Going Underground; Big Pit: National Coal Museum Is Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary as a Tourist Attraction and Museum. Kirstie McCrum Finds 30 Reasons Why We Love It

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), September 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Going Underground; Big Pit: National Coal Museum Is Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary as a Tourist Attraction and Museum. Kirstie McCrum Finds 30 Reasons Why We Love It


1 Big Pit in Blaenavon in South Wales may have been open to the public since 1983, but the colliery was sunk to its current level in 1880 and subsequently closed as a mine 100 years later, on February 2, 1980. So the old site's looking pretty good for its age.

2 Who doesn't like something for nothing? In 2001, Big Pit became incorporated into the National Museums and Galleries of Wales. As well as becoming known as Big Pit: National Coal Museum of Wales, it's totally free to visit. So now you have no excuse if you haven't already been.

3 What's in a name? The name Big Pit - or Pwll Mawr - came from the size of its elliptical shaft which, at 5.5m by 4.6m, was the first in the area wide enough to wind two trams of coal side by side. Who says size doesn't matter? 4 And it really was a big pit - an earlier mine, Kearsley Pit, was sunk to a depth of 39m in 1860, but for Big Pit, it was deepened to 89m. Although the main colliery is more than 130 years old, its underground workings incorporate much earlier shafts and tunnels - like Forge Level, which was driven in 1812 to supply iron and coal for Blaenavon Ironworks.

5 With a work rate that can only dazzle, shortly after opening the colliery was producing more than 100,000 tonnes of coal from an area of about 12 square miles.

6 It's a mine that spreads over a vast area - the original site saw nine different coal seams being worked at various stages, with its first class 'steam coal' making South Wales famous around the world.

7 There's lots to be seen here, and don't we know it - as well as the many thousands of miners who staffed it when it was a working mine, people are still beating a path to the pit, with visitor numbers in the 30 years since its reopening as the National Coal Museum of Wales have so far exceeded more than 3.5 million visitors, around 155,000 per year.

8 Nowadays you can follow in the footsteps of those original workers, as a grand day out at the pit includes galleries and audio-visual presentations, but the highlight of the visit is the hour-long underground tour, led by ex-miners, which takes you down in the pit cage to walk through underground roadways, air doors, stables and engine houses built by generations of mineworkers.

9 Although it took the sinking of the colliery in the 1880s to make it a business concern, there is evidence that coal mining has been taking place in the Blaenavon area at least since Roman times, when pieces of coal were picked from the outcrops on the hillsides. Talk about making the most of what nature has to offer.

10It's all about knowing what you're looking for - Big Pit stands on the eastern rim of the South Wales Coalfield, where coal outcrops, iron ore and limestone were found, making it a natural solution for an ironworks to be founded at Blaenavon.

11A magnificent sight in our own backyard - the nearby Blaenavon Ironworks were established in 1789 and the remains are now open for visitors, with Blaenavon being declared a World Heritage Site.

12The ironworks were the first purpose-built multi-furnace works in Wales. The cost of construction was paltry by today's standards - PS40,000 - and also resulted in the creation of the town of Blaenavon which previously did not exist.

13Population explosions like this don't happen anymore - workers flooded into the area causing the population of Monmouthshire to grow faster than that of any other county in Britain at the time, doubling between 1800 and 1810.

14 With that expansion, by 1796, the ironworks were the second largest in Wales (after Cyfarthfa in Merthyr Tydfil), producing 5,400 tonnes of iron a year. Its success saw pieces of Wales travelling far and wide with iron from Blaenavon taken by packhorse, tramroad, canal and, from 1852, by railway to Newport Docks, from where it was exported all over the world, being used to build railways across India, America and Australia. …

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