For the answer you have to finger the soil: gritty, scratchy, and black. This grass will never quite make a verdant carpet. For nearly 100 years the Cambrian Colliery was here, providing work for just about every household in the community of Clydach Vale. Now a small garden surmounted by a winding wheel memorialises the 31 men who died in 1965 in the last major underground pit disaster in Wales; otherwise the only trace of a once vast industrial site is the coal dust in the soil. The clock of the landscape has been turned back as far as it will go.
There are country parks all over South Wales these days. There is now not one working deep mine. After the First World War the region was a coal Klondike: there were 600 pits employing a quarter of a million men. The very last of them, Tower, was closed by British Coal in April this year (although its miners are pooling their redundancy money to bid for it on privatisation).
The Welsh Development Agency's reclamation policy has been to leave no morbid monuments of abandonment: clear the site as soon as possible after the pit shuts, and either cover it with another cluster of industrial units or landscape it. Already Mardy Colliery, the famously militant pit nicknamed 'Little Moscow', and the last pit left in the Rhondda when it closed four years ago, is just another huge tract of greensward. South Wales was once one of the world's top producers of steam coal, powering railways and ships across the British Empire. So has any of the history that crowded these valleys with people, and the skyline with winding gear, been preserved?
In fact, South Wales has four museums dedicated to coal mining, three of them former collieries. Each is worth a visit, as they all have a different appeal. To start out with the clearest explanation of the technicalities of coal- mining - the difference between pillar-and-
stall and longwall methods of coal-getting, and how you ensure that fresh air reaches all parts of an underground mine - the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum is the place to begin. It is situated in the sylvan Dulais Valley near Neath, and housed in the winding house and boiler rooms of a pit that mined anthracite for home fires until the late Sixties. Since it opened in 1980, Cefn Coed has gained an extra, unwelcome, exhibit of the decline of South Wales coal: the Blaenant drift mine next door, which shut in 1990. It used to be the museum's greatest asset, Robert Merrill, the curator, says wistfully - a working mine alongside where visitors could watch the headgear turning and miners coming off shift.
Now you study Cefn Coed's lucid exposition of how a modern coal mine works (the guide book still speaks of Blaenant in the present tense), its photographs of modern diesel locomotives hauling coal trains away from Blaenant's towering terminal, a scene as modern as today - and then peep over the hoarding fence at an endless acreage of emptiness.
Twenty minutes' drive away, in the Afan Argoed Country Park, there is one display in the small one-room mining collection to reflect on: the section devoted to pneumoconiosis, the deadly lung disease that has always afflicted coal miners. There are X-ray photographs showing the mottling that signifies a build-up of coal dust in the chest; lung sections juxtaposing a pale, white, healthy lung with the black and scarred sliver, shrunk to the size of a child's, from a man who died of advanced pneumoconiosis. Underneath, the air filters from face masks show the amount of dust that miners used to inhale: after just one six-hour shift the pure white filter is charcoal black. None of the other museums has anything as graphic to illustrate the danger of coal-mining.
Big Pit is situated on the hillside above the small steep grey town of Blaenavon. The pock- marked moonscape around the old colliery is not where you would site a tourist attraction if your brief was the picturesque, though the holiday centre of Abergavenny is just the other side of the mountain. But this is what two centuries of iron and coal industry look like before you tidy things up. The view is going to get worse before it gets better, indeed, because open-cast mining is scouring out yet more coal around Blaenavon, with giant, growling JCBs.
But the criterion for opening a deep mine to the public is safety, and in this respect Big Pit's location is uniquely suitable. Most deep mines present horrendous problems of methane gas and water underground, which have to be constantly extracted and pumped out to permit men to work the faces.
The deeper the shaft, moreover, the higher the temperature: in Kent, shafts sometimes reached nearly 4,000 feet below ground, and miners might be working in 100F heat and up to their waists in water - hardly practical for taking school parties round. Big Pit, though, which closed in 1980, is on the very edge of the South Wales coalfield, where the coal occurs close to the surface (hence the open-casting). Less than a tenth of the depth of Kent mines, it had no gas problems, its water drained naturally away down the hill, and in any emergency evacuation, everyone could walk out along a level 'drift' or tunnel on to the hillside.
Because it takes people underground, Big Pit is still governed by the Mines and Quarries Act like any other mine, and before you get into the cage to descend on your tour you have to don helmet, lamp and belt, with emergency breathing apparatus - a mask that converts carbon monoxide into oxygen - carried in a steel box. 'It's a working mine in every sense, except that we don't take coal out,' says its manager, Peter Walker. 'It's as if all the miners had gone off to Tenerife for a fortnight.'
Three hundred feet below ground, at pit bottom, Steve the guide - until earlier this year a pit deputy overseeing the final sealing of the shafts at Taff Merthyr Colliery - asks everyone to turn out their head torches. One by one a dozen yellow beams blink out. The wooden ventilation doors everyone has just pushed through have left the cool air - it has a faint metallic tang - still wafting around the tunnel. 'And now,' he switches the main lights off. 'This is absolute darkness. You can't even see your hand in front of your face.' These, he reminds you, are the conditions in which, a century and a half ago, children as young as six or seven would have worked.
To anyone who has read George Orwell's classic description of a trip down a mine in The Road to Wigan Pier (oddly unavailable in any of the museums' shops) - the agonised tramping for miles and miles bent double along tunnels built for midgets - the Big Pit tour will seem surprisingly unarduous. You're underground for about an hour, striding along tall, wide roadways, only rarely banging your head, visiting perhaps a tenth of the original mine. The workings stretching two and three miles from pit bottom have long been flooded. Orwell speaks of having to take two baths to get quite clean again after a trip down a mine. 'Here, you don't see the noise, the dust, the dirt, but we've not tarted it up,' Peter Walker says. (If you've already seen Afan Argoed's lung sections, you probably won't mind.) If you were able to tour Big Pit's most recent workings, mined by modern mechanised cutting equipment, you'd see ripped and torn chasms. The passages open to the public, on the other hand, are a rare preservation of the kind of manual pick-and-shovel coal mining that Orwell wrote about. Off the main tunnel are narrow pillar-and-stall alcoves that one man would work, and the gloomy underground stables that were home to the pit ponies who hauled the trucks of newly cut coal. The original ponies' names are still painted above each cubicle, and where one was vacant someone has scrawled 'Shergar'.
Big Pit employs 50 people these days - 25 ex-miners as guides, and also to maintain the mine - compared with 250 when it was producing coal. 'So it's not a Ford factory,' Peter Walker says. When the last vacancy was advertised, 60 men applied within a day. The good humour of Steve the guide hardens only when you ask why Big Pit closed. 'Geological conditions,' comes the answer; the hard stare says, 'I don't believe it either.' He has just
seen pounds 4m-worth of new equipment, installed in Taff Merthyr only the previous year, buried down the shaft when the colliery was shut.
'Geological conditions and the Tories' was the genial gloss given by our guide at the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery, now the Rhondda Heritage Park, at the foot of the Rhondda Valley, the fourth port of call on our tour. Inside a rusting cage beached out in the yard you can just make out a scratched slogan of 'VOTE SCARGILL'. But if the Conservative government had a part in closing this pit, it was also instrumental in its re-opening. Thanks to the Welsh Secretary Peter Walker's blessing of the project as part of his 'Valleys Initiative', it has received, much to the chagrin of the other mining museums, more than pounds 7m of government and EU money.
For all the actuality of the walk around the underground workings, Big Pit is a quiet, cool, low-key experience. The Rhondda Heritage Park, by contrast, goes for noise and sensual assault. Much of the expensive contrivance, and the exhibition's cheesy title of 'Black Gold', looks like history by design consultancy, which it is. Disappointing, you muse, as a dapper young man in a logo-styled pullover collects you for your tour, that here they can't even employ an ex-miner to show you round . . . But it turns out that Geoffrey Parry, still only 31 and just out of college with a mature-student degree in environmental sciences, was a face worker for 11 years at Tower Colliery. Sometimes, as when he takes you inside the old winding houses to watch mannequin-tableaux being illuminated and listen to the booming of simulated explosions, you wish you could all just sit in a circle and let him chat about his years as a miner.
The Heritage Park even has the money to get round the significant disadvantage of shafts that were sealed long ago - by, in effect, raising the coal face. The kind of special effects technology beloved of modern attractions such as Dover's 'White Cliffs Experience' now offers 'A Shift in Time'. The ride simulates the miners' journey down in the cage to the coal face. But here you descend just 30 feet, while the shaft walls rise up to create the illusion of falling at speed. It all cost pounds 1m to build (almost the entire investment into reopening Big Pit).
But despite the designer pageantry, what you take away from this mining museum, uniquely and valuably, is the sense of coal as a community: the life of the individual family in the tiny terrace organised around the father's shifts at the pit; the strikes for better wages; the effect on a whole village of a colliery disaster; the great, colourful banners. At weekends the local colliery band still rehearses here. The final presentation, in the old Fan House, is moving and rather wonderful: an audio-visual elegy to the era of coal mining in the Rhondda, narrated with dignified passion by a local MP.
'Anyone who's ever stood on a mountain top above the valley will have heard that sound,' Neil Kinnock says. 'The sound of people, the sound that tells of all those who have made this place a human settlement. Somehow we've heard it most clearly when the wheels of industry were momentarily stopped and a community revealed its own best values: comradeship, neighbourliness, courage, survival.' The lights go down and come up, as the Mardy Women's Support Group from the 1984-85 strike sings: 'You can't kill the spirit . . .-
WELSH COAL MINING MUSEUMS
Cefn Coed Colliery Museum, Blaenant Colliery, Crynant, Neath, West Glamorgan (0639 750556). Open daily 10.30am- 6pm (4pm from Sept). Adults pounds 1.25, children/OAPs 80p.
Welsh Miners Museum, Afan Argoed Country Park, Cynonville, Port Talbot, West Glamorgan (0639 850564). Open daily 10.30am-5.30pm. Adults 50p, children/OAPs 25p.
Big Pit, Blaenavon, Gwent (0495 790311). Open daily 9.30am-5pm (last underground tour 3.30pm). Adults pounds 4.95, OAPs pounds 4.50, children (under-5s not underground) pounds 3.50.
Rhondda Heritage Park, Lewis Merthyr, Coed Cae Road, Trehafod, Mid Glamorgan (0443 682036). Open daily 10am-6pm (last admission to rides 4.30pm). Adults pounds 4.95, children/OAPs pounds 4.25.
Information: A free leaflet called The Rhondda Heritage, mapping out a tour of 21 industrial history sites in the Rhondda Valley, is produced by Rhondda Borough Council Leisure Services (0443 434093).
OTHER UK COAL MINING MUSEUMS
Yorkshire Mining Museum, Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire (0924 848806). Includes underground tour similar to Big Pit.
Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland (0670 856968).
Scottish Mining Museum, Lady Victoria Colliery, Newtongrange, Midlothian (031-663 7519).
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