There aren’t many places where you can head underground into a coal mine, walk around the remains of a blast furnace or see how workers lived in the 1800s. You can do all of these, and more, when you explore the industrial heritage of Blaenavon in South Wales. And even better, every attraction we visited was free!
The town of Blaenavon was once a major iron, steel and coal producer. The subsequent closure of the ironworks and coal mine led to mass unemployment and a declining population. Fortunes were reversed when the industrial landscape of Blaenavon attained World Heritage Site status in 2000; visitor numbers have doubled since inscription and continue to grow. We spent a day dodging the rain showers and taking in the sights of the area.
Blaenavon World Heritage Centre
Our first point of call was the Heritage Centre. This houses a small exhibition dedicated to the history of the area and provides information about the industries which once dominated the landscape. A timeline runs around the walls of the room with key events and interesting snippets.
The kids weren’t so keen on reading the wallboards but they enjoyed using the interactive touch screens to find out more about how the families lived. My daughter spent ages creating a shopping list based on the typical income of a mining family whilst my son learnt about the jobs children used to do in the mines.
The cafe provided a good excuse to linger a while longer in the dry before heading out to the ironworks.
Dating from the early years of the industrial revolution Blaenavon ironworks was once one of the biggest producers of iron in the world, and it accounted for the growth of the town in the 1800s. The iron was used, amongst other things, for making canon balls to use in the Napoleonic war.
I’ve seen the ironworks site described as a preserved ruin and I’d agree wholeheartedly with this. You can still see the Water Balance Tower (a water driven lift), calcining kilns and the remains of the blast furnace and there are audio points around the site to help you visualise what it must have once looked and sounded like.
This was the first Cadw site (Welsh government service which conserves historic environment) we visited on our holidays. In addition to the free access I was really impressed by the visual installations at both this site and the others we visited. At Blaenavon the walls in the blast furnace were illuminated with scenes and sounds from the ironworks, and at one point molten iron is seemingly poured and lights up the floor.
Probably the most famous part is the row of workers’ cottages which were featured in the Coal House reality series on BBC Wales. There was quite a lot of restoration work happening to the exterior of these cottages during our visit (hence no photos) but they were still open for visitors. Inside they are furnished as they would have looked at various points over the previous 200 years.
The houses all had narrow staircases, small rooms and a shared row of outside toilets. One had a piano which my daughter played until she got embarrassed when some other visitors arrived. The 1950s house bore a strong resemblance to that of my grandparents home; some of the furnishings looked very familiar! In addition to the houses there was also a recreation of the company shop which looked like a fun place for younger children to play in.
Big Pit National Coal museum
Big Pit was a working coal mine which closed in 1980. Nowadays it’s a major tourist attraction which offers visitors the option to go on a 300ft journey down into the mine. I visited the mine back in 1983 when it first opened and it made such an impact on me that in the intervening 30 years (gosh I feel old) it’s a place I’ve always wanted to return to.
It was pretty busy on the day of our visit so we joined the queue in the waiting room in readiness for our underground trip. It moved pretty fast, and despite initial impressions we only had to wait 20 minutes or so before it was our turn.
Before you head down, you’re given a helmet, lamp and battery pack to wear. We had to hand in ‘contraband’ as Big Pit is still classified as a coal mine. This included cigarettes and other items containing batteries, such as phones, watches and cameras. At this point my daughter discovered a random battery in her pocket which was hastily passed to me.
We were soon packed into the rattling lift which took us down into the mine. The underground tour lasts about 50 minutes and as the guides are ex-miners they have plenty of stories to tell. Our guide had strong feelings about the closure of the mines and it wasn’t difficult to tell his political allegiance!
One of the highlights was turning our lamps off to experience complete darkness. Although this was fun it was sobering to learn that young children would have to work in complete darkness if their candle blew out.
When I visited in 1983 there were still two retired pit ponies living at the mine. These are long gone now but you’ll be able to see the stables underground in the mine where the ponies once worked. Our guide told us how the ponies were entitled to two weeks holiday above ground each year. They loved it and were understandably difficult to catch when it was time for them to return underground.
In addition to the mine tour there are some attractions above ground. Set in the hillside, rather like Teletubbyland, we found the Mining Galleries, an exhibition of modern mining machinery. This is much more interesting than it initially sounds! After watching a short film, you walk through three display areas which are illuminated and have realistic sounds.
Lastly we visited the Pithead Baths where the miners (in recent years) would wash after their day in the pit. Nowadays these house exhibitions about mining life; the parts I enjoyed most were the real life stories of miners who had previously worked at Big Pit.
As a jaded forty-something no visit could ever live up to the excitement of my childhood experience but I do hope my children remember their day out as fondly as I remembered mine. If you’re in the area make sure you pay the town a visit!
- The Blaenavon World Heritage Centre is open daily except Mondays. Entrance is free. We parked about 5 minutes away down the hill; this is also free.
- Blaenavon Ironworks is open daily from April-November but is only open Friday-Saturday during the winter months so check the Cadw website before you go. Admission is free, but to get the most out of the site you’ll probably want to buy a guide book.
- The Big Pit National Coal Museum is another free attraction although there is a £3 charge for car parking. It is open daily, with the last underground tour taking place at 3.30pm. Children need to be 1 metre tall to go underground and able to carry their own safety equipment which weighs about 5 kilos. The underground tour is accessible to wheelchair users but should be arranged in advance of your visit.