who is my companion as I visit all the museums of the regions, has been a couple of times before and warned that as the lift down only holds about 20 people there can be quite a wait to go down. As it happened and perhaps because of the cold weather there wasn’t much of a queue and our group went straight down.
Stripped of my Prize Possessions
When I say straight down I mean straight after donning our safety gear consisting of a safety helmet and a belt containing our emergency breathing apparatus and battery for our head lamp. Before we were allowed down however, there was one more task to perform. We had to give up any and all our battery powered devices. So I have to entrust a man with a sack that might as well had swag written on the side of it with my phone, watch and AirPods – I felt naked!
Our group of about 20 squeezed into the lift and we were taken down the 90 metres at a sedate 2 metres per second. When it was real men going down it ran at a faster clip of 10 meters per second. It needed to go more quickly as there were so many more people (and ponies and, of course, coal) to shift. Big Pit isn’t that deep and other local mines must have taken an age to reach the bottom.
We were escorted round the mine by an ex-miner who brought the story of the 100 years of Big Pit to life. This story very much matched with what I had read in Follett’s book. This included children as young as five working down the mine which is almost unthinkable.
Of course there wasn’t any HSE in those days so there was nobody to ensure that any of the workers were protected. Many were so poor that they couldn’t afford shoes and only wore a cloth cap. While I am a bit taller than a five year old I also was afforded with suitable protection for my head so when I cracked it against the hard ceiling (twice) I was shaken but not hurt.
Candle in the Dark
The other welcome improvement over the 100 years the mine was open was the addition of lighting. Before electricity you would have a candle which might have been sewn into your cloth cap. This in itself doesn’t sound very safe especially when thinking of the flammable gasses trapped and waiting to escape. The other thing, of course, is that candles could be blown out.
To show just how dark it could be our guide got us to turn off our lamps. It was, I can assure you, very, very dark. There is no ambient lighting whatsoever and you cannot see your hand in front of your face. Our party “endured” 30 seconds of this but depending on the circumstances the children down the mine could spend up to an hour in this blackest of blacks which nothing but the rats to keep them company.
The other group that had it bad down the mine were the ponies who were used until fairly recently. Unlike their human counterparts the pit ponies spent all their lives down the mine and at night, when there was no work being done, in that blackest of blacks.
Apparently, it was decided at some point that the ponies should be allowed a two week holiday once a year and were brought to the surface. I’m not sure that was such a great thing having tasted fresh air and freedom of movement for those glorious two weeks I am pretty certain I would have been kicking off when it was time to go back down.
It was while standing in the stables that our guide announced that he was going to describe the next part of our tour here as it was warmer than where we were going. I should point out that at this point I was already cold bordering on frozen so the thought of being colder didn’t fill me with joy.
Fortunately it was in this section that I banged my head (twice) so I was more concerned about lost brain cells than I was about the numbness in my feet!
Hat tip Davy!
The last thing before we were taken back to the surface was a talk about the Davy Lamp. It always fascinates me how people stumble upon such discoveries. Davy apparently made his breakthrough when he realised that flames don’t pass through wire gauze. The fact that I have no idea why someone would be messing around with a) a naked flame and b) gauze and c) putting a and b together probably shows more about my creative mind than anything else. It was an amazing and life discovery though.
We were probably down the mine for about an hour which is about the maximum amount of time I am willing to be without my phone while awake! On the surface there were a couple of interesting exhibitions but to me static displays never bring a place to life as much as experiencing it for yourself.