Big Pit: The Descent

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” 
 Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

 The Mine

We had to give up our cell phones, digital cameras – even our watches.  The risk was too high, they said.  There were dangerous gases and an electronic spark could cause an explosion.   Even with that dire warning, we were all reluctant to give up our gadgets, especially those of us who wanted photos to prove we had actually been there. Next, we donned the helmet, cap lamp, belt, battery and “self rescuer” used by miners.  This was the genuine thing – not a facsimile or theme park exhibition.  We descended the 300 feet (90 metres) mine-shaft, crammed in the cage with other visitors, just as miners did 100 years ago.  I held my breath.

Massive quantities of coal were required to fuel the steam engines and colossal furnaces of the Industrial Revolution. Progress was on a heady course and dangers were put aside to feed the unquenchable expansion that had taken over the country.

Big Pit, known in Welsh as Pwll Mawr: Amgueddfa Lofaol Genedlaethol, is an industrial heritage museum in Blaenavon, Torfaen, South Wales.  It was a working coal mine from 1860 to 1980.  At its peak in 1923, there were over 1,300 employed by Big Pit. Coal mining during the Industrial Revolution was considered an extremely dangerous activity.  Underground hazards include suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapse, flooding and gas explosions.  This was not a job for the fainthearted. The safety posters and stages of carbon monoxide poisoning are grim reminders that the dangers, even now, are real.

We were underground for 50 minutes, enough time to hear the stories.

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” 
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees:

115 thoughts on “Big Pit: The Descent

  1. So tracing the onset/progression of the Industrial Revolution, starting in the coal mines of Wales?
    Who does this? Is your son researching this?
    Like you, he sounds quite interesting!
    Sounds like you all had an epic time.
    Want to hear more about it.
    Hugz & admiration to you my friend~

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    • Cindy – it was an epic trip! My son set the agenda and my husband and I followed. We wanted to see the Industrial Revolution first hand. I have always been interested in how humanity balances the value of the individual within the context of tremendous change. Looking back has given me more insight into our present, fast paced, ever changing global world. Your encouraging comments are heartwarming! 🙂

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  2. Fascinating! And you look very fetching in that helmet! My husband’s family are from South Wales and, as he was born in the Forest of Dean, he has a life-long right to be a Free Miner if he wants too. Never tried it, though. His dad used to paint the coal mines and they still have those pictures on their walls, even now that they’ve moved to France. They seem to have taken that piece of history with them.

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    • Thank you – I love wearing hats! This one came in very handy when we were underground. I had no idea how dark it would be; if I didn’t have the light to guide me, it would have been difficult indeed to walk on the uneven ground or avoid the low ceilings.

      I found the website for Forest of Dean. The country side is truly spectacular! I included the link for others to check out. Thank you for your visit and adding so much to the dialogue. What stories your husband’s dad must have!!

      http://www.visitforestofdean.co.uk/

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  3. A great adventure! and how brave of you. I don’t think I would have lasted 50 minutes underground. How brave the coalminers were, too. There is obviously still much pride in the history of the coalmines and the part they once played in the economy. I enjoyed the reference in the video to the striking coal workers during the era of Prime Minister Thatcher.

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    • I bumped my head about 4 or 5 times on the low ceilings! Those hard hats came in very handy. My fears were put aside when I listened to the stories of the brave girls and boys who worked in the dark corridors.

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    • My dear friend, you are one of the most courageous people I know! Funny thing – while humanity seeks security and safety, it is an illusive quest. I always think of the Helen Keller saying:

      “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

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    • My heart aches when I think of the pit ponies. I saw their stalls – they each had a sign with the name of the pony. Our guide, who had worked in the coals mines for many years told us the story about the last colliery horse to work underground. His name was Robbie. He was retired from Pant y Gasseg, near Pontypool, South Wales in 1999. Evidently he was let out to pasture in a place close to a Pub where the retired miners would congregate. It seems that everyone made certain that Robbie was well fed and “watered.”

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  4. You are far braver than I. Fascinating, the journey of the the Industrial Revolution the danger so many generations of men marched into to fuel that Revolution. Now, here in the States we simply take off mountain tops.

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  5. You are very brave.
    Until I was a teenager and before (a century ago :-)), my father was a miner but not of coal. Even as a small school child I remember how the village air thickened and all the adults seemingly stopped breathing if any whiff of an accident made it through someone’s phone line. Because of this experience I don’t think I could take a similar tour.
    This is a thought provoking post.

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    • I lived in a mining town in Northern Manitoba. The accidents and deaths were heartrending – the whole community mourned. I babysat two young children for a wonderful couple when I was a teenager(also a century ago 🙂 ). One morning, when I was going to school, the wife and a friend came to our door to tell us that her husband had just died from an accident in the underground. Even now, there are very dangerous workplaces. To me, occupational health and safety are critical to all workplaces. We have a long way to go; but I believe that individual efforts do lead to positive outcomes. Thank you for your comments – they mean a great deal to me.

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    • It was intense!!! 🙂 What I found most heartening was the remarkable camaraderie amongst the tour guides. Everyone of them had worked in the mines and they generously shared their knowledge and experience. They made the tour memorable!

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      • Thank you, Dina! I was thinking of you on your travels. We wanted to head over to Beatrix Potter country, but alas, ran out of time. Which is a good thing because that means we will be back soon. It is only about a 9 hour flight from Vancouver to London. I agree with Rumi who said: “Travel brings power and love back into your life.”

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    • Indeed, it was a wonderful experience. Just before we went in, we were given a choice whether to go forward. I cannot imagine what it would have been like not to have had a choice. 🙂

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  6. My Grandfather was the last of a long line of coal miners in Yorkshire. He got out just before WWII. My sister and I went to the National Coal Museum and went down into the pit. We too had to give up watches, etc. I was struck by the utter darkness. To think children worked in those conditions and once their candles went out that was it.

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  7. I love the Rudyard Kipling quote. And I’m touched by your humanity and your sympathy for the miners.

    About thirty years ago my husband and I went deep into a working mine in Baguio, Philippines. I remember the darkness, the rickety stairs and the intense heat. The miners who often worked naked were told to put their pants on before we descended. I think that besides our host, we were the only visitors. It was a frightening experience.

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    • Several years ago I came across this quote by Søren Aabye Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards: but it must be lived forwards.” It was an “ah ha” moment for me for I was about experience a transition in my career. We live in a finite existence where the timeline only goes forward – the way is shadowed and unknown. Yet, when we look back, there is a clarity and insight that brings new meaning to the present. I wanted to go back to the time of the Industrial Revolution to gain a greater understanding of the issues that we face today. There are universal themes that transcend time and location. Your comments are a profound confirmation that the struggle to uphold the value of life for all, must continue.

      Thank you so much for adding depth to this dialogue. Truly appreciated.

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  8. What a fascinating trip this must have been and what an extremely hard life, that of a coal miner. Thank you for such an informative post. 🙂

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    • I agree – brave souls who worked to give their children a better life. The tour guides were all seasoned miners. We enjoyed their camaraderie and good humour. They generously shared their experiences and stories. It was truly memorable day!! 🙂

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  9. Such a fascinating post, Rebecca. I enjoyed your trip down the Big Pit. That Kipling quote is so true. I wish our history teacher had told us interesting stories, instead of trying to cram our heads with a myriad dates.

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    • I was thinking the same thing, Adin! Blogging is allowing me to go back and find the stories that were found within the dates. I am continually amazed by the resilience and fortitude demonstrated by those who have gone before us…we could learn a thing or two from them to pass on!!!

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  10. I’m impressed… and I might add much braver than I dear friend, going down in that pit. This summer I watched another friend bungee jump from the longest pedestrian Suspended Bridge in the world, over the Coaticook River Gorge in the province of Quebec. Two extremes for me. I can cycle at 55 km/hr plus on my road racing cycle, but 90 metres down a mine pit or bungee jumps from 150 feet plus over a river gorge is way beyond my level of bravery.
    In any event, it sounds like you had a fantastic adventure, and I applaud this and all your discovery undertakings.
    I love your Rudyard Kipling quote, so apropos, and so true. Kipling was one of my very first exposure to poetry. Thank you for that memory, and the recount of your exciting voyage. JJ

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    • Rudyard Kipling and Robert L Stevenson were my introduction to poetry. Isn’t it interesting how they approached universal themes.

      “If you can keep your head when all about you
      Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
      If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
      But make allowance for their doubting too;”

      Rudyard Kipling, If: A Father’s Advice to His Son

      “So long as we love we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.”
      Robert Louis Stevenson, Lay Morals

      As for going down into the Pit – you would have come!! There were too many stories to hear and I know you like stories! I’m the one who is impressed – 55km/hr on a cycle!!!

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  11. You are brave and courageous! The Big Pit is such an interesting read, you must have had a wonderful trip, Rebecca! Good of you to remind us of our industrial heritage. The pits are a big part of the german history as well.
    Big hug to you from the Rhine Valley
    Dina

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    • Your comments have opened a whole new vista for research. I just read that by the late 19th century, Germany became dominant in the world’s chemical industry. And that the building of a railways was the catalyst for growth of a new steel industry. Thank you, my dear friend, for adding so much to this discussion. There is so many more things to learn!!!

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  12. Clanmother, what a remarkable vision you shared, I don’t know if i would have had the courage for even the visit. I grew up in PA and KY and there were a lot of coal mines in the area, fortunately for me there were no tragic events while I lived near them, Though thru the years we have all heard terrible stories. Take care, Bill

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    • Thank you so much for your comments and visit! I confess it happened so fast, that before I knew it I was underground, literally stumbling about until I learned to use the light properly. I was so glad that I had a hard hat on. I’m on the tall side and I counted hitting the ceiling about 5 times. It is so important to listen to the stories – brave men and women have made great strides in the labour movement. We have big shoes to fit – hopefully we all have big feet!! 🙂

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  13. Clanmother, I meant to thank you for visiting my blog and liking one of my posts, but I got caught up in yours. Thank you for that opportunity . Take care,Bill

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