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: