Journalist for Life

Grueling but well-told history in Wales’ mines

A former miner suits up a child for the trip 300 feet down, at the Big Pit Museum.
A former miner suits up a child for the trip 300 feet down, at the Big Pit Museum.
Blaenavon, Wales — In 1833, A Topographical Dictionary of the Province of Wales stated that the tall hills defining the handsome landscape of southern Wales’ Rhondda Valleys had earned the “description of the Alps of Glamorgan. This neighborhood is singularly wild and romantic. The tourist, as he ascends, is gradually more and more delighted.’’

But the next sentence foreshadowed an immense change: “The Dinas colliers (coal mines) are in the vicinity …’’

Discovery of a high-grade coal soon would eradicate the place where tourists once had come to admire the bucolic life.

Ironically, a series of museums on the actual industrial sites now boosts Wales’ tourism into a significant economic factor, helping to offset the revenue lost when mining ended in the late 20th century.

At the height of the period roughly between 1780 and 1980, about one in four Welsh were miners. For more than half of that time, that meant all Welsh people, not just men: Children as young as 5, and women, also went below ground. They worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

As still-remaining cottages show, miners and their families usually lived in company-owned housing – six to 10 people somehow crammed into four small rooms. Well into the 19th century, these hovels had no running water.

Step back in time

A water pitcher sits on the windowsill of one of the stone cottages the supervisors' families occupied more than 200 years ago at the Blaenavon Iron Works.
A water pitcher sits on the windowsill of one of the stone cottages the supervisors' families occupied more than 200 years ago at the Blaenavon Iron Works.
Life above and below the ground is demonstrated in several well-done presentations in South Wales, including those noted here:

The basic ingredients of iron are iron ore, coal, limestone. All of these were in abundance beneath the Valleys. And deposits of all three were discovered fairly close together near the village of Blaenavon (bly NAH vin).

Industrialists set up mining operations and also constructed blast furnaces – in which the three minerals were heated together at about 2,700 degrees.

Now a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Blaenavon Ironworks opened in 1789 with three blast furnaces, but within years it was among the largest iron manufacturing facilities in the world.

What had been an isolated village of perhaps 100, before the ironworks opened, by 1871 had soared to 9,736.

Now, grasses grow atop the chimneys of the four remaining furnaces. Visitors can walk up to the mouths of the furnaces and a couple of subsidiary buildings, listening to explanations of the process at five audio stations.

Just a few yards from the furnaces and outbuildings are a row of stone cottages built at the end of the 18th century to house the most-skilled of the workers. Two of the cottages have been furnished to show life here in 1791 and 1841.

About 700 yards down a steep hill is the contemporary village of Blaenavon, home to about 5,800 people living in modernized row houses built for ironworkers. The excellent Heritage Center has interactive displays, black-and-white illustrations and photos, and an excellent timeline, bringing the hard era to life.

In the mines, 300 feet down

The Big Pit National Coal Museum eliminates a lot of the guesswork about life in the mines. Outfitted with a helmet — you’ll need it, unless you’re shorter than 5 feet – a helmet light, and a leather belt holding the light’s battery pack and an emergency breathing device, you’ll be led for about an hour through shafts as much as 300 feet underground.

When the guide – all are former coal miners – instructs his visitors to turn off their lamps, you will experience a darkness like no other.

The Rhondda Heritage Park offers a different sample of the miners’ life, taking visitors through buildings that once supported below-ground operations and now uses recordings and mannequins placed in period clothes to discuss another era.

The tour here, also led by a former miner, is briefer and less physically challenging than that at the Big Pit. It includes discussion of deadly accidents and how miners used specialized lamps to detect deadly gases.

For more information

Getting there, staying there: British Airways and several other airlines fly between North America and London, which is about 2 hours’ drive or train trip from Cardiff, Wales’ capital and formerly the No. 1 coal-shipping port in the world. Cardiff’s cutting edge hotel, in the recently rejuvenated Cardiff Bay area, is the handsome St. David’s Hotel and Spa.

For more information: Check these web sites on the places described here; only Rhondda Valley has an admission charge, because it is operated by the county, not Wales’ national historic-sites agency.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

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