The 50-minute walking tour takes guests some 300 feet underground to see the mine’s original mining sites. // © 2010 Big Pit: National Coal Museum
Hanging out in a coal mine is not usually on my list of ideal vacation activities, but then again, how often do you get to do that? I did just that when I visited the Big Pit: National Coal Museum, located in Blaenafon, Torfaen, in Wales, which is a short drive from Cardiff. Once a fully operational mine, the Big Pit was turned into a museum in 2001 after closing in 1980.
The coal mine originally opened in 1860 during the Industrial Revolution and soon became a major part of the town’s local economy and culture. When the mine closed in 1980, it was later reinvented as a multimedia museum in 2001 and 2004, and has since won the U.K.’s prestigious Gulbenkian Prize, or ArtFund Prize, for Museum of the Year.
There are several different tours that guests can take when visiting the Big Pit. The most popular involves a 50-minute walking tour that takes you 300 feet underground into the original mining sites.
The writer suited up with traveling companions to explore the underground tunnels. //
© 2010 Deborah Dimond
While lining up to go on my tour, my first thought was that this is no Disneyland. Even though the mines are no longer being excavated, there are real safety risks associated with the gases emitted in the subterranean tunnels. This is why all visitors are asked to safely lock up any battery-operated devices, such as cameras, watches and cell phones before donning actual mining gear and heading into the tunnels. Each guest is outfitted with a hard hat with an attached flashlight and a coordinating belt to carry a specialized battery pack that is specially designed to be safe for use underground. They even have children’s sizes for little adventure seekers wanting to take the tour.
Once my tour group was decked out in the proper gear, we were introduced to our tour guide. Once a miner himself and as a former employee of the Big Pit mine, he was able to give us colorful firsthand accounts of what life was like when he worked the mines. After the introductions, guests were led into an oversized elevator where we descended some 30 stories beneath the earth’s surface to the starting point of our tour.
The first thing that hits you is how dark and hot the tunnels are. While the lamp light on your helmet is bright, you soon realize that your range of sight is much more limited than what you are used to. Our guide gingerly navigated the group thorough the twisting tunnels and around rusty old mining equipment. He was able to give us vivid descriptions of how the old mining process took place and how the equipment worked. He told stories about the ghastly mining accidents that occurred in the mine and painted a vivid picture of just how horrendous the mine’s working conditions were during the Industrial Revolution.
I will admit that what surprised me most was that the average mine employee was not necessarily a man. There were, in fact, a large number of woman, children and animals who worked the mine in its infancy. One of the eeriest places we were taken to on the tour was to the old stables, where a young child, most likely around the age of five, would be left alone with only a candle to care for the horses and mules that worked in the mine.
Once you reach the end of the underground portion of the tour, visitors ascend to the ground level, retrieve their checked items and continue on to view the Pithead Baths houses and the historic colliery buildings. There, visitors can learn about the day-to-day routines for the men, women and children who worked in the mine, and how mining has changed from the mid-1800s, when the mine first began operating, to the modern mining practices of today. Also, for those who have ever been curious about the old saying concerning a canary in a coal mine, their uses in the mine are explained.
While the tour is led at an easy, slow-paced walk, clients with mobility issues should be aware that there are low areas where guests have to hunch over while they walk. Also wearing proper shoes for a damp environment, such as tennis shoes, would be wise. During the course of the tour, there are a few areas in the mine where clients will be walking over small rocks and through swallow puddles.
Being a bit of a history buff, I found my time spent exploring the Welsh underground to be very memorable. More than that, it gave me a newfound appreciation for how comfy my modern, air-conditioned and ergonomically designed office cubicle really is.