Yorkshire's Alamo finally passes in to history, 21 years on

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The Independent Online

For many in Yorkshire, its gates will always be "the Alamo", the trees in fields to the north a place where sanctuary was found from police cavalry charges. But soon they will be no more.

Orgreave colliery, site of the most infamous pitched battle between police and miners during the 1984 miners' strike, is closing down, ending its 150-year link with the coal industry.

UK Coal, the colliery's operator, has maintained Orgreave as an open-cast mine for the past 10 years, extending a heritage which included Arthur Scargill's stand against the Tory's pit closure policy.

Production will come to a complete halt next week and the 50 men who have dragged the last of the coal from the mine will begin the job of flattening the spoil heaps to make way for houses and business units. "There's no disguising the sadness people feel about the demise," said Derek Harrison, the site manager at Orgreave. "Thirty years ago, this industry employed 250,000 people and now it's a fraction of that."

There is no disguising the sadness among workers at an establishment that took up its place in British industrial history on 18 June 1984 when the coking plant, near Sheffield, was chosen as the site of a mass picket by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The union was supported by more than 5,000 pickets from across the UK and the police presence, from 10 counties, was either 4,000 or 8,000, depending on which of the many conflicting sources are to be believed.

The significance of the stand-off had been foreseen. As early as 8am a police constable was hit in the face by a brick and, after lorries arrived to fetch the coke, the first of several pushes by the miners began, culminating in what has become known as the Battle of Orgreave.

Ninety-three arrests were made, with 51 picketers and 72 policemen injured, although many of the miners refused to seek medical attention as they feared they would be arrested.

Miners later complained that television coverage of the battle had shown the police in a favourable light. Locals argue to this day that several sequences had been shown out of order.

When the NUM decided 11 months later to abandon the strike, Orgreave was one of the many pits that seemed doomed - and it is something of a miracle that the coal industry has lasted there until now. The coking plant was shut in 1985 but UK Coal opened its cast operation a decade later and began to clean up the environmental damage that British Coal had caused to the river Rother.

The UK Coal director Pat O'Brien said it was "time to look to the future" for Orgreave after the site's "colourful and productive past". And there are grounds for optimism. Property developers have presented plans to build a leisure resort on the site, including the largest theatre outside London's West End, an extreme-sports centre, a resort spa, exhibition centre and golf range.

The project is designed to fit in with John Prescott's plans to inject new life into the disused coalfields of northern England.

UK Coal's property arm has also submitted plans for homes for 8,000 people to complement the Advanced Manufacturing Park, also on land it owns, which aims to attract engineering and metals companies. This would build on Sheffield's traditional expertise in metal development. Occupants include the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), a £15m collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Boeing.

The days of mass employment on the site belong to the past, though. It seems only a coal industry a fraction of the size of the old one can turn a profit these days. UK Coal has revealed that its pits are making money for the first time in a decade. The seven remaining deep mines had returned to profitability, helped by higher selling prices and new working practices designed to boost efficiency.

However, UK Coal also said its sites at Rossington, near Doncaster, and Harworth are to close, leaving only mines at Daw Mill near Coventry, Kellingley and Maltby in Yorkshire and Thoresby and Welbeck in Nottinghamshire.

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