National Coal Mining Museum for England Location: Overton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF4 4RH [map] Open: 10am-5pm daily (closed today because of snow) Admission: free Website:ncm.org.uk (@NCMME) Five word summary: former colliery with underground tours Time to allow: at least half a day
Britain grew rich on coal, the great enabling fuel of the Industrial Revolution. It lies abundantly, but awkwardly, under several areas of the UK. More than a million people were once involved in its production. That said, it also kickstarted climate change, unleashed major industrial unrest and no longer plays any part in our future energy needs. But its place at the heart of our island story is assured, and the National Coal Mining Museum allows you to experience that first hand.
For 200 years, until closure in 1985, Caphouse Colliery was a productive mine in the South Yorkshire coalfield. Its development very much followed the national picture, from paupers scratching a living to full scale industrial production, with additional technology added over the years as appropriate. The mine was nationalised in 1947, but couldn't deliver the cheap coal the rest of the world needed, so was shut down immediately after the miners' strike had proven it was no longer necessary. It reopened in 1988 as a tourist attraction, the Yorkshire Mining Museum, a designation upgraded to National in 1995. And if you can get there, it's all free to enter.
The colliery was established on the slopes beneath the village of Overton, in undulating country southwest of Wakefield. Originally the village was called Over Shitlington, but unsurprisingly changed its name in Victorian times, as did neighbouring Middle Shitlington (to Middlestown) and Nether Shitlington (to Netherton). But I digress. If you're driving the museum's not too far from junction 39 on the M1, and if you're coming by public transport the hourly 130 bus between Wakefield and Dewsbury stops right outside. Look out for the two giant miners either side of the main entrance.
The museum covers 45 acres, encompassing two pitheads, dozens of outbuildings and a fair chunk of the surrounding countryside. To begin you want the non-heritage building, the large shed which houses reception, the cafe and the main displays. This is also where to book yourself onto the underground tour, which you want to do as early in the day as possible to ensure they haven't 'sold out'. No chance of that on a snowy day in February, but apparently in the school holidays it's a different matter. Your free tour costs £4, for which you receive a souvenir brass miner's check, which you're welcome to return for a refund afterwards, but I bet very few people do.
Official mine regulations still apply, so on checking in for the tour you have to hand in anything which might cause a spark underground. That means no phones, no cameras, no electronic key fobs and most intriguingly, no digital watches. This means you'll be heading underground with no concept of time, and no means of recording the visit for Instagram, which it has to be said improves the experience no end. The average tour spends an hour and a quarter under the surface, but I got lucky on a quiet day and spent two hours... in temperatures much warmer than on the snowy surface.
Togging up to go underground requires a hardhat, plus a dangly lamp looped over your neck, just like the most recent miners would have used. While waiting you can peer down one of the brick shafts, 140m to the bottom, which is the same distance you're about to descend in the cage. No other part of the tour was quite so evocative as squeezing into a shuttered metal box and being winched down into the earth a distance deeper than the London Eye is tall, just as generations of miners had been before. They went five times as fast, we were told.
At the foot of the shaft great wooden doors act as an airlock, to keep the oxygen in, and then you're through to the mine proper. The tour starts off in an early 19th-century-style passage with wooden supports, then moves round to the introduction of steel props and ends up with whopping hydraulics supporting the roof. Initially you don't walk far, but eventually the wiggles and passageways get longer, and it feels like you're on a proper safari. There are also a couple of opportunities to crawl rather than walk, technically optional although our guide pushed us hard to give them a try. As I shuffled through an original narrow coal-strewn tunnel on my knees, I regretted picking my best pair of jeans out of the wardrobe six hours earlier.
The guides are former miners, and I hit gold with mine. He led our group round recounting tales, imparting information and putting us all on the spot with questions, delivered with a edgy Yorkshire bluff. I was one of the few Brits on the tour, the others being from America, Canada, the Baltic States and the Netherlands, but Taz ensured nobody felt left out. What I genuinely hadn't been expecting was a focus on philosophical matters, specifically the need to make the most of the fleeting brevity of life, but the point was well made in a dangerous subterranean environment which cut short so many.
The tour is the centrepiece of any visit, but there's plenty more to explore. Various buildings have been left much as they were when the colliery closed down, including the winding engine house, a clunky electronic control room and the window where small brown wages envelopes would have been handed out. The place I found most evocative was the Pithead Baths, with its separate racks of lockers for clean and dirty gear, and a starkly echoing shower room inbetween. I remember the Miners Strike all too clearly, and to have seen the private areas where it all played out has made the tragedy all too real.
As you'd expect, plenty of mining history is on show, both in the central building and a two-storey outhouse. The individual displays are themed rather than running through anything chronologically, for example focusing on social conditions, unionisation or mining technology. The presentation was well done for its time, and includes several child-friendly activities, but feels a little dated now. Perhaps one day someone will add a global warming section, in place of the upbeat claim that Britain's coal reserves "are potential energy resources for our future", "providing power for modern living".
The site actually covers two collieries, the younger Hope Pit being five minutes walk away. It's easy enough to follow the path, but some days a tiny battery-operated train runs instead for a nominal fare. All I saw was it covered in gently drifting snow. As well as additional buildings to explore, there's usually a blacksmith to pop in and visit, and a large equipment store which might or might not be open. Younger visitors will appreciate the large clambery playground, the nature trail down into the valley, and 'pit ponies' called Eric and Ernie, whose friendly stablekeeper is more than happy to chat.
I found the whole place fascinating, all the more so for being genuine, and was pleased I'd made the effort to visit. I now have a greater empathy for a key British industry, and those who risked all to bring it to the surface. But most of all, hell yes, I have now been down an actual coal mine, twice as deep as anywhere in London delves.