In Mansfield, they are waiting for Robin Hood to return: Miners' redundancy money will go only so far. What then, tourism? Esther Oxford visits a hard luck town being dealt yet another blow

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BLOWING warmth through his fingers, Leslie Cook, 58, a former miner at Mansfield Colliery, thrust his hands deep into empty pockets. 'The closure of the mines is not a problem for me. If pits are not profitable, they should close. I've got my dog, my TV, a few quid and the countryside. After working 12 to 14 hours down pit for 30 years, those pleasures are enough for me.'

Ten years ago, Mansfield's boys left school on Friday and went down pit on Monday. The town's prosperity relied on the coal. But when the industry was threatened with closures and the National Union of Mineworkers called on its members to strike in 1984-5, most of Mansfield's miners refused. They wanted a ballot. They didn't like being told what to do.

The Coal Board encouraged them to break the strike and go to work: stay loyal to us and we will see you right was the understanding. Three years later, Mansfield Colliery closed with the loss of 1,400 jobs. Then, in 1989, Warsop and Blidworth Collieries closed, followed by Sherwood Colliery in January this year. By then a total of 8,200 men had been made redundant. Now five of Nottinghamshire's eight remaining pits are to close; 7,600 miners are to join a dole queue already snake-like in length.

Mr Cook is unmoved. 'I think the Nottinghamshire miners deserve everything they get,' he says. 'They are a greedy lot. If you're looking for comradeship, solidarity, you won't find them here. Notts miners are only in it for the money.'

IN the Swan pub, off Market Square, a young man sits alone, eyes down, beer in hand. He leans sideways to listen to a conversation about mine closures. It is unusual to hear them talking about closures while they are drinking, says a barmaid. Usually they make a point of not talking about it.

But the young man listens and then interrupts angrily. 'Your mate is talking shat,' he says. 'I'm a miner. I know what I am talking about. Yes, the mines are to close, but so what? Traditions are made for breaking. It is time to move on. I've got a hefty redundancy payoff in my back pocket and two years to find a job. I'm young - in my thirties; finding a job won't be a problem.' He slams down the beer glass, jingles some loose change in his Levis, then leaves.

Step outside the Swan and the world of bulging payoffs dissolves. The scene in the Market Square is quiet, sedate. Proud fronts are up. Impenetrable. It is Tuesday, flea market day: groups of men in their late twenties and early thirties stand behind their stalls selling freshly laundered childrens clothes, chipped crockery and treasured family jewellery. They stamp their feet, stretching their heels; getting used to the fresh air after a working life in the pit. Some do not have a stall and hang around to help. In return for an afternoon guarding a stall, they might head home with three pound coins in their pocket, maybe even four. Cash in hand.

Just by the steps of the old town hall, a toddler patters by followed admiringly by dad. Father and child have just been down to the job centre. 'It's a waste of time looking there. The same jobs are advertised every week. Some of them pay less than pounds 2 an hour. What is the point of working your ass off for money like that? Particularly when social security penalises you for it.'

The child watches a flock of pigeons settle nearby, then dives into them, shouting. He is hyperactive, the father explains. Not having enough money to pay for a proper diet, he feeds his son tinned food. That makes it worse. But he is getting to enjoy the company of his son. His girlfriend works (he can't quite get over the idea of her being the breadwinner) and he stays at home with the boy, does a bit of cooking, but can't stand the housework.

'My girl works in a textiles factory. She earns more than I can, packing boxes. But it's bad for a man's dignity knowing he can't provide. Every man should have the right to work.'

Watching the pair is Dick, a market stall owner. Dick is not from Mansfield, but he has been coming to the market for years and years and says things have changed. Six years ago, he used to turn up at his market stall and customers would be there waiting for him, queueing up for his goods. Now things don't get moving until 11 o'clock, and even then it's slow. 'People have no reason to get out of bed,' he says. 'What is there to get up for?'

But they go through the motions. And they take care to take care of their own. Outsiders are treated with suspicion: if there is a family problem, the family deals with it. Rule by the boot, Dick calls it: people prefer to 'make sure' of their own.

'Just the other week I had a guy at the stall, looking to buy a machete. What do you want a machete for? I said to him. Apparently, his neighbour was giving him problems. He bought the one he wanted, waited for his neighbour to go out to trim the hedge, then sneaked up from the other side. Ramming the machete through the hedge, just missing the neighbour's stomach by inches, he growled: 'If you don't stop giving us trouble, you'll find this thing inside your gut'. The neighbour has been as good as gold since.'

LES MARSHALL is the NUM branch secretary at Clipston Colliery, now marked to close. He is also chairman of the Leisure Services Council and is anxious to pull Mansfield out from the dregs. Tourism is Mansfield's future, he says. Tourism and Robin Hood. 'Live the legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the history-soaked countryside surrounding Mansfield,' gushes a glossy brochure, complete with an illustration of the man who robbed from the rich to give to the poor.

At present, Mansfield's Robin Hood theme is limited to a tree trunk with a plaque plonked in the centre of town. Asking around, nobody seemed to know where or what it is. There are also plans to turn Sherwood Colliery tip into a dry ski slope and Mansfield Colliery tip into a small country park with a golf driving range. A Derelict Land Grant should foot the bill.

'The problem is that while we are marketing Mansfield as the 'Heart of Robin Hood Land', the town has no other major attraction to offer,' Mr Marshall says. But he perks up when talking about 'Dirty Weekends' - a plan to take tourists down a closed coal mine to show them 'their heritage'. Mr Marshall ponders the irony of his livelihood becoming a historical exhibition, then says: 'Yes, I'm sad. I do find it upsetting.'

Tourism is the hope for the future, but an injection of funds is needed in the meantime. Stickers stating 'Mansfield 2010' advertise a programme aimed at economic investment and development, but those who have heard of it remain sceptical. Aside from that, the council has produced a booklet, Mansfield - Moving Ahead, which looks like a glossy brochure. It is really a plea for help. Under the 'Problems to be Addressed' section, the list draws attention to the derelict housing estates, the large and growing problem of child abuse, the high rate of violent crime and a male unemployment rate of 25 per cent. The town itself has 'bleak and uninviting public open space, run-down shopping centres and 100 sites of vacant and derelict land'.

When the Japanese decided to invest in Mansfield, the council welcomed them with open arms, the local people grudgingly. When they started to build a textiles factory on the site of the old Mansfield Colliery there were complaints. Looking out of their front windows, residents of Forest Town housing estate watched the purple- green wasteland around their old colliery disappear. They mourned as slag heaps were sculptured into an industrial landscape and they complained bitterly to the council.

'To start off, people were really racist. But as the recession deepened people started realising what a lifeline the factory would give once it opened. They are learning that they can't afford to be fussy. It is a question of taking what is on offer,' says a miner, sadly.

He has a handsome redundancy packet. It is his son he is worrying about.

(Photograph omitted)

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