FROM schmaltzy Hollywood classics such as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley to real-life tragedies, Wales has been inextricably linked with coal mining, even though the industry is in the last desperate throes of its death these days. But a thriving industrial heritage industry that has developed promises to keep the spotlight on coal’s role in the nation’s history.
And indeed coal did forge the modern nation in many ways. It saw us through the worst of economic times, with famine never a threat even if many lived in dire conditions, and prevented the de-population and mass emigration that countries such as Ireland suffered. But it also caused untold suffering and deaths, through disease or by tragic accidents. It, together with iron and steel, led to the great southern ports of Cardiff and Newport becoming the bustling cities they are today as the world craved our exports.
The price of coal worldwide was at one time set in the huge Coal Exchange in Cardiff’s then notorious Tiger Bay area, now a trendy, cosmopolitan maritime quarter of the city. It was in that Exchange that the first ever cheque for £1m was signed, way back in 1904. After years of neglect, and having at one time been earmarked as the prospective home of the National Assembly, these days it has been transformed into the swish Exchange Hotel .
At the industry’s peak in the early 20th century up to 57m tonnes of coal a year were produced in Wales. In 1920 the industry employed an incredible 271,000 nationwide, more than 10 per cent of the total population, mostly in the southern valleys but including a sizeable presence in the north east.
Big Pit National Coal Museum
One of the earliest mines was Big Pit in Blaenavon, having been excavated for its iron deposits in the early 19th century. It is more than fitting that, following its closure as a working mine in 1980, it has been developed into the Big Pit National Coal Museum . It is a constituent part of the National Museum and Galleries, meaning that admission is free apart from parking charges. It’s a central part of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, an UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site that celebrates the area’s massive contribution to the Industrial Revolution.
And although not producing coal these days, it’s still very much a proper mine that comes under the auspices of the Mines Inspectorate as far as health and safety is concerned. It features various exhibitions in the former pithead baths, a tour around the fascinating workshops and smithy, and the opportunity for a bite to eat in the Miners’ Café or the Coffee Shop.
But the highlight of the visit without a doubt is the 50-minute underground tour. Clad in full protective clothing and proper miners’ helmets complete with lamps, we were led into an elevator cage and clanked 90 metres down to one of the original shafts. Led by an informative former miner with an amusing turn of phrase, we were shown to the coal face, the engine houses, and the underground stables where the poor pit ponies very rarely saw daylight. We were shown the safety doors that boys as young as seven once had to guard in pitch darkness in case of the presence of inflammable gas, to be slammed shut in an emergency.
Our guide invited us to switch off our lamps and to cease chattering so we could feel the cold fingers of total darkness in a creaking mine. It put the youngsters’ lives in dreadful perspective. Nonetheless an unforgettable experience.
Welsh Mining Experience
The twin valleys of Rhondda Fach and Rhondda Fawr (prounounce Rhondda roughly as Ron-tha, with the th soft as in this not as in thing) may only be 16-mile-long fissures in the mountains from which they were scoured, but the wealth they still contain forged a close community where tragedy lied just around the corner. The 53 collieries the Rhondda valleys once boasted, or suffered, according to your point of view, created unimaginable wealth for some, sheer and utter desperation for others.
A mere 20 miles north of the trendy streets of the capital they might well be, a 30 minute train journey with Transport for Wales, but you’ll still feel like stretching for your passport as you enter another world altogether. Rhondda is still plagued by problems of social deprivation, but it makes up for it with oodles of good humour and generosity of spirit in tonnes.
The Rhondda Heritage Park at Trehafod has been developed on the site of the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery as testament to how coal shaped the area, turning what was once a beautiful rural backwater into a teeming strip-like metropolis.
And the Welsh Mining Experience within it takes the visitor underground into one of the colliery’s shafts, guided by former miners in what they call their Black Gold Underground Tour. It is an unforgettable experience for all ages, and the youngsters in particular will love the virtual ride in a coal dram – underground train truck – that brings the visit to a most spectacular conclusion.
South Wales Miners’ Museum
An altogether smaller affair than Big Pit or the Welsh Mining Experience, although no less fascinating for that, the South Wales Miners’ Museum was the first mining museum in Wales when it opened its doors in 1976.
Having in 2008 moved in into a purpose-built facility smack in the middle of the beautiful Afan Forest Park at Cymmer, some 6 miles north of Port Talbot, it features exhibits both indoors and outdoors, including the lamp room, engine house and smithy. You’ll be handed a personal audio guide to help you understand more about the industry’s perils and camaraderie.
It is run by volunteers, many of them former miners, and you’d be well advised to check that they’re open beforehand if you’re travelling far. However it is usually open daily 11am-3pm, except for Sundays and Mondays.
Cefn Coed Colliery Museum
Once the site of the deepest anthracite mine in the world, excavated to depths of up to 800m, the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum, in Creunant five miles north of Neath, will leave you aghast as to why this pit was also one of Wales’ most dangerous. Employing up to 900 men at any given time, it was not without reason gruesomely nicknamed The Slaughterhouse.
By means of a self-guided audio tour, or one led by one of the museum’s volunteer guides when available, it offers an often harrowing insight into the horrors of working underground. There is no access underground these days, but a simulated gallery helps recreate a notion of the working conditions, which is fully accessible for the blind and less mobile visitors.
On a lighter note, the museum is also home to one of the world’s last remaining gas trams, a lovingly renovated double-decked version which clattered around the streets of Neath from 1875 until 1920, when it was usurped by new-fangled motor buses.
The museum opens daily in the summer, except Mondays and Wednesdays, usually from May until early September.
Aberfan Disaster Memorial Garden
Welsh mining has certainly suffered its share of cruel disasters. The worst underground incident happened in 1913 at the Universal Colliery in Senghennydd, near Caerphilly, when an explosion ripped through the shafts, killing 439 men and boys. 266 were killed in similar circumstances at the Gresford Colliery in the north east in 1934, a tragedy marked by a simple if moving memorial that was dedicated all of 48 years afterwards and at which a memorial service is held every September.
But the most infamous, and totally preventable, disaster in modern mining history probably throughout Europe occurred in the village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, one fateful morning in October 1966. With the authorities having consistently disregarded warnings about the instability of a slag heap of coal debris from the Merthyr Vale colliery that towered above the village, after days of incessant rain it inevitably slid from its precarious toehold on the mountainside. It swamped local streets and the Pant Glas primary school, killing 144 people, 116 of whom were school children. Even today as people still grieve for their children and grandchildren, no one has ever admitted culpability.
The village’s Memorial Garden, lovingly renovated in 2019 at a cost of £500,000, is a touching and beautiful location to pay your respects to the victims of a disaster that need never have happened. And if you can bear it, the cemetery where they were laid to rest is just a 10 minute walk away, up a somewhat steep path.
But please be aware that the psychological scars run deep in the area, and many locals do not wish their loved ones to be treated as tourist attractions. Do your utmost to behave respectfully.