Visit: 29th June 2013
The area around Blaenavon was inscribed as a WHS to represent the Wales’s coal and iron mining heritage in the 19th century. Blaenavon is just one of many places where mining took place in Wales, but it is one of the most comprehensive sites preserved to this day.
I visited this site with Chig. He had cycled from London to Bristol (well, almost – he had to give up at Chippenham for some reason) in one day, and the plan was to cycle the next day to Blaenavon. He was in training to cycle from London to Paris in 24 hours – you can sponsor him here. Not surprisingly, he didn’t feel up to a hilly 55 mile bike ride the day after doing 110 miles, and I was, to be honest, quite relieved myself.
We took the train instead, and from Abergavenny station took a taxi (“tacsi” in Welsh) up the steep steep hill to Blaenavon. The main attraction of the town is the Big Pit mine, which is a former coal mine that operated until 1980.
You can go down the pit on a guided tour with a real ex-miner, and it’s all free, so well worth doing. The miners have adapted well to being tour guides, and have a real bonhomie with the visitors. We were given hard hats with headlamps to put on, as well as a belt with a battery and a carbon monoxide safety device. Unfortunately we didn’t take a picture of either of us with the kit on, as it looked quite amusing. Never mind though, because Ross has been to Big Pit too!
That’s him to the left, standing with his brother in 1997 – some 16 years before Chig and I went there. He is adamant that this still counts and he can tick this WHS off too!
The guide told us of the terrible working conditions miners faced both before and after the 1842 Mines Act was brought in. Prior to that, miners’ wives and children were expected to work down the pits as cart-haulers and door-openers (“trappers”). We switched off our head torches to illustrate how it was pitch dark down there – children were expected to stand in the darkness on their own for long shifts, opening and closing ventilation doors when the carts needed to come though. Miners were frequently paid not in Sterling, but in tokens that could only be used in the mine owner’s shops (not surprisingly these shops charged about a third more than normal ones). This left miners no option of leaving, as they would have amassed no savings for use anywhere else they might have chosen to go. The 1842 Act made it illegal to send women and also children under the age of 10 down the mines, but still allowed boys above 10 to work and did not make the work of the men any easier.
We went on to see some actual coal seams, as well as an underground stable where the pit horses that were made necessary by the 1842 Act would live. These animals spent their working lives underground. Depending on the mine owner’s inclination, they may or may not have had 2 weeks holiday a year up on the surface, during what was known as “miners’ fortnight” (two weeks in the summer when all the mines in Wales would close down for an annual holiday).
We also saw the signalling equipment that was used in the post-horse period to tell engine operators when to start/stop the coal cart winch. This equipment involved two metal cables that would be pulled into contact with one another to close a circuit and ring a bell. It is thought that a spark caused by signalling cables of this kind ignited methane which caused the 1913 Senghenydd Colliery Disaster – the worst mining accident in British history, killing 439 men and boys.
Coming out of the cool, dank mine was a (literal) breath of fresh air, as the weather was unusually – for Wales – warm and the sky blue.
After Big Pit we headed off toward the village itself to see the ironworks. We were stopped along our way by the sight of a brewery that had a “self-tour” available, including a sample of ale all for £2.50. Honestly, we were there for the beer, not the tour, so we nipped onto the observation deck for a quick look at the process before having a half pint.
Unlike other “brewery tours” where you don’t ever get near the actual brewing floor (looking at you Guinness, Heineken and Beck’s) you do actually get to see the real deal here at the Rhymney factory. It is a small brewery, and I must admit I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before. The beer is nice though, so I’d suggest trying it if you ever see it in a pub. While we were there a steam train went by as a part of the World Heritage day they were celebrating – what a coincidence.
Afterwards, we carried on to the ironworks. Here they used to smelt the iron ore that was dug out of Big Pit, turning it into useful iron products.
It is also free to look around, and you get a fairly good view from the top of the waterbalance tower. That’s the large structure you can see to the right of the picture above. Ore used to arrive at the top of the tower, then be lowered to the bottom using a water-based counterbalance system. Three large blast furnaces (behind the red-roofed shed) would turn the ore into iron, and later into steel. The mill employed 5000 people at its peak.
After seeing this we headed back home, first on the bus (£4.50! I thought Wales was meant to be cheap!) and then the train.