A small town – with a huge effect. The South Wales town of Blaenavon was once the spearhead of the industrial revolution. For 200 years everything revolved around coal and iron here in the Afon Lwyd Valley. This not only affected the landscape. It also affected the people. To such an extent that they have resurrected the past once more.
The climax of this journey back in time is a visit to the Big Pit: National Coal Museum. Here visitors climb into a cage and descend 90 metres to the pit floor below. Former colliery workers have plenty to talk about as they guide their guests through the galleries and the underground pit pony stables. Those who prefer a somewhat more comfortable life can stay on the surface and experience miners’ working conditions in a mock-up gallery.
Other sites to visit include the miners’ bath house, a forge and the colliery engine house. Nearby you can visit another attraction, the proud remains of the Blaenavon Ironworks, one of the best preserved sites of its kind.
Alongside the massive furnaces the modest dwellings of the workers seem tiny. Blaenavon owes its status as a cultural World Heritage Site to the sheer authenticity of its former industrial landscape.
At the same time as the French Revolution broke out in 1789 the people of Blaenavon were hard at work on a revolution of a completely different kind – the Industrial Revolution. The local iron mill had gone into production just one year before. What made it so revolutionary was the fact that all six furnaces were driven, not by the customary means of water power, but by a steam engine. The investment paid off. For the works continued to operate until 1902.
During the interim years, around the mid 19th century, the Big Pit went into production, also on the edge of Blaenavon. In 1939 the surface plant was modernised. And in 1983, three years after mining came to an irrevocable end, the colliery opened its doors once more – as a museum.
Now tourists, and not miners, descend the main shaft and local colliers tell them all about the workings of a pit. They can also visit the iron works which contains a visitor centre. Here there are several models illustrating how the old industrial site used to work.
The simultaneous growth of the coal and steel industries was one of the most important driving forces behind the industrial revolution. Blaenavon – indeed the whole of South Wales – was at the centre of this upheaval which resulted in completely new living and working conditions. Pit workers and ore smelters were needed. Not to speak of youths to operate the air doors below the surface. And women who picked iron ore from hillside streams. All this can be seen – and felt - at close quarters at Blaenavon. The iron works, the pit, the church and the company schools, the houses of the iron manufacturers and the workers’ institute are a living expression of more than two hundred years of industrial history.
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Last admission 4pm
Underground Tours 10am-3.30pm