Big Pit National Mining
Museum perches on a hillside above Blaenafon
No ordinary hole
The birthplace of the
Industrial Revolution is more than slag heaps and old coal mines
It isn’t often that a
hole in the ground is voted the best museum in Britain. Nor are there many
holes on the United Nations’ World Heritage list – but this is no ordinary
hole in the ground.
Dug in 1880 and shut down
100 years later, Big Pit was one of hundreds of coal mines that riddled the
South Wales landscape.
Mining was especially
important in the Valleys, a string of gritty, working class towns that
sprang up north of Cardiff in the clefts radiating from Southern Britain’s
highest mountains. The Welsh aren’t exaggerating when they say they made the
Industrial Revolution happen – at their peak the Valleys produced a third of
the world’s coal, employed a quarter of a million miners, and boasted the
world’s biggest iron works.
But that all came to a
bitter end in the 1980s when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher crushed the
unions after the year-long miners’ strike, and coal mining in South Wales
was all but shut down. The Valleys lost two-thirds of their population with
just a handful of mines – including Big Pit, now the World Heritage-listed
National Mining Museum – preserved as reminders of a lost way of life.
Dug into a bleak hillside
above the Valleys town of Blaenafon, 40km northeast of Cardiff, Big Pit has
been kept much as it was when the last wagon of coal was hauled out in 1980.
Most of the guides are former miners who spent decades in the dark, dank
Big Pit’s status as one
of Wales’ seven national museums means entry is free. That and its accolades
– it was voted best museum in Britain in 2005 – also means it gets a lot of
visitors, so you have to wait for a spot on an underground tour, the
My group was led by the
Hobbit-like Glyn, who punctuated every sentence with an "all right, yeah?"
and was barely over five foot tall. I soon learned this was a useful
We were issued with
helmets, lamps, heavy battery packs and "self-rescuer" masks to filter out
toxic gases, and handed over our watches, cameras and phones – anything
battery-powered could spark an explosion, Glyn explained.
We then squeezed into a
cage lift and plunged 100m to the bottom of the pit as Glyn told us how, at
its peak in the 1920s, 1300 people worked in the mine in grim and often
dangerous conditions. Until the 1840s women and children were paid a few
pence a week to push wagons laden with coal through the tunnels; horses,
too, were worked ruthlessly, replaced by trains only in the 1970s. The
horses were brought to the surface for two weeks a year, but still got a
better deal than the miners – horses only had to haul wagons for eight hours
at a time and were fed every four.
As we shuffled through
steadily smaller tunnels, I saw Glyn wasn’t joking when he said the ideal
miner was five foot two inches tall and six foot wide.
"Look out for your heads,
all right, yeah?" he instructed as I, right on cue, whacked my helmet on an
iron strut. He showed us a coal face where miners hacked at the seam in a
space little more than a metre high; then, next to a torrent of
rust-coloured water, he made us switch off our lamps to appreciate how dank,
damp, dark and claustrophobic it would have been in the pit – even if wasn’t
a patch on the filth and noise and danger of a working mine.
Glyn also told us about
the epic miners’ dispute of 1984-85, when he and thousands of other Welshmen
spent a year on strike, living on nothing but donations of baked beans and
"I’ll never eat corned
beef again," he said with a grimace.
In the end 29 mines were
shut down and 20,000 miners lost their jobs. One mine was bought out by the
workers and run as a cooperative, only closing down earlier this year when
it finally became uneconomic.
The rest of the museum
fills in the gaps of a vanished way of life. Recordings recreate the din and
camaraderie of the railway yard, workshops and locker rooms; you’d swear a
bunch of miners had just finished their shift and were scrubbing down in the
showers, singing Tom Jones numbers and clearing coal dust from their noses.
Other displays tell the
story of the equally harsh lives of the miners’ wives, many of whom died in
childbirth in cramped and squalid cottages; or the tragedy at Aberfan in
1966, when a collapsing slag heap buried a school and killed 144 people,
To cap off a day of
exploring Blaenafon’s industrial heritage – which as well as Big Pit
includes the ruins of the 18th century’s biggest iron works,
miners’ chapels modelled on engine houses, and tightly packed rows of
miners’ cottages – I took a bus south to Newport, a post-industrial city
just east of Cardiff.
With its dusty building
sites and soulless concrete buildings strung along the muddy River Usk,
there can’t be many less attractive cities in Britain – but it is a
fascinating snapshot of 21st century Britain.
Unlike the towns further
west there’s barely a sign of the Welsh language; in fact, on the main drag
there’s not much sign of English. Instead Bollywood video shops rub
shoulders with Polish grocery stores, and young men in hoodies swill cheap
lager while women wrapped in saris scurry past.
But Newport has one
redeeming feature – its extraordinary Transporter Bridge. Built, like the
Eiffel Tower, by a Frenchman just over 100 years ago, the bridge used
cutting-edge engineering to solve a vexing problem.
Then, as now, most people
in Newport lived on the west bank of the Usk, but the giant, labour-hungry
steelworks was on the east bank. A bridge would have been impossibly high,
or would have blocked shipping and killed the city’s busy port; a tunnel
would have been impossibly expensive; and ferries were hampered by the
river’s strong currents and freakish tides – the 14m difference between high
and low tides is one of the biggest in the world.
Then the borough engineer
heard about a "transbordeur" bridge in France, in effect an aerial ferry
suspended from rails high above the river. Newport’s Transporter Bridge, one
of a dozen or so in the world, was built between 1902 and 1906 for the then
vast sum of 98,000 pounds.
The track spans 200m and
is supported on four steel pylons, each 80m high. A gondola whisked
passengers and up to six carriages or cars at a time from bank to bank,
originally for a fare of 1/2p.
It operated until 1985
when an engineering survey found it was unsafe; after millions of pounds
were spent restoring it, the bridge reopened with great fanfare in 1995.
Alas, it cost a fortune to run and closed again in 2007, now operating only
a few weekends a year.
Ray Morgan, possibly the
world’s biggest transporter bridge fan, must have spotted my dejection as I
discovered I’d walked across Newport to look at a closed bridge. He came
darting out of his terrace house overlooking the Usk, armed with a stack of
pamphlets and stories about his neighbourhood technological wonder.
He even invited me back
to his home for a cuppa and a glimpse of his collection of photos, news
clippings and other bridge paraphernalia. Ray explained that his wife had
passed away five years ago; I suspected the bridge and its visitors kept him
company instead. He was certainly the best ambassador a bridge could have.
With their slag heaps,
disused mines and gritty industrial towns, the Valleys hardly seem an ideal
tourist attraction. But if you’re overdosing on thatched cottages and cutesy
tea shops, the industrial heritage of South Wales makes a good antidote –
and a fascinating insight into a lost way of life in the world’s first
First published in The Northern Advocate, 2008.
About this story...
Like the story
North Wales in
48-and-a-bit hours, this piece was written in 2008 when I was lucky
enough to win a journalism fellowship at Cardiff
University in Wales.
The prize, sponsored by the British High Commission and Air New
Zealand, included a month-long stay in the Welsh capital, where I
sat in on classes of the international diploma in journalism,
visited newsrooms, went hiking in Snowdonia, and poked around a few of the hundreds of castles that dot the Welsh
The foundry has been left
much as it was when the mine shut down in 1980.
Also part of the World
Heritage site, the Blaenafon iron works, about 1km from Big Pit, was the
biggest in the world when built in 1789. Among the ruins are casting
houses, a row of blast furnaces, and a balance tower (pictured), which
used the weight of falling water to hoist iron ore, lime and coal up a
hill where it could be tipped into the furnaces.
The rail yard at Big
Bridge was an ingenious solution to the problem of getting factory
workers across a busy tidal river. - In effect an aerial ferry, it
whisked passengers across the river on a gondola suspended from rails
80m above the water.
Newport’s Ray Morgan is
the transporter bridge's unofficial ambassador.