Community and coal: Why I feel for Big K’s workers

Embed from Getty Images
Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in the subject, you’d have to have been living under a rock – or perhaps more fittingly, a pile of coal – to have missed the news that the UK’s last deep pit closed last week.

Unsurprisingly, given the landslide of eulogies in the media on the subject over the last few days, Kellingley Colliery has been on my mind.

Apart from the fact it brings centuries of deep coal mining in Britain to an end; setting aside the hundreds of people it has put out of work; forgetting the millions of pounds worth of machinery now buried underground – it’s the communities of the Five Towns – Pontefract, Castleford, Knottingley, Featherstone, and Normanton – I feel for.

I spent three years writing for the Pontefract and Castleford Express and for at least one of those, didn’t really understand what local news was about or why it mattered.

It took me a year to really “get it” and almost two to build the contacts and earn the trust of the paper’s readers. I was an outsider, with a strange haircut, and my youth meant I didn’t have any real appreciation of the unhealed wounds these ex-mining towns suffered. The day I really started to understand the bond between community and coal was the night miner Gerry Gibson died.

Embed from Getty Images

We had just put that week’s paper to bed and were packing up for the day when the phone rang.  The person on the other end told my editor there had been an accident at the pit and as she put the phone down, I saw Rebecca exchange a glance with the news editor, Julie, and then proceed to have some sort of wordless exchange about sending the most inexperienced reporter out to what turned out to be the year’s biggest story.

Rebecca eventually said to me: “I think you should go out there,” and I can still remember the feeling of dread that washed over me. Within half an hour I was stood at the gates of the pit not really knowing what to do.

I had underestimated the height of emotions felt by those nervously waiting for news – some of them equally in fear of what word would bring but desperate to know all the same. The first girl I approached screamed in my face: “Fuck off, this is people’s families you’re asking about!”

Embed from Getty Images

I ended up speaking to a man stood a little off to the side on his own. He was a former Kellingley miner – retired, but so concerned for his friends underground that he’d driven over for his own peace of mind, even though he knew there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know who was trapped but it didn’t matter- regardless of who was down there, the feelings were still the same: helplessness, fear, concern.

That deep-rooted camaraderie was never more evident to me than the day I spent down Big K. A year after the horrific incident which killed Mr Gibson, UK Coal invited me to travel the nine miles to the coalface to see for myself what mining was all about.

I wrote about it in detail at the time and even now still find it hard to articulate the obvious affinity between those men, perhaps because it’s so rarely observed in the average workplace. Maybe digging far below the earth’s surface for a living is one of the only places you can expect to form that sort of extraordinary bond.


Shortly after I surfaced from my time down the pit

I remember once interviewing a man about something completely unrelated to coal when he began to tell me about his life down the pit. What was memorable about this exchange was how deeply sad he was at the loss of what seemed, at least to me, a highly undesirable way to spend your life. I wouldn’t even come close to understanding it until I saw for myself what he had been forced to give up.

He was from Featherstone, which was part of my patch – a town which in many ways never really recovered from the closure of its own pit in the mid-1980s. Its housing estates are full  of men like him, who have been on the dole since Thatcher’s reign, put out to pasture long before their time. Some made a career of hopping from one doomed pit to another, but many felt let down and demoralised – never to return to another job, let alone another coalface.

After I joined the BBC, I was well-placed to talk about the impact it would have on the communities it would affect. But now, as it becomes a reality for those who have never known anything but coal, I wonder how they will ever move on. All that’s really left to say is it’s a damn shame it happened at all.

Embed from Getty Images

A trip down the pit…

Coal Face

Coal Face

It has to be said that the idea of spending four-and-a-half hours in a small, dark hole didn’t exactly thrill me.

Nor did the prospect of wearing bright orange trousers and protective glasses so tight they threatened to cut off the circulation to my eyes.

But in the interests of investigative journalism, I gamely attend the 7am safety briefing where, amongst other things, I learn how to use a ‘self-rescuer’ in the event of a deathly gas leak during my visit to Kellingley Colliery.

Not that this is likely to happen, I’m hastily assured, as I prepare to travel 780 metres down a mine shift.

Fully kitted out in head-to-toe fluorescent clothing, complete with hard hat, headtorch, and gallons of water, my guides and I wait for the night shift to return to the surface.

It’s not long before a boisterous gang of half-clothed miners push and shove past us eager to clock out first, the whites of their eyes bright in their coal smeared faces. Into the lift I go – another space I’m not particularly fond of – and then there’s no turning back.

We travel a surprisingly short time down into the pit and climb aboard the first of two locomotives which look like fairground ghost trains.

I ask my tour guide and assistant manager of the pit, Pete Wordsworth, what it’s like to spend a lifetime underground.

“People have a perception there’s no coal mining left,” he says. “People say, ‘where do you work’ and I say ‘I work in a mine’. They think there’s no coal mining in the UK because of the closures.
“There were 70 mines in the UK when I started out at 16. Now there’s 200 applicants for every job. I say I’m still employed by the mines and I love my job.
“It’s given me an excellent standard of living.”

Pete, 45, cracks a joke about the perception of miners still extracting their coal with pick axes and shovels, and I admit I thought the same.

I turn the conversation to safety at the mine, in light of the press surrounding the death of miner Gerry Gibson following a roof collapse at the pit in September 2011.

He says: “The big things I have seen changing are the technological improvements and a massive change in the safety.
“Every meeting we have at the colliery starts with safety concerns before production and there’s a massive amount of time and energy spent on training.
“We’ve had to change, we don’t accept that any accident is by failure of equipment or machinery, it’s normally by a person.”

Mr Gibson, a dad-of-two from North Yorkshire, was trapped in a rock fall and became the third fatality in as many years.
Ian Cameron, of Hemsworth, died in 2009 after equipment fell on him and Don Cook from North Yorkshire, died in a rock fall in 2008. Mr Gibson was killed only a week after four miners died at a Welsh colliery.

Pete says: “We couldn’t carry on the way we were going. It wasn’t right that people were coming to the mine and going home injured.
“We want the safest base we can possible. We strive for zero accidents, which is very difficult to achieve. Over the last three years we have reduced accidents significantly.
“When Gerry died there was already an increased focus on safety because of Ian and Don.

He adds: “The first question they used to ask in meetings was ‘how many tonnes of coal have you produced?’. Now it’s ‘have we had an accident free day?’
“If we haven’t, in previous years, it might have been accepted. But now it’s investigated to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“That’s a massive shift towards the culture of everyone working in the mining industry.”

As I ponder this a miner pops out of nowhere and cheerily shouts ‘“hello!”, his gleaming teeth receding as we traverse deeper into the pit.

A gust of hot air signals it’s almost time to switch trains. My ears pop as we leave our jackets at the last stop on our route and it’s time to put on our ear defenders.

My other companion, UK Coal’s communication director, Andrew Mackintosh, and I take a seat on a second train which take us on the final leg of our 9km journey to the coal face.

An expert in pit travel, Pete leaps onto the two-way conveyor belt used to carry both miners and coal and tells us he will meet us on the other side.

Forty-five minutes later and considerably warmer, we are mere metres from the heart of the mine where 1,800 tonnes of coal are sheared from its face every hour.

I’m introduced to Sam Atton, a 23-year-old mechanical apprentice who grins as he tells me why he loves his job.

“I think it’s a good industry, I believe there’s a big future in it,” he says enthusiastically. “I’ve spent time learning in the pit and about safety to do the job and the money they invest on training is amazing.”

Pete adds: “It’s the camaraderie too. When times are tough the camaraderie keeps you going. You wouldn’t get that at a supermarket.”

Shift supervisor John Baker then leads the way to the coal face, kindly stopping to allow for my tentative navigation of the uneven ground

Panting for breath in the 30 degree heat, I joke with Pete. “Sorry, I thought I was fit,” I say, gulping some water. He laughs and quips: “There’s fit, and then there’s pit fit.”

He’s not wrong.

At the entrance to the coal face, I am greeted by a welcome sign that reads “Hello Lauren!” and receive a warm greeting from the shift workers who are black with coal dust from top to bottom. Doubled over, I squeeze along the opposite wall and the conveyor belt to get a closer look of the shearer slicing coal off the face and for the first time I am genuinely terrified.

The sheer power and force of the rock splintering before my eyes is suddenly a little overwhelming and a wave of fear grips me. “Ok, I’ve seen it now,” I squeak, and I am duly led away from the huge, scary machine.

The ride back is an experience in extremes – I leave sweating from my experience at the coal face and by the time I see daylight again I’m shivering. Mining, I discover, is not a comfortable profession, and it is with great relief that I shed my heavy hat and eye goggles when we reach the surface.

But I have to admit that the overall experience by far exceeded my expectations.

Many of my perceptions, such as seeing men sitting on machinery eating sandwiches with blackened fingers, were very much rooted in reality.

And yes, it’s dark and hot and noisy. But it’s not claustrophobic, or small, and there’s emergency contact points at every turn, which defied my biggest fears.

It’s easy to assume that mining is a “dangerous” industry with its history of fatalities and bad press. But having seen it for myself, the practicalities of coal mining – as with any profession based on manual labour for that matter – are safe provided that everyone follows a very strict set of procedures.

While there were moments where I felt a tad scared, I never feared for my physical safety, and given that I entered that shaft with more than a little apprehension, that’s saying something!