It’s hard to overstate the importance of coal mining and iron production in the history of Wales. With these, Great Britain mined and smelted and powered its way into the Industrial Revolution, and the world has never been the same.
One of the most important places in the world for iron production was Blaenavon Ironworks, a massive blast furnace built in the hills of southeastern Wales in 1789 and in use until 1900. It was such an important part of human history, in fact, and is well preserved enough, that it’s on the World Heritage List. Liz and I made it our first stop after Cardiff last May.
There were half-hidden stands with audio guides scattered across the complex, and when we were able to find them, we learned a little about how the furnaces worked–workers shoveled coal like fury at the top of the hill, fueling the steam-powered furnaces that turned iron ore into usable iron. A tall water-balance tower was used as a counterbalance when lifting the tons of metal. Eventually a railway was built to get materials to and from the site faster, although I didn’t see remnants of that.
Right next to the remains of the furnace was a small collection of buildings, which is where workers were housed for at least a century. The tiny rowhouses have been turned into museum sites. One set of rooms showed what it likely looked like early on, around 1790, when the company-provided accommodation was used by generally well-paid employees, who were maybe a little higher up on the chain. Another set of rooms showed how the houses were used about fifty years later, when the better-paid employees moved into the growing town of Blaenavon, and only people too poor to move out lived in the tiny rooms on site. In the first set of rooms, maybe a middle-aged couple lived, but in the second, a family of seven or eight crowded into the same small space. Apparently the BBC shot a popular series here, so yet another set of rooms was done up to look like it did in the 1960s.
The Big Pit
The Big Pit is the splendidly named coal mine just a few miles from the ironworks, and included as part of the World Heritage site, as together they show the full cycle of mining, smelting, forging, and shipping out metals that built up the country and the world.
The mine was operational up til 1980, and it re-opened as a museum in 1983. Before you go down in the pit, you have to remove anything metallic, anything at all, because some of the conditions that made it dangerous to mine down there make it still dangerous today. Yes, we’re not chopping away at the walls to get at coal, and we’re not carrying lamps all over, but there’s still a lot of flammable methane gas down there, and metal creates sparks. So off came watches, jewelry, belts with metal buckles, and of course cameras, and they were all put into lockers with many jokes from the former miners about selling it all on eBay while we were gone. (I did note that they let those of us with glasses keep them on, though, and my plastic glasses definitely have metal hinges. But I wasn’t going to say anything.)
Our guide mined in the Big Pit right up until it closed, and you could tell he missed parts of it, though maybe not others. He showed us where the horses who pulled the carts of coal and debris lived, and told us how once they were brought underground, they were never brought back to the surface for the rest of their lives, until sometime in the 20th century, when they were allowed a two-week vacation aboveground every year. Yikes.
We had to duck our heads as we walked from section to section, and one older gentleman could never seem to remember to do that, so we heard him hit his head at least 10 times. As someone who regularly gives herself concussions, I sympathized. Our guide was a joker, keeping us entertained with jabs at Americans (that’s fine) and eyebrow-waggling innuendos. But he was always deadly serious when he talked about how dangerous mining is, and the many precautions they took to keep their workers safe down in the mines. We all carried methane detectors on the belts they strapped around us aboveground, along with the battery packs for our headlamps, but our guide said that most miners still prefer the reliability of that poor little bird, the canary in the mine.