BLAENAVON, WALES — “This ain’t Disneyland,” warns the tour guide as the rattling elevator door pulls shut. There is a slight jerk upwards then the cage slides down slowly, first 50 feet, then 100, 150 and so on until we are 300 feet below ground.

Before our tour begins, we are told to empty our pockets of everything metal from watches to matches and lighters, cell phones and car keys. Sparks are the worry. Anything that can strike into a spark could cause an explosion. Even in an empty mine closed for decades, the worry remains.

“Fillings,” someone murmured.

“What about zippers?” asked another concerned visitor.

The Big Pit National Coal Museum in southern Wales is a human construction carved in a unique landscape that had become an industrial complex. This area is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO in recognition of its international importance to the process of industrialization through iron and coal production. From a distance and at only a glimpse, the heather-clad moors of Blaenavon looks like the typical verdant valleys that line the Wales countryside.

But look more closely and the scars of centuries of coal production emerge, not as a geographical mark but a very visible reminder of the impact of industrialization. Big Pit was closed in 1980 after 120 years of producing coal and producing generations of miners. Martin Jones, the guide, was one of those miners, his heavy black boots worn and beaten.


For 18 years, he worked in the mine before it shut down during the Margaret Thatcher era. She broke the mining unions. Consider Jones’ easy smile and confident awareness of how far back he can trace his family’s ability to work hard in tough conditions, and there is no doubt that he is not broken.

Jones started as a miner but he won’t die one and none of his grandchildren will know what it’s like to work in one. But the lessons he learned still govern his life. Always walk behind someone shorter than you (the shorter person succumbs first to poisonous fumes) and always wrap your sandwich in newspaper not tin foil.

“Think about it. Try using tin foil on your you know what and you’ll understand what I’m talking about,” Jones explains.

He had it better than his father who had it easier than his grandfather.

“My father thought I was lazy because I didn’t come to work at the mines until I was 16,” he says. 
“My grandfather thought my father was lazy cause he didn’t start working at the mines until he was 15. That was the way it was. Kids today have a gap year after school. I had a gap weekend.”

At its peak, 1,300 miners worked here and they got to leave at the end of their shift while the 72 horses remained below ground only going above ground when they were about to die. The last horse to work in the mine was brought up in 1972. Their stables remain, as does one last canary kept in a large sealed-off room overlooking the tool workshop.

We follow the light of the 5-kilogram lamp on our helmet as it cuts just enough of the darkness to see our footsteps. Jones knows each corner of the mine and we follow him through door after door.

Doors are an important thing in a mine-shaft. Ventilation and drafts are controlled by doors which were, in turn, opened and shut by children as young as five working in the dark whose job was to pay attention to the signal to close doors and open them again.

It was a cycle. The horses had it worse than the miners, the canaries suffered more than the horses, the teenage miner had a better life than the children. No human or animal thrived working in the mine. But the lucky ones survived working there.

For a literary view of what it was like to live and mine here, check out this website which has poems written by different generations of miners. It is an incredible resource. I also found this beautiful book of Images of South Wales Mines which has landscapes of the mines and portraits of the miners and the cottages where they lived.
Asked what his grandfather would have thought of him being a tour guide, Jones paused for a long time. The light on his hard hat forms a ring of white on the dark dirt ground while he looks downward and we continue walking.

“He probably never thought there would be an end,” says Jones. “Just never imagined it would.”


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