Sunday, 31 March 2013

Five go to Big Pit

I confess that the inclusion of the word 'World' to the title 'Heritage Site' often bugs me, but as Dru pointed out, in the case of Blaenavon it is entirely justified. This is where the Industrial Revolution began.

It is three decades since Thatcher turned on the mining communities of Britain, and their struggle to preserve their livelihoods has passed into history.  Unfortunately the Tory party has not, and in the week preceding the biggest cuts yet aimed at the poorest in our society, Big Pit served as a reminder of the callousness of the right and its drive to preserve privilege at the expense of others.

(Again, most of these pictures are Dru's.)


When I was last up here, years ago, it was a hot summer day.  This time snow lent the valley an unwonted beauty, softening the bumps and bruises of excavation and turning the rusting relics into ghosts.  




Jan being a bit wary of going underground and John being cold to the bone and Dru being a kindly soul, only Colin and I opted to go down the mine.  The ex-miner kitting me out with my helmet, lamp and battery pack assumed I was a teacher, and when I told him I wasn't, he looked at me very straight and asked me what I was.  'A poet,' I answered and he said 'There's lots for you here'. 


The stories of working underground are not easily forgotten, but the ones that hit hardest are those concerning the children and the horses. 

Children would work 12 hour shifts, six days per week, from the age of five.  The youngest were 'trappers', tasked with opening the air doors to let the trucks of coal through when they heard them coming.  This involved staying alert for hours with no food (because of colonies of rats) in complete darkness.  Although the employment of children under ten in the mine was outlawed in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, in practice it lasted for decades afterwards
because there was only one mines inspector for the entire country.  

Horses were not so lucky.  They only worked one shift per year, but that was 50 weeks long - at the end of July each year, they had a two week holiday above ground - and probably the last horse to work underground, Robbie, retired from nearby Pant y Gasseg in 1999.  It was vital that horses were kept as injury-free as possible to minimise the likelihood of attack by rats, but the impossibility of keeping their feet dry in the wet conditions made this difficult and I don't like to think any further than that.  


We had a pleasant late lunch in the canteen.  


After the darkness of the mine, the snowlight was dazzling.  

Then we explored the outlying buildings, including the state-of-the-art pithead baths built in the 1940s, which must have lightened the load of miners' wives, who, in an earlier era, had a lower life expectancy than their husbands.  

A photograph from the exhibition at the Pit had stuck in my head for years, since my previous visit. It was of women waiting at the railings for news after a major accident at a nearby pit.  I knew I had to write about it but I couldn't remember which disaster it was, just the look on their faces.  I recognised it as soon as I saw it again - Six Bells Colliery Disaster in 1960, in which 45 men died and three were injured.  

This is the picture.  


 
                Dru Marland and poet, John Terry                                    John Terry and Jan Lane

Time had run away with us and it was too late to pop Dru's Partrishow cards into Abergavenny Tithe Barn, which, having vetted them for religious content, is going to sell them, so hooray! There's another trip in the offing,  this time hopefully taking in The Guardian Of The Valleys, a memorial to the dead of Six Bells.  



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