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Interludes: Down The Mine With G.T.

...It is a place of unbelievable excitement in my memory bank: a place of noise and working men and powerful coal-cutting machines, the end of the road, a blank, black wall of something buried deep in the rock that long ago was forest and tree ferns and more forest. This wonderful glittering seam of black diamonds used to be hacked out with pick-axes, but now they would cut it out, throw it on to a conveyor belt and take it away in the trucks to be sorted and washed and the shale discarded...

When Sylvia West was a little girl her father, the manager of a Somerset mine, took her 1,000 feet underground on Saturday mornings to show her where coal came from.

Sylvia recalls her father's dream of transforming a bare, black, unsightly mound of shale into an island of colour, a glorious splash of gold and orange among the workings of the mine.

Not a single marigold appeared: not one glorious orange flower. My little sister and I had picked bags full of the seed heads from our garden because my father had had a dream. He wanted to transform a bare, black, unsightly mound of shale into an island of colour, a glorious splash of gold and orange among the workings of a coal mine. Dad took our bags of seeds and walked the length of the disused pit “bach”, as it is called in Somerset, scattering them in all directions.

Alas, it all came to nothing; perhaps the crusty surface hadn’t weathered enough to allow any sprouting seedlings to get a foothold. When I went back fifty years later to re-discover my childhood haunts, the black mound was no longer recognisable. From end to end it was covered with bushes and wild flowers and grasses rustling in the breeze. Butterflies danced together along the slopes, and I remember I smiled to myself and thought, “there you are dad, everything in its own time.”

My father was a mining engineer and our small family moved to the Somerset coalfield from the one in Leicestershire just before the Second World War. By the time war broke out in 1939 we were living not far from Bristol and the port facilities at Avonmouth. There was a cluster of coal mines within cycling distance, and Dad was the manager of one of them. I was only eight when we moved and my sister was four, so my memories are vivid but patchy, but in all of them I can see lines of weary men heading home after their shift was over. They would be black with coal dust, red-eyed and grimy, and one of Dad’s first dreams was to install pit-head baths so that all the men would go home clean. This was over sixty years ago, so the norm in a lot of homes would still have been a tin bath of hot water in the kitchen, prepared and cleared away by wives and mothers.

I remember the excitement at home when Dad could tell us that the baths were up and working, all was going well, and the fact that his men were no longer going home straight from the coal face did wonders for their self-esteem. Most of them walked, some had bicycles, so now it was possible to come back in a change of clothes. It must have made a big difference to family dynamics, though at the time I was too young to know much about that.

I told a friend not long ago that on Saturday mornings I used to go down the mine with my Dad. I’m not sure that she believed me, but it was a privilege enjoyed by both my sister and me when we were ten or eleven. I expect it would be forbidden by rules and regulations these days. Dad wanted to show us where the coal came from, what his passion was all about, and how the men had to work with the coal cutting machinery to bring out the coal. We would leave home early to join the morning shift, walking to the top of the shaft where the cage was waiting: pit helmets were worn, Davy lamps in position, and when Dad and I had taken our places the gate would be secured; in the engine room the winding gear would be set in motion and down into the darkness we would go, slowly, silently, until we reached the bright lights at the bottom, a thousand feet away from sunlight and fresh air.

As soon as the cage stopped moving, the gate would be opened and the men would be away to the coal face; greetings and information were exchanged with those waiting to make the journey upwards, and I would trot behind my dad to whichever part of the workings he wanted to visit. I always felt completely safe even though I knew about the possibilities of disaster: there were rock falls, men were sometimes killed or injured, and I knew that the canaries that were kept down there weren’t just somebody’s pets, but safeguards against coal gas poisoning. If there was a suspicion of coal gas seepage, a canary would be taken along to see if it lived or died. If it died, at least the men wouldn’t: a necessarily loaded toss of the dice.

The first time I went down I saw the ponies, warm and well-cared for in an improvised stable. It was a long-standing tradition to use them to pull the trucks of coal along the tunnels, but before the Government of the day decided to close all the Somerset mines in the 1960s, they had been brought up and retired to peaceful meadows, and had been replaced by locomotives running on rail tracks. The best and quickest way to get up to the coal face was to hitch a lift on one of the line of trucks that was being pulled along to be filled. Dad would lift me inside, my sister too, I imagine, and we would clunk-clunk along until we arrived. It is a place of unbelievable excitement in my memory bank: a place of noise and working men and powerful coal-cutting machines, the end of the road, a blank, black wall of something buried deep in the rock that long ago was forest and tree ferns and more forest. This wonderful glittering seam of black diamonds used to be hacked out with pick-axes, but now they would cut it out, throw it on to a conveyor belt and take it away in the trucks to be sorted and washed and the shale discarded.

At the end of my visit I would say ‘thank you’ to the foreman and wait with Dad for the cage to take us up. The sides were open, so you could see the different rock layers and even a fossil or two: I would watch the thick oily cables stop moving as we reached the top again, the gate would be unlocked, and my adventure would be over. What an anti-climax, stepping out into the yard and going home, though whether I went clean or grimy has long been forgotten.
This is not a history of a coalfield or even of the love affair between my father and his mine. More than 100 years of successful production came to an abrupt and painful end when the Government decided to close the pits. They were not worth maintaining, they said, and men who had spent their working lives bringing out the coal would have to find something else.

I was no longer living at home when the death blow was struck: nothing was carefully dismantled, it would have been too costly, so the beautiful, efficient machinery was left down below, sealed in and abandoned to the seeping water and collapsing tunnels, the pockets of noxious gas and rotting pit props. The pit yard became derelict. Weeds and wild flowers crept along the path where two smiling men had stood next to my Dad one day so that I could take their photograph with my box Brownie. I wrote on the back “Two deputies with G.T.”, initials for George Thomas. That was what everyone called him.

When I last visited the place there were warehouse facilities everywhere, and billboards advertising a well-known sales catalogue. Nothing familiar was left, not even the bridge over the road. How could anyone know what lay below? The seams of coal that will make no-one warm, provide no power for any industry: the pit bach, at least, will be sweet and green, and who knows, perhaps a passing bird will drop a marigold seed there one day.

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