Quote of the Day - Hampstead wasn’t good enough for you was it? You had to go poncing off to Barnsley. You and your coal-mining friends. - Monty Python
MIPTC's Travel Report From Scotland: The Wales Edition, Part III (The Final Post)
This post is the last in MIPTC's travel series, which started on April 2. if you're interested in reading from the beginning. Otherwise, jump in and travel along.
MIPTC is in Wales, the land of my father's forefathers. It's an odd feeling, knowing that youve got heritage in the deep valley where their home town of Cwmtillery sits, surrounded by two sided-mountains of grey rock, which are barely covered by grass. Each side of the steep mountain forms a "V," where I stand at the bottom, looking at the clear and cold brooks tumbling down the mountainsides, pushing the force of time through my mind. I try to imagine life here more than a hundred years ago, when Thomas and Mary lived here. That evening, I fall asleep with images of the landscape and my imaginings of what life was like.
The Big Pit is the first destination of the morning. While somewhat indicative of the location, the Big Pit is not an open pit, but it is instead the name of the Wales National Coal Museum, an underground mine you can visit and travel 300 feet below the surface and see a mine, just as it was worked long ago. As part of my family heritage, it's a must-see for me since my Great-grandfather worked in the collieries (mines) here, ultimately manning the fans that pumped life-saving air underground. The video presentation transports me back in time, while traveling down the elevator shaft at some 18 feet per second sends shivers down my spine, both because there's a 20 degree temperature drop from the surface to the bottom, but also because I'm beginning to get a sense of that hard life they lived. The mining lamps passed down to me from my Great-grandfather now have a fuller meaning as the guide explains about the "me-thane" gases that accumulate in the shafts, along with the several underground explosions that occurred until they perfected the lamp.
Once at the bottom, the green metal mesh door slides open with a smooth whoosh, I look up and the solitary white light on my mining helmet illuminates the ceiling of curved steel bars, with what I can only describe as firewood stacked between the rails spaced every three feet or so, holding back the force of the earth above and on the sides. The black coal seams still remaining glisten as the light bounces off them. The mine guide describes the work necessary to get the coal from underground to the surface, with only a pick and sledgehammer. You started mining when you were six years old, whether you were a boy or girl, if you lived to reach that age, and you helped your father fill five drams of coal a day. The size of the coal dram gives a new meaning to the standard surface exhortation about drinking "just a wee dram of whisky." An hour long walk through the lengths of shafts of coal leaves me speechless. I just can't imagine the difficult working conditions even though the mine guide is fairly clear that in the early days, two would go down but only one would come up. It's a solemn departure from the Big Pit, despite the beauty of the gently rolling green hills at the head of the valley where the mine is located.
We're on to Caerphilly Castle, the second largest in the UK and perhaps the most spectacular (for me). If you'll scroll down to the photo of the great hall, and look at the lower-right hand shield on the wall, you'll see the Williams family shield. The castle has working catapults, a large, deep moat and restored ruins that includes a leaning turreted tower. It's a castle-touring day, and we're next on to Cardiff Castle, which includes a deceptively small Norman keep, situated above a dirt hill that resulted from digging a fully circular moat. But the real beauty here is the restored castle, which is a sight to behold. Words can't do it justice. You'll simply have to go there to experience it. The tile drawing of the Invisible Prince in the children's nursery (scroll down in that last link and stare at the photo for awhile) is one of some thirty children's fairy tales pictured in the room. A day of touring castles stirs memories of knights of old and damsels in distress. At least that's the romantic in me. The conditions in the castles were almost as hard as the mines.
My trip wraps up with visits to church graveyards, forlorn in their quiet solitude and faceless names on the grey slate gravestones, and town libraries, searching records and discovering the marriage certificate of my great grandparents, with the promise of more family history given the extensive resources available to genealogists. Most of all, though, it's the very friendly of people of Wales that create memories, and that small pub dart tournament our newly found friends invited us to watch, and share in a small part of the local culture. MIPTC is off to London Heathrow Airport (LHR) and then to LAX, and finally home to my small corner of the world, which is just a bit larger now with more knowledge of my roots.