The last time I remember visiting the national coal mining museum for England I was about twelve years old and it was on a school trip. I remember this trip in particular because there had been a miscalculation and there weren’t enough seats on the bus for everyone. I drew the short straw and had to go in a teachers car – on my own. That just wouldn’t happen these days, but Mr Harris made it memorable in his Ford Fiesta CR2i!!
After reading a post this week over on David & Donnetta’s blog I decided it was time to take the girls down the mine. Up until 4 years ago, we lived about 20 minutes from the museum but we always had a child under five years old. With the underground tour limited to children aged 5 and over it meant we never went. Now we live 90 minutes away, at best, but I decided to make the trip.
The museum opens at 10am and I wanted to get there for the opening time to get us booked on the first tour of the day. With Lydia working now we had to be back home for 4pm at the latest so this all meant an early start. I woke them at 7am for an 8am departure, and amazingly they all got up.
To keep costs down I’d prepared a picnic the night before, so after breakfast, this was packed up and we were away.
The drive down was one we’ve done many times, however in the locality of the museum, on roads I used to know, I somehow made an error and lost my way. Four years away and I’ve forgotten where I was going.
Low cost – surprise cost
The mining museum is a national museum and usually, these are free. I was expecting to pay for parking but on arrival, I noted that the machine said this was an optional donation. At just £2 I was happy to pay it, but the machine was out of order.
We’d arrived at about 9.50am but the doors were open and in we strolled. I immediately approached the desk to book the underground tour. I was surprised to discover that they now charge £5 per person for the tour. But, what I later discovered, on the tour itself, was that this is still an optional donation and you can request a refund once back on the surface.
Now, I’m no cheapskate and I appreciate that these places cost money to operate, but I do not like this approach. Firstly, it’s not clear when you pay that this can be refunded, and secondly, it can be uncomfortable for this unable to afford the expense to ask for this donation back. Be aware of this if you visit.
The lift Down
The museum is at the old Cap House Colliery, and by far the best thing about it is the tour down into the mine.
You start in the lamp room where you collect your hard hat and miner lamp. At this point, all contraband is taken off you and locked away. By contraband, I mean mobile phones, camera, battery operated watches and smoking realtes materials (basically anything with a battery or able to spark). Once you have your lamp you can have your photo taken in front of a green screen that you can later purchase with yourselves imposed on a mine tunnel background.
There’s a furnace shaft here with a glass flor over it that you can walk on. You can see right down the 140 metre (450 ft) shaft! The girls we fascinated by this and it turns out to be the only furnace shaft still surviving to this day. Furnace shafts were used in the early days of mines as an ingenious way of circulating fresh air in the mine tunnels.
On the ride down in the lift, standing closer to complete strangers than you normally would, Verity started to lose it a little with fear. Thankfully she pulled herself together, otherwise, it would have been a very short tour for us!
Hitting the Bottom
Once out of the lift it was time to tour the mine with our guide, Dave from Barnsley. All the mine guides are former coal miners and they know their stuff.
The tour was really informative and the girls’ attention was held all the way around. They were particularly intrigued at the notion that back in the pre-Victorian days children as young as 5 went wot work down the mines. The worse part is that their job was sitting in complete darkness for 12 hours a day. At one point Dave had us all turn off our cap lamps, that darkness is like no other you could ever encounter.
The tour takes you through the ages of mining, or at least the last 200 years. We all crawled through some very tight spaces and tunnels to get a sense of what it might have been like for the miners (this is optional). I was like a big kid scrambling around down there.
Once the tour was over it was back up in the lift. When I last came here I remember the tour ended with us walking out of the mine up a 1 in 4 inclined tunnel.
The Rest of the Museum
After the underground tour, we took headed out to the playground to have our picnic. This playground seemed very new and all the girls enjoyed running of steam in there. After this, it was time to head back into the museum.
This is where you can lose kids when the displays aren’t overly interactive. There are lots of items of mining memorabilia in glass cabinets and lots of interesting text to read. Thankfully, the Victorian walking tour saved the day. This was led by a lovely lady in period dress taking us around parts of the museum. She spent more time on the story of child mine workers and how a flooding disaster led to the law changing.
Our last visit before leaving was to see the pit ponies that are stabled at the mine. There were a couple enjoying some time in a field (Eric and Ernie) and another two in their stables. Verity, being a lover of horses, was really pleased to see these.
All in all, it was a lovely day out. I was hoping for a low costs day. So the surprise mine tour donation put me out a little but never mind about that. If you have children and they’re 5 or over then this place is well worth a visit.
You can find out more about the museum on their website: www.ncm.org.uk