Shirebrook braces itself for the long goodbye: A colliery's fears over its future were confirmed yesterday. Jonathan Foster reports that the fears over its future were confirmed

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THE VICAR called in mid-morning, before the news was confirmed. He agreed that none of it made any sense and, as he turned to leave the union office, told them if there was anything he could do . . . Nothing constructive came to mind. Shirebrook colliery, they learnt later, will be closed, just as the 1,000-member workforce has suspected since October. Almost 350 have already gone, but it still came as a shock to the remainder on the early shift as they returned to the surface of Derbyshire.

'It's at the back of your mind that the pit will be saved,' one said in the steam and Imperial Leather atmosphere of the showers. 'What can you think? I've done 15 years at the pit. The next 15 frighten me to death.'

Elsewhere in the village, Chris Jennings, an unemployed welder, leant over his fence and forecast economic collapse. 'The faster small businesses start up, the faster they fail.'

Julia Wright, whose family farm has 15 per cent of its land 'set aside', fears the consequences of Shirebrook's colliers being cast aside. 'Theft and vandalism will be rife,' she said. 'It's already increasing.' She has bought a dobermann guard dog.

Len, 47, said: 'I've had three strikes, and I'll do it again. We need to bring the whole bloody country out. It needs a revolution to sort things. I've a lad of 24 at the pit. What chance has he got?'

A group of miners in a pub heckled through tobacco smoke at the television. Shirebrook was not to be closed, but mothballed. 'It'll need a lot of sodding mothballs to fill that pit,' someone shouted. 'And I bet they're imported mothballs.'

The mine would be offered to private operators, Michael Heseltine announced, as if mocking Alan Gascoyne, the Shirebrook NUM secretary.

He has carefully negotiated privatisation of coalface development work, the coal-washing plant, and the canteen. Employees have taken redundancy then gone to work with the contractors. Transport services from pit top to coal face were next to be privatised. The pit is making big profits. The men say their manager is the best they have had. There is enough coal to employ at least another generation.

In the union office, they began dividing the few artefacts. Mr Gascoyne will keep the photograph of A J Cook, the militant Twenties miners' leader.

When Shirebrook does close and the union office is emptied, there will be nobody to arrange transport for Harold, a pensioner made deaf by work underground, and nobody to arrange convalescence for the miner's widow on Central Drive. Mr Gascoyne saw to those jobs yesterday.

'In some ways, I'm glad it's all over. The uncertainty has been getting everyone,' one man said, glancing across the office at a gaunt figure with close-cropped greying hair. He was being made an honorary union member, having been invalided out of the industry. The closure announcement in October sent him into depression and psychiatric care.

In the village centre and at the rail depot which handles Shirebrook coal, nobody was surprised by the announcement. Some could even take pride in predictions fulfilled, grim bets won.

As the televisions were turned off, one observation seemed to have been made by everyone: John Major had twiddled his thumbs, had seemed almost to smirk as Mr Heseltine made his statement. It may just be an unfortunate habit, but it may never be forgotten in Shirebrook.

A woman heading with her children toward the leisure centre suddenly began to cry. 'It's not as though the miners have done anything wrong, there's plenty of coal and it can be produced cheaply. But there are so many arguments in favour of the miners, and they still want to shut the pit. So I don't know what to think, except we have to let the kiddies know. I can't tell them anything, except that Major sat twiddling his thumbs.'

(Photograph omitted)

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