May 15th, 1999. Keith Jackson, Ali Neill, Zoe Sayer, Kay Baker, Kevin Baker
It has always been one of my lifetime ambitions to visit a working coal mine since many of my ancestors worked in the pits of South Wales during the boom era. In May 1999 I heard that Kevin Baker (of Carn Brea Mining Society) had managed to fix a visit to Tower Colliery in Hirwaun and had spare places so I jumped at the chance. The five of us on the trip met at the Croydon Caving Club cottage and had an usually peaceful night as we had the cottage to ourselves.
We arrived at 8am at the site and changed before meeting our guide Gary O'Brien, who is the colliery Training Officer. After a brief description of the mine layout, geology and history in the training room, we were taken to the Lamp Room and were fitted out with helmets, lights, and self rescuers (a device to breath through in case of fire which converts CO to CO2). We then walked over to the pithead at No. 4 Shaft, where we were frisked for contraband (fags, lighters, battery equipment such as watches, etc.). The room below the headgear is entered through an airlock and surrounded by fans, making this room deafening and very windy. We were given tokens by the poor bloke who I assume spends all day in this rather hellish place, and were then squeezed into a rather battered and small cage.
I must admit I felt rather unnerved at this point as the place had a rather demonic feeling, and I had remembered stories of cages being more or less dropped and the brakes being applied at just the last moment to keep the time involved transporting men to a minimum. Fortunately, it was quite a gentle descent, to a depth of 160m. The area around the bottom of the shaft was big, well lit, airy, and incredibly hot (I was in T-shirt, fleece and oversuit!).
The area around the shaft is on the 9-Foot seam but present workings are in the deeper Bute Seam, which is reached by a drift descending at 1 in 4, with tramway haulage. At the foot we passed through ventilation doors into the M2 Motorway, which forms the intake roadway. The air comes from surface down No. 3 New Drift, a 1 in 5 incline, 1.5km long which takes the coal up to the Preparation Plant near Hirwaun. The much warmer return air comes up the M1 Motorway, which is parallel to the M2, then along the route we took from No. 4 Shaft which is upcast. From here on , instead of the traditional trams used for carrying materials, FSV's (Free Steered Vehicles) are used, kept at a Garage on the M1. The M2 runs about 2km to the south west, to the areas presently worked. Various massive pumps, sub stations, and other noisy equipment were passed. The drives are about 8m wide by 3m high, and contained conveyors, which were mostly not working as this was a maintenance day. However some were still running which was fortunate as we were then introduced to the art of man-riding. This is the means by which the miners travel in and out of the pit and involved standing on a platform and throwing yourself head-first onto the conveyor. This ride beats anything at Alton Towers and soon whisked us great distances. Getting off the conveyors is a bit hairy at full speed but Gary usually managed to jump off first and hit the trip button. We then entered the current working panel, passing through ventilation doors where the return air from the face is passed in metal trunking over the top of the intake roadway we came in on. At the other end of the face an intake drive also connects to the roadway, and contains coal conveyors and a crusher. Just before the face we saw work on methane drainage bore holes, which are driven up at an angle to the seam above. Methane tends to migrate from the seam into surrounding strata, and in particular around faults. It is now piped to surface, and this year a power station burning methane has been commissioned which it is hoped will make the pit at least self sufficient for electricity. The methane is extracted by suction, the pipes carrying 50-60% methane. Methane is obviously a big concern which requires powerful ventilation to keep to safe levels, and there are all manner of methane monitors scattered around. We were told Tower is the most gassy mine in Britain.
At the face we saw the coal cutter, an awesome machine with two cutting wheels and which is wholly computer controlled. This moves along the face dumping the coal onto a Panzer conveyor. Once the cutter has travelled the length of the face ( which is worked by retreating back towards the main roadways), the cutter and conveyor must be moved forward reach the newly exposed coal. The roof is held up by powered supports under which the men work, which push against the roof and floor by rams. These also act as an anchor for pushing the cutter and conveyor forward. They are in turn moved forward by retracting the rams on each in turn, there being 50 odd supports along the face. The roof behind the supports soon collapses as they are removed. It was an awkward, cramped and dangerous feeling place, even with the machinery switched off (it being a maintenance day) so we didn't have the accompanying dust, water spray and noise. There were still all sorts of creaks, groans and minor falls from the roof.
There had been considerable trouble with an unpredicted fault discovered during the development of this face, which appears to be a minor thrust. As well as causing a minor displacement of the seam, it also resulted in bad roof conditions. It had been possible to work the face through this fault, which also appears in the next face to be worked in the future, to the north west. Also in the south west part of the face, part of the seam, which is about 2.5m of top quality anthracite, carries high sulphur values so the height worked is reduced to avoid these.
The journey back was more arduous as many of the conveyors were now off for maintenance but the mile long section we walked up gave a lasting impression of the scale of the place. However, some of the conveyors were ridden giving some of us a chance to demonstrate our lack of technique at getting on! Back at surface we were shown the winder and then had a welcome shower - we were filthy by now. We then were shown the control room, where all underground operations are monitored.
Then we had a look at the modest but interesting visitor centre (open to anyone but I suggest you book as they need to unlock it). This charts the recent history of the pit from the miners' strike, the closure by British Coal as a mine with no chance of any future, and then reopening after a workers' buyout. Everybody in the mine is obviously very proud of their achievement of running the mine as a profitable co-operative for the past five years and there is enough coal to last many years longer.
This was a very memorable trip and bears no resemblance whatever to touristy sites like Big Pit. It is not easy to arrange a trip, but if you get the chance I thoroughly recommend it.
Some sobering thoughts came over the weekend when I mentioned to Selwyn at the New Inn that we were to visit the pit the next day. Expecting a response of interest and surprise I was a little taken aback when he quietly recounted his memories of the explosions and fires at the colliery which had claimed many of his friends and relatives in former times. What we saw now was one of the most modern and safe coal mines in the World. However, at its height the South Wales coal and iron fields were one of the richest boom areas in the World but this had a high human cost since techniques and conditions were very much more dangerous.
Tower is the last deep mine in Wales which is now a tiny remnant of a massive industry which made the area so prosperous, but its decline and recent decimation has reduced the area to one of the poorest in Europe. This history of mining and the strong socialist tradition of the valleys seemed to have made these remaining miners almost into local heroes. It will be a sad day for the area when this last mine is closed, but I hope this will be a long way off.
Keith Jackson (and thanks to Alistair Neill for technical info.)