On our way back from Trecco Bay the other week we went to visit Big Pit. We’d wanted to go for ages because it is one of the few places where you can go into a deep coalmine in the UK. This one is in Blaenafon which is on the edge of the South Wales coalfield. My grandfather and my husband’s grandfather both worked down pits in South Wales before coming to Birmingham for work, so H has two great-grandfathers who were miners, plus many other ancestors who worked underground if you go further back.
Big Pit is free to visit, although they do charge £3 for car parking. We possibly could have found free on road parking if we had wanted to walk a little, but it didn’t seem much to pay and I guess it helps with the running costs. We went on a day that H had off school for teacher training, so it was a term time weekday and as you might expect there were lots of school parties there. I think we saw 4 different schools there when we went.
Our top priority was a trip underground to the coal face and we started the day off with that. We went down with a mixed group including one lady in a wheelchair and some French people. You have to be over a metre tall to go underground, but H is well over that. Before you go in you have to hand in anything with a battery or capable of emitting a spark – items like this are called contraband. This includes watches, phones, lighters and cameras. Either leave them in your car or you can hand them in before you go down. I put our stuff in my handbag and they put that in one of the lockers for me. If you just have one or two things, they will go into a small sack for your tour and be locked away until you get back up on the surface. These precautions exist because it still qualifies as a coal mine, even though no coal is now mined, and these are legal requirements. You get to wear the proper kit of head torch (in a special sealed unit) and a hand held respirator. This is reasonably heavy, but H managed fine. I’d recommend a warm jacket or jumper and decent footwear, even if it is a barmy sunny day, because it will be chilly underground. You can change into your sandals later.
Once we were kitted out, we went down in the cage to the bottom of the mine. As it’s at the edge of the South Wales coalfield, Big Pit isn’t that deep a mine and you go 300ft underground. The mines in the middle of the coalfield were much deeper because the coalfield is shaped like a bowl with the edges having coal closer to the surface. This means that the cage doesn’t need to descend too quickly and you won’t leave your stomach behind. We had a great guide who had worked down the pit himself. He got the children in the group involved and H ended up being tasked with closing the ventilation doors behind us. Obviously I don’t have any photos of that part of the visit, which is a shame, but can’t be helped. You come away with a real feeling for what it was like to be a miner and what a tough, dangerous job it was. For me though, the most poignant thing was the underground stables for the pit ponies complete with their names written up in chalk on the walls.
All that underground adventure made us feel hungry so we walked up the hill to the canteen. The views from the top are quite spectacular and we had a very pleasant lunch in the canteen before heading off to explore further. We went round the old medical rooms which the nurse would have used.
The pit head baths are very atmospheric and it’s like the miners have just stepped out of the room. There’s even a section with their towels hung up waiting for them to finish their shower. I’d forgotten that towels were like that in the 1970s and 1980s: a bit different from our soft, fluffy modern ones. On some of the lockers there are stories of individual miners. None of our ancestors feature sadly, but there are a wide range of experiences and they certainly help bring the miners to life. There are also lots of exhibits to look at to find out about how coal is formed, how it’s been mined over the years and there are lots of displays of mining equipment to see.
There are lots of old colliery buildings to explore like the explosives powder room, the winding house, the fan room and more. There was a lot of activity above ground on a coal mine as well as below ground.
There are lots of galleries and exhibits to explore. Make sure you visit the galleries on the way down as you can find out about the history of Welsh mining through a multi-media presentation, which helps you understand how things were.