The Big Pit in Blaenavon, south Wales, was closed in1980 and reopened as a museum in 1983. The pit wheel stood high above the village and was for many a symbol of oppressive employment. Mining was dangerous work, and miners risked their health working on the coal face. If you have ever seen an emphysema sufferer you understand the toll this took on health.
South Wales was one of the largest coalfields in the UK and the grim, grimy valley towns still have a pall of coal dust settled on the buildings – many of which were built of grey stone. The unemployment figures rose after the mines were closed in the 1980s and the towns were bleak until light industries came to the valleys.
The Big Pit in Blaenavon is now a tourist attraction, and entrance is free. The Underground Tour is a reminder of the conditions the miners worked in and if you go on it be aware that you cannot take anything with you that could cause a spark; so no cigarette lighters, mobile phones, steel-capped shoes or boots, quartz watches automatic unlocking keys for vehicles and so on. These have to be left at the pit head.
The mine is 300 feet underground and the tour goes on for three miles. You have a helmet and lamp and are given backpacks containing a wet-cell battery, and emergency breathing apparatus. If you are claustrophobic, don’t think about doing this tour! It is a snapshot in time as you can see exactly what the conditions were like for miners. The tours are guided by men who were actual miners when the pit was a working one.
There are interesting buildings above ground for the claustrophobic, including the pit Head Baths and the Blacksmiths’ Yard where horses were shod and all the metal implements such as hammers were made by the blacksmiths. The Blacksmiths’ Yard was built in the 1870s and is still in use today.
The Big Pit in Blaenavon is now a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, and was adopted by this organization in 2000. However in April 2013, the Big Pit celebrated thirty years of being a museum. It shows how iron and coal helped the progress of the Industrial Revolution.
The society which grew up around the working pit was a close-knit one and the people shared in life’s tragedies and joys. There were fatal accidents at the pit and the siren was the sound people dreaded.
The finale to the underground tour is a film about the pit. However it has been described as “a tad sentimental” as it doesn’t show the divisions and problems that were involved in working underground. It is best to see it but recognize that it is fairly anodyne, perhaps because the visitors to the site are mostly school children, although some hardy foreign tourists also venture up the valley from Cardiff to visit it.