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National Coal Mining Museum for England (Wakefield)
Member Name: micksheff
National Coal Mining Museum for England (Wakefield)
Advantages: Free admission, fascinating underground tour
Disadvantages: Not suited for under 5's, underground tour gets booked up quickly
When I was growing up in Sheffield life was pretty much dictated by two main industries - the steelworks and the coal mines. My father worked all his life in the steelworks and my mother's side of the family were miners. A few years ago the Magna Centre opened in Rotherham to celebrate the regions steelwork history so it only seems fair that we should also have a museum dedicated to the mining industry. The Magna Centre occupies the site of a former steelworks and likewise the National Museum of Coal Mining occupies the site of a former colliery.
I visited the National Coal Mining Museum on the morning of Saturday 2nd April 2011. It is about a 20 mile drive from where I live but I arrived early as I'd been told that the underground tours could not be booked in advance and that they were frequently booked up quickly. Admission is free and there is also no charge for the underground tour.
I had no problems finding the place as I'd passed close to it many times but it is well sign posted from junction 37 of the M1 motorway. It is located close to Wakefield in West Yorkshire at the former Caphouse Colliery. The colliery was one of the last remaining ones in the area after the end of the Miner's Strike but it eventually closed in 1986. The museum opened the following year in 1987 and employs former miners that worked here to undertake the guided tours and give talks and presentations. Today the complex has a dual status as both a museum and a fully operational coal mine. It no longer operates on a commercial basis as a coal mine but coal is still extracted from its seams for demonstration purposes.
Outside the building there is a large car park (no parking charges) and the main entrance is clearly visible from here but there are also several other buildings scattered around. I'd suggest that you head straight for the main entrance rather than wandering around as this way you can follow a logical route.
Immediately inside the entrance there is a reception desk and a gift shop. If you want to book on the underground tour then you need to register at the reception. There is no charge for this but you need a ticket as only a maximum of 20 people can go on each tour. The tour lasts almost a full hour and there is a tour every hour throughout the day. We arrived at 10.20am and managed to book onto the 11.30 tour, which gave us an hour to wander around the exhibits.
The exhibits are displayed in an area that leads off from the reception/gift shop. These exhibits mainly refer to coal mining in the region rather than specifically at Caphouse and include information on mining disasters. There's plenty to see here so we were actually grateful that we had almost an hour to wait before the tour began. There is also a café and toilets in this area too and a children's play area with a coal mining theme. It seemed that quite a few of the visitors didn't bother with the underground tour but for me this was the main purpose of my visit.
The tour began at 11.30am so about 5 minutes before we made our way across the yard following the signs for the underground tour. Photography is allowed in the area where the exhibits are but it is forbidden to take cameras underground. In fact anything with a battery in it including watches and mobile phones has to be left on the surface. Such items are referred as "contraband" and are kept safe by a member of staff. In exchange for handing over our "contraband" we were given a hard hat, a torch and a battery pack for the torch.
Our group consisted of some young children, the youngest of which would have been about 8 years old. This tour isn't suited for very young children or for adults who are infirm and children under 5 are not allowed underground at all. The battery pack is strapped around your waist with a leather belt and was quite heavy, even for the adults.
It should be remembered that this is a real coal mine so sensible clothing and footwear is recommended although the temperature underground remains at a constant 11 degrees throughout the year.
Before the tour began we were all handed a gold token and told to keep it safe. This is handed over at the end of the tour and provides a count to make sure no one is missing. This was quite a sobering thought.
Access to the underground chambers is via a crude metal lift that descends the 140 metres below ground. We were told that this lift would hold 20 adults, but it was quite a crush even with the several children in our group.
Throughout the tour we were led by "Dave" an ex miner and a very knowledgeable and friendly chap. The first thing that was evident was that it was very dark underground. Inside the lift there are artificial lights but once you reach the bottom the only light was from our torches. It wasn't cold but it was a bit damp and the floor was wet and slippery in places so we all shuffled along at quite a slow pace. A few sections involved crawling on our hands and knees but there was matting on the floor in these areas so it wasn't too dirty.
Throughout our tour we were shown the different seams of coal and heard stories of how entire families would work down the mine including any children from aged 5 upwards. Each family was self employed and would be paid for the amount of coal they mined so they'd only have one candle between them. We also told that accidents happened on a daily basis and many hundreds of men, women and children died.
To illustrate the working conditions within the mine there are life size figures of people scattered about with shovels and other tools and there is also lots of machinery.
The whole underground tour lasted about an hour and involved a circular walk through the underground tunnels that eventually brought us back to the lift that arrived in, but before we left we were all told that we could help ourselves to a big chunk of genuine Caphouse coal.
I found my entire visit to the National Coal Mining Museum a thoroughly enjoyable experience but I'm aware that it wouldn't appeal (or even be suitable) for everyone. If you want to include the underground tour in your visit then I'd suggest that you arrive early and allow half a day for your visit.
The museum is open daily between 10am and 5pm. Admission is free.
National Coal Mining Museum
Summary: The UK's only museum dedicated to coal mining
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