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Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Down the mine

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola (sorry pic is sideways)

Visiting the National Coal Mine http://www.ncm.org.uk/ was a real surprise. It’s the final stage of our power tour (we’ve been to a hydro pump station in Scotland; the Sellafield visitor centre next to the nuclear reprocessing site; ogled on and offshore wind turbines in Cumbria and elsewhere; seen a water wheel at work in Devon; taken the train past the carbon dinosaur cooling towers at Doncaster; stayed in a house with superinsulation thanks to its turf roof; enjoyed showers in Yorkshire from solar water heating and now we’ve been down a coal mine.

The underground tour at Caphouse Colliery, which takes more than an hour, is free. It was also the best of all the numerous guided tours we have been on throughout the past three months. Our star guide Andy, a former miner at the much deeper Thorne pit in Doncaster managed to explain the whole process of coal mining to his group of 20 adults and children (all over five, but none older than nine years). We were shown how to use a safety lamp to check for black damp (no oxygen) with a big flame low down; and fire damp (methane) by looking out for a blue glow above a tiny flame higher up.

If you only go to one place in England – which I hope is impossible– then go here, to the National Coal Museum midway between Wakefield and Huddersfield. The only downside was that I hated the food (the children ate chip butties, yuck, but as everything else is free it seems only fair to purchase snacks there). There’s a housewife from the 1920s giving a chat about life for mining families; displays explaining how to mine; a 300 million year old fossilized tree; and loads of banners and info about off-duty miners too with their sweet peas, cricket leagues, leeks and racing pigeons. Most noteable were the displays drawing together the events during the strikes of 1984 and 1985 to stop pit closures. I cried three times reading about mining: the bosses were so callous trying to slash wages whenever the price of coal fell even though one miner died every four hours. I must have worn a Coal not Dole badge, and given a few pounds at least to the NUM support funds for that strike, but it’s only now that I realize quite how those closures destroyed the communities Margaret Thatcher insisted shouldn’t, didn’t and couldn’t exist.

In just one year, 1923, 1,297 men were killed in mining accidents and more than 200,000 seriously injured. Yet for most of coal mining’s history workers got no sick pay or social security which meant when they fell ill, typically with the lung disease pneumoconiosis, they ended up getting into debt and even losing the house that their boss rented to them.

The tour was an eye-opener even without having to cope with any of the machinery noise or dust. Our group was only allowed down after handing in our contraband – anything with a battery which included my watch, camera, spare torch and a heap of other useless stuff I drag around. After crawling under the lowest chocks (hydraulic props which replaced the wooden props to stop the coal seam above collapsing on to you) and then whacking my helmet head along the slightly taller chock props, with only my helmet light to see by… and thankfully doing this I am in serious awe of anyone who willingly went down in a mine. Indeed getting me down the 430m drop in the cage (about the height of Blackpool Tower) makes me think I deserve a long and full life in the sunlight.

Burning coal is one of the big contributors to the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions: 34 million tonnes of coal are mined each year and there are still 11,000 people employed in the industry (for comparison:in the early 1900s there were more than a million working at 250 pits producing 250 million tonnes of coal annually).

There are still at least 33 open cast sites in Britain plus big mining industries in the USA, India and China. After this visit I don’t plan to burn coal in my fireplace again (a treat bit of winter heat) once my last two sacks in the cellar are used up. I’m not sure that was the aim of the centre but I just hadn’t realized how damaging coal is to people, never mind the environment.

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