Observant readers of this blog will realise that Mr. Shores has had numerous brushes with danger throughout his illustrious career. For example there was the altercation with the Metropolitan Police where a blow from truncheon was just avoided when driving back from a client dinner. Another time I nearly got disembowelled going through the security gates of the Office of Government Commerce when they closed on me prematurely.
I also have periodic nightmares of a high wire assault course in Belgium, as part of a European reserve forces competition, when for some reason at 30 feet up I decided to turnaround in mid air grasping a wire in my two hands while balancing on the lower with my army issue boots. Perhaps to get a better view of the assault course, alas the rationale still defeats me, but it gave the safety staff below some anxious moments…
But all those experiences have been trumped today by the visit to the “Big Pit” National Coal Museum in Blaenavon I shared with Debbie, Emma and her boyfriend Josh. A truly humbling experience that was at the same time exciting and great fun that I’d recommend to all.
We’d gone to the newly managed Bridge Inn the night before to whet our appetite when we bumped into neighbours Helen and Andy who moved from Blaenavon who introduced us to the landlady’s mother Sylvia from South Yorkshire who regaled us with many tales such as her daughter meeting Terry Wogan and Raymond Blanc while working previously at the Angel Hotel. We also wanted to celebrate James getting a new car (well an 08 Ford Fiesta) as it was quite some years since he’d previously been mobile on 4 wheels.
Sadly James was was working today (Good Friday) so after dropping him off I took Molly for a quick swim in the Usk as Hamish is still under vet’s orders to take it easy after his big sister jumped on him spraining his rear left paw quite badly. On my return though the four of us headed to the Big Pit up and over the Blorenge.
A rather inauspicious welcome arose when we saw plumes of smoke billowing in the air as we approached only to see a grass fire in flames in two areas just before the turnoff for the colliery car parks. Parking safely we asked for tickets to the (free) tour and queued patiently for about half and hour with loads of other families many with young kids.
One family in particular was from Kent and as we gradually moved towards the Pithead we suddenly say lots of activity with helmets, head torches and belt with attached battery and “self rescuer” handed out and all watches, phones and keys taken off us for safety. All of a sudden we were facing the prospect of being winched down 300 feet! Sadly this meant that no photography was possible underground but on reflection I think that was a good thing, allowing us to concentrate on the ex-miner tour guide Bill who was very knowledgeable and also trying to avoid being hit on the head (or helmet) as we made our way around the low passageways.
It’s really quite cold and wet underground as it’s not a particularly deep mineshaft here, but it is large, capable of handling two 1 tonne coal trucks (dram) into the cage side-by-side while most mines could only manage one.
The bending down as we walked through passages caused quite a few knocks to the helmets, at one stage we all turned out lamps off and the absolutely blackness was eerie to say the least.
At one point in the tour you visit the stables for the pit ponies which is really a misnomer as the vast majority were full sized horses that needed to be strong enough to pull the fully loaded dram. Sadly they lived 50 weeks a year underground and were almost blind initially when they came up for the miner’s annual fortnights holiday.
We got to see the narrow coalface where miners would rotate on shift from cutting coal at night, followed by those taking it away and then those collapsing the roof by removing the props and then the process starting all over again. Young lads were employed to open and close wooden doors to stop the ventilation building up dangerous gases.
Debbie asked Bill a couple of questions about Merthyr Vale colliery and her grandfather Thomas known as Tom Price sharper due to his surface job there where he resharped the mandrills which is Welsh for the pickaxes they cut the coal with. The hooter at the end of each shift caused a lot of reminiscing between the two of them, especially at midnight on New Years Eve when it sounded out three times.
Quite an unbelievable experience and a relatively recent way of life too.
Eventually we were led back to the winding cage and the ascent to the surface where we handed back our kit and headed off to the cafeteria stopping off briefly to examine the carbon monoxide safety cages.
One of the last snippets of info Bill had told us about was the maturing of some local cheese underground, so on the way out I bought some, along with the guide to the wider museum which I’ve now read and is very interesting.
Like the Terminator, “we’ll be back!”