Regular readers of this blog will know that tunnels and holes in the ground fascinate me. Perhaps, if I'd lived in a limestone area in my younger days, I might have taken up potholing. Instead there were beach caves to explore, and even a network of old siderite (iron) adits that have since been closed off for 'safety' reasons. Killjoys!
One hole in the ground that I'd long been looking forward to seeing was The Big Pit at Blaenavon. My chance came early in May, as we made our way from Newport Transporter Bridge to the Brecon Beacons.
The highlight of the visit was surely the chance to go 300ft underground for a 50-minute conducted tour of the old tunnels and coal faces.
Unfortunately, this hastily snapped photo of us being kitted out with safety helmets and lamps was the last I was able to take. Methane gas is an ever-present danger in coal mines, so all electrical items – including cameras, watches and smartphones – had to be left on the surface. Consequently, I can't show you the tunnels (some so low that we had to crouch to get through), the stalls where the pit ponies had been kept, or the coal face itself with its huge drilling machine.
In my native Cornwall they mostly mined for copper and tin. This was 'hard rock' mining and methane was not a problem. So when, back in 2003, I had a chance to go down the old South Crofty tin mine in Pool (between Redruth and Camborne) I took my video camera with me. The resultant photos as not as good as with a 'still' camera but they give a flavour of the day.
Blaenavon folk may call their mine The Big Pit but at 300ft deep it's a baby compared to South Crofty, where the workings go down 3700ft. Unfortunately, working ceased in 1997 and the mine flooded below adit level, so now only the first 150ft-or-so are accessible.
Back to The Big Pit... To make up for not being able to take cameras down the pit they have created a brilliant simulated coal face and audio-visual presentation. Here I could snap away to my heart's content.
What a monster this drill is! Miners christened it the Widow Maker, as the dust it created could be lethal. Interestingly, and every bit as poignantly, the much smaller rock drills in Cornwall were also known as Widow Makers – a problem that was eventually solved by feeding water to the tip of the drill to suppress the dust.
Of course it's the dust, the dirt, the noise and the danger that are missing from these underground tours – and rightly so. But it's not hard to understand how men, working daily in such challenging work, were welded into close, supportive communities, each caring for the others' safety and welfare. Ask any miner in Wales or Cornwall and, with tears in their eyes, they'll tell you that's what they miss the most.