The Big Pit coal museum in South Wales – an encounter with the miners

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The coal mines in South Wales used to be among the biggest in the world, and the miners’ strikes in the 1980s when they were closed shook the UK, as the currently running film “Pride” aptly demonstrates. We both do not remember the miners’ strikes back then, but our first encounter with Welsh mining was in the National Coal Museum near Newport, where we met Peter, our first miner.

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Not much older than us, he worked in the Welsh coal mines for five years in the 1980s before they were all finally closed down – he started work there when he was 15, Peter says. Nowadays he is a tourist guide at the UNESCO World Heritage site at Blaenavon where a huge old coal mine called “Big Pit” is now open to the public: This National Coal Museum offers a lot of background information about the mining industry in Wales, and also a lot of hands-on experience.

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The visit starts with a guided tour into the mine. We get decked out in all the safety paraphernalia that 1980s miners had (in contrast to many of their predecessors): a helmet, a powerful headlight, an oxygen mask. Peter warns:

“It works for about one hour and it doesn’t if you panic and breathe too fast!”

The miners had to practice using it in his day. Our tour passes some tunnels at about 90 m depth, but some of the shafts go down 800 m, we learn. In the tunnels reconstructed scenes from different eras of coal mining are set up. We see people hacking the seams by hand or (later) drilling with huge machines. We learn about the work horses they held down here that would only go up to the light for four days every summer, about very hard and demanding jobs and those for smaller boys that were “only” unpleasant and creepy (rather than back-breaking and dangerous), but even worse paid.

Through the restored and recreated Pithead Baths, the miners’ shower and changing rooms (one locker for the work clothes, one for the clean ones) the route leads into the extensive exhibition about the coal mining industry.

The miners’ strikes

The huge miners’ strikes in the 1980s were of course not the first time the miners clashed with the government. One of the biggest was the 1910 Tonypandy Riots that involved 30,000 striking miners and lasted for almost a year. There were always conflicts about the harsh and dangerous working conditions in the mines and the low pay, but on the other hand the communities in rural Wales completely depended on the coal industry for employment. The mines were eventually closed during the Thatcher era in the 1980s, one after the other, for economic reasons, and not because of the dangerous conditions.

Should you visit the National Coal Museum in Blaenavon?

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If you ever happen to be in the area make sure you have time for a visit. For us it was one of the most instructive and unusual museums we have visited. And it is free of charge!

How to get to the Big Pit coal museum in Blaenavan

We went there by public transport from Newport, which was not very frequent but sufficient to do it as a day trip.

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