For those like us who have always wondered what it would be like to go down a coal mine, your chance awaits you at Big Pit Colliery. Donning hard hat, lamp and compulsory miner's belt you can descend the 283ft (86m) to the pit floor to experience one of the most fascinating guided tours you are ever likely to take, and as the old colliery is part of the National Museum of Wales, this remarkable opportunity is free.
Big Pit Colliery lies in the north-eastern corner of the South Wales coalfield in the Afon Lwyd Valley where the coal seam outcrops on both sides of the valley from Blaenavon to Cwmbran. Evidence of mining activity can be found in this area dating back to medieval times but it was the opening of the Blaenavon Ironworks in 1789 that created an ongoing requirement for coal. Big Pit is one of many pits to have been sunk since 1800 when the 'old coal pits' were sunk near the coke-yard and the Engine and Cinder pits were sunk to the west. Sunk in 1860 Big Pit forms part of the overall Blaenavon mine which, until its closure in 1980, was the oldest working mine in South Wales.
From the turn of the century to the Second World War mining activity was centred on four pits, Big Pit, Forge Slope, Kay's Slope and Milfraen. By 1938 Milfraen and Forge Slope had ceased production, the latter being replaced by Garn Slope. This situation continued until the late 1950s with the three pits employing between them some 1,700 men. By 1966 only Big Pit continued to produce coal and by 1970 with the workforce having been cut by two-thirds only the deepest seam, the Garw, was still being worked. Coal production in Big Pit came to an end in 1973.
Big Pit varies in diameter from 13ft (3.9m) to 18ft (5.4m) and has areas supported by both the older wooden method as well as later steel bracing. Throughout the guided tour both traditional methods and more recent modern methods of working have been left in situ giving a good overall impression of changes that occurred in the industry during the pits long working life. Visitors taking the tour of Big Pit Colliery descend in the traditional metal cage down the main shaft, in exactly the same manner as thousands of miners have done before them. On reaching the bottom, a world of tunnels await exploration.
Along the floor the tracks still remain for the coal trucks. Originally pulled by pit ponies who would live down the mine for fifty weeks of the year, but more recently by a motorised pulley system operated by a serious of large spoked wheels set in the roof at various key intervals. The engine that controlled this system still remains, as do the stables once occupied by the ponies. At one point the narrow coal face can be accessed where the giant coal cutter and coal conveyer belts now stand idle. Back up on the surface all the operational buildings remain including the Winding House, Blacksmiths forges, Managers offices and fitting shops. Venturing up the hill soon brings you to the miners canteen and extensive 1920s bath house.
Big Pit Colliery is a tremendous piece of Welsh industrial heritage and if confined spaces don't worry you then this site should be a must for any visitor. The guides, all former miners, are both humorous and knowledgeable and if you've ever wanted to experience the tranquillity of your youngsters left speechless, then this adventure will surely do it.