Wednesday morning and the team bundle into the minibus, destination: Wakefield, to visit the National Coal Mining museum.
Not long after we arrive our tour guide Stephen, an ex-miner himself, shuffles us onto a 3m wide sheet of glass; the only thing standing between us and the pit entrance some 459ft below. It’s then into the cage that miners of Caphouse Colliery would have used, and down into the pit; a disorientating network of tunnels, pitch black save for the authentic mining lights held tightly in our hands. Indeed, the pit is a nerve racking place. Down there, 600ft of rock hangs above your head, ready to drop at any moment. Stephen sets a precedent for the tour to come by reassuring us with his dark and lively humour; “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’d be dead if 3ft ‘t rock fell on yur ‘ed. 600ft t’rock is n’ different, just imagine there’s only 3 ft of rock up.”
Soon the tunnels are brought alive with histories, Stephen’s stories and vast knowledge of our country’s mining heritage. Walking along the coal face, we see how mining technologies have evolved over centuries from times when whole families, including children, would work the pit together underground, to the modern machinery capable of mining as much as five tonnes of coal a minute.
Two hours later, after having learnt about geology, controlled explosions, and more of Stephen’s personal experiences of mining, we emerged back at the surface. Although a little awestruck by the reality and enormity of the mine, I think many of the volunteers found it a relief to be outside again, able to take in the fresh air.
Back on the surface we read about the social and cultural histories of British mining in the museum; everything from strikes and disasters, to female miners, to the literature inspired by the daily lives of the miners and the extensive body of art made by artist miners. Perhaps most touching of all was the story the Bevin boys: young men who were conscripted during WWII and sent down the mines instead of onto the battlefields to replace the 36,000 experiences minors sent off to war. Many of these boys lost there lives in extracting coal to fuel the war effort. Their story is seldom heard.
Sadly, there was no time to explore the extensive library; however, what a great excuse to go back! We look forward to returning to Oldham now with a new perspective on the complex coal pit hidden deep below at Jubilee.