Crisis in the Pits: Mining village where work is fading memory: Cortonwood Colliery closed after the miners' strike. Malcolm Pithers reports on its jobless community

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The Independent Online
The future is here, where the battle began. Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire, broken, buried and gone for good. Men who were miners here now walk past with barely a second glance, faces etched with troubles.

This is where the 1984 miners' strike began and where prophetically the men set up the Alamo, the last stand against pit closures. They picketed Cortonwood round the clock throughout the near year-long strike.

'When the Alamo went we knew what was going to happen. They flattened the pit almost before we had time to catch our breath,' one former miner said yesterday.

Everyone is a former miner near Cortonwood these days, turning their hands to any work they can find, running small businesses, planning their days with too much free time and precious little money to spend. Talking, always talking, with beguiling humour about the old days down the pit.

The pit in the village of Brampton Beirlow is now a huge mound of dirt with enormous digging machines scurrying on its horizon. The developers, St Paul's, have moved in to clear the 185 acres for industrial, commercial and leisure use.

It attracted the largest city grant awarded by the Government, pounds 15m, for a pounds 120m development. But still, years after the colliery closure, these are only plans.

The scheme is for shops, a local pub and village green, industrial development, housing and commercial developments. But there have been major difficulties because of the massive volume of colliery spoil, burning materials and the old tip and colliery shafts.

A turn of the head from the old site brings reality into view. A stark housing estate, men without work looking out from behind garden gates, a busy place at the wrong time of day. A group of men, barely one over 45, sit in the miners' welfare pouring scorn on British Coal.

Alan Henry, 25, is fit and out of work save for the odd part-time job. 'There's just no jobs round here and never will be. If you close a pit down in these villages the whole place grounds to a halt.

'They used to be able to redeploy men but how are they going to do that now when they are closing everything down. We can't work and we can't move.'

A short walk from the welfare club Malcolm Fitzwilliam, 44, is working with his wife in the converted school building which now forms part of the local business estate for small businesses. He has put all his redundancy payments, pounds 20,000, into the business printing brochures, letterheads and cards. He has also borrowed pounds 10,000 on his house to keep his business going.

He left the mining industry in 1987 and says he has done well to survive. 'I put every penny I have in here to make a go of it because there is nowhere else to go,' he said. 'Now the lads leaving will find it even harder. I can't see any way they can make a living.'

The drive to persuade government to provide the funds for real jobs is being conducted with zeal by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, an independent all- party organisation of 85 local authorities in the coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales.

Hedley Salt, chairman of the organisation, said: 'It is a blow of unmitigated savagery. As well as the direct jobs lost in the industry there is the huge knock-on effect.

'The critical mass will be lost and there will not be sufficient work for the equipment manufacturers to maintain their base or for mining training courses to be run. The whole infrastructure will now crumble. The industry, to all intents and purpose, is destroyed.'

In March 1985, at the end of the miners' strike, there were 171,000 miners and by September 1990 around 61,000. Yesterday the industry was down to 40,000.

The councils in nearby Rotherham and Barnsley are doing all they can to help against impossible odds. Unemployment is already 50-60 per cent above the UK average and one part-time vacancy for a driver and handyman attracted 600 applicants. The future is here and it is harsh.

(Photograph omitted)