Friday, 26 September 2008

The Big Pit, Blaenafon

Blaenafon wears a grey sky well I think.
The Big Pit, or Pwll Mawr is on the eastern edge of the South Wales coal field. Once a working mine, it was closed down in the early 80's due to geological problems and is now a mining museum. It produced steam coal rather than anthracite which was brought out of the Neath Valley (where I live, further over to the west).
The tour guides are all ex miners, some of whom worked here when it was still in production. So they really know their stuff. I laughed when our guide asked us what kind of coal was the best and I replied anthracite and he said steam coal was best... the Welsh are funny people sometimes.

Old trams.
These would carry a tonne of coal each. That is enough to keep a decent sized house warm all year.

The forge
The Big Pit was self sufficient for spares and parts. They made everything they needed on site.
This was one of the better places to work. But it still must have been terribly hot and noisy.

Maggie and Arthur
They used to take canaries down the mine as the first ever carbon monoxide detectors.
When the bird keeled over it was time to get the hell out.
Someone with a fine sense of irony named these two Maggie and Arthur*.
Apparently they get on very well...

The pit head wheel
These were a common sight all over South Wales and much of Northern England too. The last deep pit in Wales - Tower colliery- closed six months ago. The coal field is not exhausted yet, there are still plenty of open cast mines about, two in my valley alone, but few Welsh work there now. And frankly, after the underground tour, I can understand why. It must have been hellish. My father went down the pit at 14 years of age, leaving for national service three years later. He has always said that he preferred the Palestinian War to going back underground.

The widow maker
So called not because of the awful teeth, but because of the dust that it threw up.
My grandfather died of "the Dust" - a colloquial term for any miner's lung disease

The stock yard

Keepers Pond
This is out of Blaenafon, on the mountains that surround the town. This is a man made pond to supply water, not for the town, but for industry. Here we were standing on the very edge of the South Wales coal field and over to the right, about half a mile away is the remnants of Garndyrus Forge, where the pig iron from Blaenafon Ironworks was brought and made into machines, girders and sleepers for the whole world.

It was very cold up there and I did not fancy exploring. We headed down the mountain road toward Abergavenny, a rich, soft and gentle market town, starkly different from where we had just come from and V commented on how in just three life times that things could be so changed. I thought about my grandfather who died a few months before I was born but of whom I have been told so many stories that I feel as though I knew him well. I reckon George Gwilym would have looked at his grand daughter with her pretty car and free time and he would have been utterly delighted.

It has been said that coal stays in the blood for four generations, in which case it will not be out of ours until my great great grandchild is born. There is nothing romantic about mining, nothing at all, but I have stories from my family: of heroism in pit falls, of bare knuckle fights by the pit wheel, of cheats, lunatics, hilarity and sorrow that I will pass on to my own daughters so that they will not forget where they sprang from. There is nothing romantic about those stories either, most of them being about fierce and sometimes desperate times, but there is something about them that stirs me, that calls to me and I want my children to have that call too, a touch from the past to remember the pride of the Neath valley, a place that I hold very very dear.

* Maggie and Arthur - if you are interested, click on the link for a competent discussion of the Miners Strike of 1984-85


Anonymous said...

AMEN very glad those days are see women trying to make ends meet,how to feed the family.keeping the house clean, and washing by hand very few had dolly tub or mangles if you had these it still took all day on a monday to get the washing done. To see,not only old men trying to walk up the hills in the valleys but men in their forties trying to get air into their lungs as kids would walk up the hills in no time less than a 100 yds they would take half-hour, every now and then sitting on window sills trying to get air in to their seen what it was like but in some ways they were better for somethings.sad today that children don't have the same freedom we kid's many ways they were the bad old days. could go on but's gone we don't learn from history. sad times for many. the injustice.

Wayfaring Wanderer said...

Thanks for the tour.....

Technodoll said...

Terribly beautiful in a harsh and tragic way... makes me yearn to travel for the sights as well as the history.

WOW and thank you for bringing this to life for me, on this bleary grey boring Friday afternoon :-)

Deborah Godin said...

Fascinating post, and thanks for the extra link to the history and an explanation of the inside joke!

Lorraine said...

Sian- That's fascinating. Past generations had to work hard at very dangerous jobs- but it's something Wales needs to be proud of.