3 Mar

My trip to Big Pit – the most unimaginatively titled tourist attraction I’ve visited since the Tower of London – cost me £6 total, and (temporarily) most of the feeling in my toes and face. I’m still not sure it was worth it.

Blaenavon seems to exist suspended in some kind of limbo, designed using November as inspiration. It’s colder and darker than anywhere we passed en route, and sufficiently hilly that by the time we reached the Pit – sat atop the biggest and chilliest of the hills – I had a mild case of nausea. Unhelpfully, I was promptly ushered into a tiny cage which took me down 300ft beneath the surface of the Earth. Neurofen was unsurprisingly scarce.

Actually, that’s not very deep. Big Pit is one of the least big pits in the South Wales coalfields, with some going over a couple of thousand feet further downwards. The staff – most of whom were ex-miners themselves – seemed aware but not particularly interested in noting this irony out loud, and since only they knew the way out of these barely 6ft-high underground tunnels I kept it shut. Besides, it’s big enough. Enough to keep a moderately-sized stable of horses, for instance. This was the only part of the tour I found genuinely surprising – a small army of horses buried within the planet’s crust, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice like they were the crap secret weapon of a jaded James Bond villain.

Topside lacked the slight warmth of damp mines and twenty head-mounted torches, but at least I could stand up straight. With the notable exception of a tools exhibition, hosted by a recording of an excitable Welshman, the rest of the place was – well, a disused coal mine turned into a heritage site. It’s a shell, a largely lifeless husk of something that was of immeasurable importance in another time. It doesn’t make me sad – a lot of it isn’t even especially interesting – but I’ll remember it. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Still, I managed to screw up repeatedly. After scoffing at the exaggerated and low-quality audio recordings that complimented many of the outer sheds and smaller exhibits, I followed the sound of another into the main building. I was met with the  stares of a couple of bemused ex-miners who were working the mineshaft’s lift when I interrupted their conversation, and did a quick about-turn past the door with a ‘helmets on beyond this point’ sign I had entered through. Later I stopped to check a map outside a glass door, when a man appeared behind it and exclaimed something which I think amounted to ‘come in and listen to this excitable Welshman’. Then this:

“Is it just you?”

“Uhhhh (bollocks where are the forty people I came in with why did I break off and am now either going to receive an awkward one-person tour or get mugged)…yeah.”

There are more than a few people who think heritage sites and museums like this one do more harm to the study of history than good. They’re wrong, obviously, but I think there’s a pretty convincing argument for people like me to be kept away from them.


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