Down a mine in a boat

Yes, you read that right, except that the word  “down” is probably not appropriate when applied to movement in a boat. Well, not a desirable movement, anyway, unless you’re partial to sinking. Or going over waterfalls. Particularly when the boat in question is a barge, on a canal. But the canal goes into the mine, and there are tunnels down from where the boat goes, it’s just that the boat doesn’t go into them.

Gosh, that was a poorly expressed sentiment. Not sure it’s possible to explain the interaction of boats and mines in a less lucid fashion. But anyway, we’re past that now, so I might as well carry on while I’m behind.

So, to start at the beginning, the place is Dudley – heart of the Black Country. And the trip starts at the picture below – leaving the dock, about to enter the  About to head into the Limestone Minetunnel. Once you’re inside, they take you a few hundred metres into the hillside. There are a couple of spots where the limestone bed comes up to the surface, and there’s an oasis of lush green creepers -making you feel you’re in another world completely. Like a clearing in an Amazonian waterway. Well, that’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it’s really beautiful. Photos don’t really do it justice, as you only see one segment of the piece – you need to be able to to imagine the effect of a 360 degree view of this. 

There’s another cavern a bit further on, where the miners have hollowed out a huge piece of the hillside, leaving only a few pillars to keep it from falling apart. It’s called the Singing Cavern – partly because the whole place hums a little when the wind blows, and partly because it was used as a concert hall in Victorian times (and still is, occasionally). Eerie place, it is.

Then of course, there’s the tour guide, with his large repertoire of repartee, which flows at the steady pace of the barge. “And a big thanks to Nigel, who’s been helping us here at the mines for 40 years. Does the work of two men, he does. Unfortunately, they’re Laurel and Hardy.”

Right next door is the Black Country Living Museum. It’s partly made up of the actual building, mines, limestone kilns and such that used to be on the site, but they’ve added a lot of period buildings from the area – demolished, transported and rebuilt brick by brick. They’ve collected a few old buses, trams and trolley buses to transport people from one side to the other. There’s a few shops set up in the way they would have been in the early 20th century, and a 1930s funfair, complete with Helter Skelter slide, Cake Walk, Boat Swings and suchlike. Lots of fun to go to, if a bit quaint.

There’s also a coal mine that you can take a stroll through (guided, naturally) where they show you rather graphically what it was like in the time. Complete with 7-10 year old children doing a lot of the work. There’s also a big display documenting the strike by the women chainmakers of 1910, where they fought for a rise in pay to get more than 1.5d per hour. Which is a chilling contrast to the rest of the museum – it shows what a dismal place Britain was to live in back then. Between the slave-like labour conditions for children and women, the overworked men spending 12 hours a day underground, the low life expectancy of the working population in general, it was only the rich who could escape this. In fact, the owners of the mines in Dudley grew so rich that they offered to finance the national debt of England at the time. An offer that was politely refused by the Queen.

Pity there’s no one willing to make an offer like that at the moment….

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