Travels of a Navigator, 4th Class: Our Industrial Past

Today, normal service is resumed, navigation-wise – and this time, it probably is my fault. The weather has taken a turn for the decidedly soggy, so we plot a route to Blaenavon, the World Heritage Town, containing an old ironworks and Big Pit coal mine.

The start of the journey is easy. We drive through two villages and major roadworks with no trouble and spot the first sign for our destination, ‘It’s a straight road from here,’ I say confidently, bending to put the map on the floor – and thus failing to notice the sneaky right turn into the mountains. When we reach the outskirts of Abergaveny, we realise there might be a problem!
But a quick six-mile detour and a short foray down one of the infamous white roads soon puts us back on track and we find ourselves driving over Keepers Mountain and down into the Blaenavaon Valley.
Ignoring the pouring rain and trudging around the site of the iron-works where Sidney Gilchrist Thomas discovered how to remove phosphorous from iron ore, thereby drastically reducing the cost of steel production, we are reminded why we are both scientists at heart.
The workers cottages from the 1700s and 1800s seem quite prosperous, but by the early 20th Century, less so. Most disturbing of all are the ones from the 1950s and 1960s, which seem very familiar while incredibly old-fashioned.
When we reach Big Pit, the car park is packed and all the places on today’s underground tour are gone. However, there is still plenty to see and we spend a couple of hours exploring yet more of our industrial past. We are struck by the pride of the miners, the strength of their wives, the tales of hard work, dirt and tragedy, interspersed with fun and comradeship.
The lasting image is the huge wall listing the hundreds of pits that have closed, alongside a display of the facts of life regarding energy provision going forwards, the statistics for the quantity of coal still lying beneath our feet – and the brave assertion: we’ll be back.
We finish our tour with a simulation of life underground which is effective and instructive; it is a reasonable substitute for the real thing – without having to wear a hard hat or travel downwards in a tiny cage.
Leaving Blaenavon, I navigate us unerringly across two mountains, through rain and mist, straight back to our hotel. I am so proud!
By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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