When I was an eight-year-old, school trips were meant to be fun, a summer outing on the coach to a zoo or stately home or simply to the seaside. The only messages we had to etch into our minds during the whole excursion were (a) don't eat your packed lunch on the bus en route to the destination, (b) if you are going to be sick, have a bag handy because the driver will make you clean it up yourself if it goes on the floor or the seats, and (c) don't kneel on the back seat waving at the cars behind because this makes the coach driver 'go mental'.
But if you thought the trip to the Big Pit mining museum at Blaenavon in South Wales was simply meant to be fun, think again. 'This is an Active Learning Experience,' confided a teacher. She had a thick teacher's pack crammed with educational material, and pupils had been meticulously prepared on the aspects that applied to their national curriculum studies (mining is a major topic for study in Environmental Geography: Key Stage One).
However it was not an active learning experience that was taxing the minds of children from St Stephen's primary school, Bath as we flew across the Severn Bridge. Were they agog at the prospect of an authentic trip underground to the coal face? Were they excited by the thought of the exhibition of mining history and trade union organisation? Actually, no - the one thing these children wanted to be let loose for was . . . the Gift Shop.
'Mr Barrett] How long will we have in the Gift Shop?' Long enough. 'Mr Barrett] Will we be going to the Gift Shop first?' Forget the Gift Shop, I pleaded, but to no avail. Funds were repeatedly checked, potential purchases plotted. Old Gift Shop hands knew to expect pens, novelty pencils, rubbers and purses. And postcards. And sweets, of course.
On arrival the coach driver spotted two buses ahead of us: 'French coaches in. I'll have to lock up, otherwise they'll nick everything.' This outbreak of francophobia was misplaced. Ahead of us in the queue, the party of first formers from Tours were creditably well behaved. (Big Pit is popular with French schools; incredibly, the mining museum gets more school visitors from France than it does from Wales.)
After a short wait, we were ushered from the waiting room into the area where we were kitted out with miners' helmets, lamps and self-rescuers (breathing apparatus in a small pack). Fred (an ex-miner) relieved us of our 'contraband' - battery-powered watches that could cause an explosion below ground - and we waited for the cage to take us down. He told us that when Big Pit closed there were 40 collieries in South Wales employing 25,000 people - now there is just one mine left.
The cage made its slow, 300ft descent into the darkness. When we reached pit bottom, Fred said it was a very, very old mine. 'They sank the shaft in 1860 and mined coal until 1980, so how long were they mining coal here, then?' The children pondered long and hard. A lad put his hand up: 'It was a very long time. 'Bout 50 years or something I would have thought . . . at least.'
The children walked wide-eyed up the narrow seams. Nobody was terribly sure what coal actually looked like; items were collected and brought for inspection by the guide. 'Is that coal?' they kept asking. 'Coal's black and shiney, love,' repeated Fred with admirable patience. 'Wait till we get to the face, you'll find plenty by there.'
At the face we saw where and how the coal was cut and loaded on to rail trucks, called 'journeys', to be carried back to the mineshaft. Here there was coal, which was avidly snapped up.
'Cor, look at this piece. Buy that in the Gift Shop and it'd cost you pounds 5. At least.'
'In a box? That would cost you pounds 10.'
' 'Ang on, now, take small bits. And if you crunch it up like that, you get dirty hands,' said Fred, but the children were too busy loading their pockets with big lumps of coal to pay much attention.
The highlight of the trip came at a ventilation door where Fred told us to turn off our helmet lights and we were plunged into complete darkness. 'This is great.' 'Lush,' agreed everybody.
'Now listen. Children aged five and six - younger than you - used to work underground in complete darkness, opening and closing doors. Can you imagine that, sitting in the dark? Perhaps with rats running over you?'
'Aye. Well, medium-sized ones.'
After contemplating the prospect of sitting in the dark being trampled by a medium-sized rat, most of us were ready to consider the prospect of an imminent return to the surface. But there were the pit pony stables to be seen, and at the end we had a brief lecture on the role of the canary in mining (dismal listening for canary lovers).
After about 90 minutes wandering around Number Eight seam, we were grateful to step into the cage for the ride up. Once again we turned off our lamps and watched as the pitch black of the shaft bottom was slowly diluted by the sunlight filtering down from above.
After collecting our contraband and bidding farewell to Fred, there were plenty of above ground exhibits to be seen: the winding engine house, blacksmiths' shop, miners' baths and the canteen (now a cafeteria). Then there was the packed lunch to be eaten alfresco.
'I hope none of you have already eaten any of your packed lunch.' 'No, Miss Jones.' Well . . . sorry, Miss Jones.
And, finally - the Gift Shop. 'How long, Mr Barrett?' Ten minutes. 'Oh, Mr Barrett . . .' For 10 frantic minutes, the shop was a heaving mass of 100 children grasping for pencils and seizing other assorted knick-knacks. A quick visit to the lavatory, a head count, and then home. 'I'm coming back with my mum and dad, this place is fantastic,' said several of the children. At bed-time I asked my daughter what she most enjoyed about the Big Pit trip. 'That's easy. The Gift Shop.'
Getting there: Take junction 26 off the M4 and take the A4042 to Pontypool then the A4043 to Blaenavon.
Opening hours: Big Pit (0495 790311) is open March to November 10am- 5pm: last underground tour is 3.30pm.
Admission: A family ticket for an underground tour costs pounds 15 for two adults and two children - the tours are not suitable for children under five. Study pack pounds 3, including postage.
Other mining museums with an underground visit: The Yorkshire Mining Museum (0924 848806) near Wakefield is open all year from 10am to 5pm and allows visitors to travel 450ft below ground. Chatterley Whitfield (0782 813337) near Stoke-on-Trent opened in 1979 as Britain's first underground mining museum.
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