Travel: Deep down it was scary

Days out: The Allan family visits the Black Country Museum. By Catherine Stebbings

Catherine Stebbings
Friday 25 April 1997 23:02

The redundant pit frame of Racecourse Colliery perches on a hill surrounded by rusting carts, tracks, coal and an abandoned slag heap. It might seem a place of quiet desolation but below the ground there is a hive of activity. Here you can get an all-too-real taste of life in the maze of cramped tunnels as you take an underground tour of the 1850s coalmine. At the Black Country Museum in Dudley, West Midlands, you learn how they extracted the Staffordshire thick coal, and you also find out a great deal about the social past of this mining area. Above ground, you can board a tramcar that runs down the hill past a supervisor's cottage - which leans precariously as a result of the subsidence caused by the tunnelling below. It rattles on past a toll house and worker's cottage to a colourful fairground complete with helter-skelter, coconut shy and impressive 1930s ark.

Beyond the fair is a mining village - or at least a reconstructed one, complete with sweet shop, hardware store, haberdashery, chemist, Methodist chapel, inn and a 1920s cinema. Staff done up in traditional costume serve in the shops and are on hand to answer questions. Brightly painted boats line the canal nearby, the waterways having once played a vital part in the transport of coal. A few boats glide off into the Dudley tunnel canal for visitors who want to see the caverns there.

The visitors

Sue Allan, a nurse, took her children, Lauren, 10, Tim, 8, and Josie, 6.

Lauren: The Black Country Museum was brilliant. It was like going back in time, seeing the mine, the colliery, the houses and the shops just as they would have been in the 19th century. I've never been anywhere like it. I learned a lot about the way the people lived. I don't think they earned very much. The houses seemed quite small, and just had rugs on the floor, little furniture, and the loos were outside in the garden shed.

I enjoyed the cinema, where we saw an old Charlie Chaplin film. It was not very comfy - we had to sit on wooden benches - and the film was very shaky, black and white, and no talking - just music. It was quite funny.

Tim: The first part of the museum is all to do with mining. There are lots of tracks and carts, the colliery and the mine itself. The best bit was the mine. I wouldn't have liked to have worked down there. It was cold, wet, dark, very dangerous and not very well paid. Often the miners were paid in tokens which they could only use in certain shops - and these usually belonged to the mine-owners, so things were expensive. Miners had a hard life.

We went down to the village on the tram and there I got a good idea about life in the 19th century. I liked the hardware store, which had baths like big tins, ropes, brushes and beetle-traps which caught cockroaches in the night.

Josie: I really enjoyed the village and best of all the fairground, which was like an old travelling fair. There were swinging boats, a mirror place, a wobbly thing you had to walk along and a helter skelter which looked really old.

In the village the lady in the sweetshop made banana sweets, which weren't exactly delicious but quite nice. In the chemist we saw some scales where you paid a shilling and weighed your baby.

Down the mine there was a pretend explosion, which made the ground tremble under our feet. I found the area outside the mine a bit boring because there were lots of big machines, piles of coal, and I didn't really understand how it all worked.

Sue: It was easy to wander round at your own pace, and there was enough to keep everyone's interest all day. The mine experience was just right, the children were not scared, but we could all see how grim it must have been.

The staff were down-to-earth, local and well-informed, and the shopkeepers were keen to discuss where the original buildings had been and what the owners had been like, giving us a very local connection. The lady in the chemist, Gee's, told us that when the shop was being re-erected here they asked Mr Gee's daughter-in-law to show them where he had kept his stores. In the hardware shop the man talked to the children about prices, how they compared to wages and what people spent their money on. He had a kettle on sale for 10 shillings, a shopkeeper's weekly wage. He explained that it may seem a lot but the kettle would last forever.

The staff were helpful but there were not enough of them to give the place the feeling of a true mining community. We didn't do much on the canal, and while it was such an essential part of the whole set-up there was not a lot of information down there or people to ask about it. This may be better on a brighter day.

The deal

Getting there: The Black Country Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands DY1 4SQ (0121 557 9643), is well signposted from Junction 2 of the M5 and lies on the A4037 just off the A4123. By train: Tipton station is on the Birmingham to Wolverhampton line. Buses to the museum run from Owen Street by the station.

Opening times: daily 10am-5pm from 1 March-31 October. Wed-Sun 10am-4pm November-February.

Admission: Adults pounds 6.95, OAPs pounds 5.95, children (5-17) pounds 4.50, family ticket (2 adults, 3 children) pounds l9.50. Extras - canal trips last about 40 minutes, adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.

Toilets: Good facilities around the site.

Access: Good free parking on site. Access around the museum is on foot but there is a free tram operating between the entrance and the village. Disabled access to most of the site, including the underground mine tour. Some buildings are too small for wheelchairs.

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