We drove south along winding roads and watched as the landscape changed from large sweeping vistas down glacial valleys filled with slate-roofed stone buildings to a topography resembling the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. The Welsh differences: the narrowness of the roads, the little villages and, of course, the sheep.
The Big Pit Coal Museum in the Blaenafon region of southern Wales was a working coal mine until 1982, when it was closed because it had been played out. People had extracted iron ore and then coal in the region since the 17th century and by the 19th century some of the finest steam coal in the world came from the Big Pit. The owners of the Titanic only wanted steam coal from the Blaenafon region for the ship's boilers. In 2000, the Big Pit and the surrounding iron works, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because they constitute an exceptional illustration in material form of the social and economic structure of 19th century industry. And they are wonderfully intact.
We bought tickets for the underground tour and were taken into a large workspace where we were fitted out with helmets, headlamps, and battery packs with rescuer breathing masks that belted around our waist. This is the same equipment the miners use underground. Our small group entered a lift with our guide Rob, a former miner from a nearby pit that closed in 1989, and descended 90 meters, traveling 6 meters per second.
All of our cameras, cell phones, watches -- anything with a battery -- had to be left on the surface because there is always fear of fire in a mine and somehow batteries play into that scenario.
Rob led us through a 19th-century part of the mine, stopping frequently to tell us about various aspects of life in the underground. We heard about the 6-year-old boys who sat in the darkest of dark areas, listened for the sound of a pit pony coming his way then felt along a rope and opened a door to let through the pony and the dram (one ton) of coal it was hauling in a wagon. We heard about the life of the pit ponies (a misnomer: they used horses in the mines) living in dreadful conditions, wading through water and muck to haul the wagons and enduring foot and leg rot, spent 50 weeks a year underground. He explained the close relationship between the miners and their ponies and how they took their ponies aboveground with blindfolds that were gradually loosened as the animals' eyes adjusted to the light.
We walked through the narrow shaft, attempting to avoid hitting our heads on low timbers, and listened to Rob's stories of how mining changed over the century. The last pit pony came out of a mine in 1972 though they were using canaries to test for the presence of carbon dioxide up until the 1990s.
All of the underground guides at the Big Pit are former miners. As we rode toward the surface in the lift, Rob pulled a pocket watch out of his pocket that had been given to his grandfather upon 40 years of service in the mine. It was in his grandfather's pocket when they brought his body to the surface after he died in a mining accident.
The treasure had been passed down to him.