Monday, May 25, 2009

Bank Holiday Big Pit

Clare's been on at me for years to pay a visit to Big Pit Blaenafon, but I've been reluctant. My miner father said to me when I was a teenager that here's be hell to pay if I ever went down a pit. He'd spent three quarters of his working life underground in order that I might never have to. As we queued up to join a party, I told him mentally that it was OK now there was no prospect of a job in a pit - I wouldn't even qualify to become a mine tour guide, now would I? I could just imagine him saying that the last place he'd want to go on a Bank Holiday Monday would be back down a pit.

Like the slate museum in Llanberis, Big Pit is one of the crown jewels of the National Museum of Wales, every bit as precious as its Rodin and Renoir collections. It's superbly organised, and run by a team of enthusiastic ex-miners. There was also an excellent, engaging audio visual walk through simulation of a working underground coal face, which somebody on wheels could visit. Access for them undergound would be far too difficult to manage. My first ever trip underground was reassuringly familiar. I grew up with the slang, the engineering terminology, photos and films about the coal face. It wasn't my story, but it was certainly a full part of our family story.

The only thing missing was the dust filled atmosphere. It's one of those childhood memories that persist. The exhaust air blowing up the pit shaft is dust laden. Every coal laden tram raised to the surface was covered with and exuded dust when it met the surface wind. No matter how often everything is painted, it soon acquired a fresh layer of dust, just like the workers, above and below. My cream linen summer jacket was as clean as our tour guide's fresh overalls after our visit. All of the museum's pithead is cleaner than any pithead I remember visiting with my father when I was a teenager, and he a representative of a wire rope haulage company.

It's a great experience and worthy of its World Heritage Site status. It left me thinking what it will be like in generations to come when there are no longer veterans of the 20th century coal industry to bear witness to the life and eventual death of their industry and their culture of cameraderie, which left its stamp on community life and men's sense of dignity and worth. In a way it reminded me of visiting a battlefield museum staffed by old soldiers. Eventually, we'll only have the videos. The noise and dust of industry, as of battle, comes and goes. And at least for the time being, nature reclaims with its beauty what man has despoiled.

The trip to Blaenafon, up through former mining valleys was a feast of Springtime greenery and flowers all the way.

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