We joked with our sons that they must remember their passports for our day trip to Wales, the younger of the two was momentarily concerned. But joking aside, even though it is part of the United Kingdom, when you drive across that truly beautiful expanse of architecturally inspiring Severn Bridge and the road signs have an unknown language, you do somehow feel you are crossing the border into a foreign land.
Our destination was the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenafon and whilst older son was there under complete duress (you know what it’s like when you drag them away from their computer), having obtained our entry tickets (it’s free by the way)we made our way up to the waiting room.
This is a fairly large room with old fashioned wooden benches where you can sit and wait, but having been in the car for two hours, I chose to stand for a bit! It was crowded and I feared we may be standing there for some time and the “I’m bored” had moved on several stages to the ‘irritate little brother as much as possible’ stage, which is always a family pressure pot time. But fortunately it wasn’t more than 15 minutes before we were swiftly moved down to the holding bay where we were kitted out with hard hat, head torch and survival belt.
Now what is the first thing you think about when you put on a hard hat that several hundred other people have been wearing? You do don’t you…head lice or worse! But it’s an old wives’ tale because nits move from head to head, they don’t lie in wait on inert objects waiting to clamber on board another fresh head. So the person who had worn the hat minutes before had greasy hair or at worst, dandruff!
You cannot take anything down into the mine that has a battery, so phones, iPods, watches, etc all went into a cloth bag.
Thus ready with our 5kg survival belt (more of that later), we were ushered into the miners’ cage. Now if you are at all claustrophobic or have a dislike of being very close to strangers, then this is not for you because it was a squash to say the least! But it’s not for long because they only take you as far as the first cutting and this particular ‘gallery’ is not very deep so an ideal showroom for the non-mining public at about 90 metres down.
Our tour-guide had been a mine electrician when Big Pit had been a working mine, so he knew quite a lot about it. He had his presentation down to a fine art and there is definitely a benefit in having someone who has been part of the industry; he knew enough about the history of the mine to inform us, but not so much that we became bored, and he encouraged us to ask questions which is when it became apparent that several members of our party came from mining families, each with a story to tell.
A few interesting facts: the pit ponies were lowered in a harness, bottom first for some reason and due to the dust inhalation and conditions, they rarely lived longer than five years. Ponies were still being used until the mid 1970’s. Prior to the 1950’s if a miner was injured his pay was stopped from the moment he reached the surface. Miners preferred the wooden beams to the metal ones that supported the tunnels, as they creaked if things started to move, giving them an early warning that they should get out!
The hard hats proved to be an essential part of the tour as the tunnels were often low and the beams were at different levels.
You walk along several tunnels, some you have to bend over but none require you to be on your hands and knees! You learn how they communicated via a bell system and what happened if a miner was injured. You see how the wagons were drawn along the tunnels and where the pit ponies were stabled.
Methane and other gases have always been a problem and they check the mine each day to make sure it is safe. You then discover you are carrying breathing apparatus on your belt that has roughly one hour of oxygen, enough to get you to the surface in an emergency!
The underground tour lasts 50 minutes and I can certainly recommend it. There is also plenty to see topside, including galleries and exhibitions, but we were all starving by the time we came up to the surface and the Welsh hills were calling so we drove to a small layby to enjoy our lunch with a view!
You can’t go wrong with a picnic lunch overlooking spectacular scenery…and sheep, many many sheep!
After lunch we headed to Llanthony Priory near the Brecon Beacons which you can read about here http://tinyurl.com/nsu95tz
Link to Big Pit website http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/bigpit/