Circle Visit to Leeds, Part 1 – Saturday 7th January 2017
Our weekend began on a rather murky Saturday morning as 12 of the group headed to the National Coal Mining Museum for England, in Overton near Wakefield. After a warming coffee and a lovely biscuit/piece of flapjack (or a full breakfast, for some) we headed down to reception to pick up our brass checks, which we could use to access the underground tour. As a memento, we were also given a visitor check to keep (see photo below).
The tour begins in the lamp room where all of our contraband was taken into custody. In mining terms, contraband is anything that might cause a spark underground; it includes all mobile phones, watches with electronics inside, anything battery powered, as well as bags, purses and so on. We were issued with helmets and lamp packs which were designed to make our tour as easy as possible and to protect us from any bumps where the roof comes down low.
Photo of the group at the top of the mine (even though it looks like we are underground)
To begin the tour, our guide, Steve, invited us to peer down the ventilation shaft which goes down 140 metres (some 460 feet). The way it worked when the mine first operated was that a fire was lit at the base of the shaft and the rising hot air dragged cool, fresh air through all of the working, controlled by a series of airlocks and doors, to ensure that none of the dangerous, volatile firedamp (methane) gas could ignite or explode.
We were then taken to the cage and all 20 people in our tour party squeezed into a space not that much bigger than a broom cupboard. It was certainly cosy! Steve merrily explained that at the start of a shift, there might be only 20 men in the cage, but sometimes on the way back at the end of a Friday evening there could be anything up to 35 since they were all keen to get off home or to the pub at the end of a gruelling week’s work. It would be hard to imagine a more uncomfortable situation, with hot and sweaty men pressed up so close.
Anyhow, we got to the bottom of the shaft in one piece and entered the airlock. Lights on, we stood in the gloom to experience the cool air rushing round. We were shown the emergency exit and instructed that if necessary we would have to follow it up a 1 in 14 slope for nearly half a mile to get back to the surface. Fortunately for us, this was not followed through. One of the group (your editor, no less) was singled out for special treatment; Steve took great pleasure in rubbing coal dust all over my face so I would completely “look the part” of a miner. [Needless to say, when I got back to the top later in the day, I had to pay a long visit to the gents and scrub it all back off using loads of soap and water – the point was that it is so difficult to remove that you invariably end up with some left on, regardless of how long or hard you scrub yourself].
The next stage of the tour took us down shafts towards the spot where a small door appears in the side, a child’s figure sat disconsolately outside the door to which he was tied. On opening the little door, it was possible to see the rest of the family working the seam – dad hacking at the coal face with his pick, mother stacking it onto a sledge and dragging it out to the main shaft using a harness around her waist. The child’s job was to open the door when he heard a knock and to then close it so that the draught did not cause the candle inside to gutter and go out. On hearing his mother approaching from dropping off the coal, the child would then reopen the door to allow her entry and then settle back to sitting in the complete darkness until the next knock started the sequence all over again. When we turned off our lamps, it was impossible to see anything, so just imagine how scary that would be for a 6 or 7 year-old!
Moving on, we were shown the underground stables which the older boys attended to. The ponies only came up to the surface for a week or so when the mine shut for the holiday, so their lives were really no better than those of the young children (but at least the children got to go home each evening).
As we progressed along the shafts, we moved through a history of mining. The tableaux showed how mechanisation improved the lot of the miners and how it helped them increase productivity. A few of the group went into the small coal face which could only be accessed on hands and knees (it was only 30 inches high) so they could experience the way that bodies had to be twisted when the coal face was worked. As mechanisation became more widespread, the seams became larger and it was possible to stand up where the hydraulic beams kept the roof up. However, regardless of the height of the seam and with a stretch of coal face allocated to each man, it was likely that he had to shovel about 10 tons of coal each day from the space cleared by the machine. It was very hard to imagine how much grime and noise was experienced by these men but the cutters and belts that ran inside each shaft gave a sense of the dangers that lurked. We had a brief demonstration of how the coal face could be dynamited to give the best possible yield – no real sticks of dynamite are kept there now, nor are there any working detonators.
The hour and a half underground was soon over and we all squeezed back into the cage for the journey to the top, a lot wiser about the extreme conditions and the camaraderie that made life under those conditions bearable. Our guide clearly misses all of that friendship and loyalty shown to the other miners, but is happy not to have to to carry on with that life any more. He was a fantastic ambassador for the museum and gave us a good-humoured and truthful account of what people have had to endure for the sake of keeping our homes and industries supplied with this important fossil fuel resource.
Once back at the top, we settled down for a bite of lunch in the restaurant and then went our separate ways, some to see the other exhibitions (pit ponies Eric and Ernie as well as Finn, the gentle giant Clydesdale horse, the pit-top train and the miners’ memorials) and others to head towards the hotel before the light dropped completely. The target was for everyone to be settled into their rooms before 5pm so there was time for a short rest before our evening exertions.
At 5.30pm we all gathered in reception and walked up to Mass at St Anne’s Cathedral and we caught up with Frank and Bessa, who had been out late afternoon for a coffee, near Headrow. Obviously such a large contingent of unknown faces generated some interest and one of the priests came down to find out who we were and where we had come from. As he began the Mass we were welcomed very warmly and The Catenians were given a positive name-check, including our Circle. The Cathedral was built to an outstanding design in the Arts & Crafts neo-Gothic style and, although we did not have sufficient time to explore all of its nooks and crannies, we were quite taken by its appearance (see the photos, below). When Mass was over, a few of the group ended up chatting with the priest, and gathering interesting leaflets from their book table.
Back at the hotel, we gathered at 7.30pm in the bar and menu cards were distributed (to remind everyone what they had ordered in advance) . At 8.00pm we moved on for our evening meal which was being served in a separate room, not the restaurant.
We were all touched by the very personal service and the efficiency of the staff, who looked after our every need. The three-course meal was excellent, a fine-dining experience to satisfy everybody. The banter and chat around the table was brilliant and the evening passed away very quickly. Soon it was time for bed or a final nightcap in the bar and everyone departed for their rooms for a good night’s sleep.