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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 09:13 GMT
Descent into darkness
By Christine Jeavans
BBC News Online

The pickaxes and pit ponies are long gone. But even with new technology, life at the coal face is still cramped, dirty and demanding.

It is a bright but bitter February morning at Harworth colliery, north Nottinghamshire, and an icy wind blows around the massive concrete pithead that stands out like a monolith to anyone passing on the nearby A1M.

But nevertheless, I have been advised not to wear anything but the standard issue pale blue Y-fronts and vest underneath my day-glo orange boiler suit as it will be a sweaty 30C at the coal face.

The giant coal face cutting machine at Harworth

With the addition of boots, shin pads, reflective jacket, hardhat, goggles and carbon monoxide filter, miner 6105 for the day is ready to head underground.

"Take your last look at sunlight and your last breath of fresh air," says production manager Ashley Britton cheerfully as we enter the cage lift, or "chair" as it is known and the door clangs shut.

Soon the surface is slipping away and we are hurtling down 960 metres - the height of six Blackpool Towers - remarkably smoothly.

Seconds later we are at the bottom and in a wide and fairly airy tunnel.

There is no coal in evidence yet, in fact rather than being predominantly black, everything is covered in white limestone powder as a fire-proofing measure.

Riding the conveyor belt

Coal has been mined at Harworth since the 1920s and, naturally, the material closest to the shaft was extracted first.

This means it is an hour and a quarter's journey to the current face, known as Deep Soft Seam 19s, three miles away.

Miner Dave McGarry
Dave McGarry: "I do wonder what would I do if the pit shut down"
First we clamber aboard the "paddy", a basic train with open sides, then it's onto our bellies on a conveyor belt which zips along in the dark, banking somewhat alarmingly around corners.

Only at the end of this are we within walking distance of the face and the heat and humidity have intensified dramatically.

Whereas earlier there was some overhead lighting, now just the light from our hat-lamps illuminates the gloom.

The tunnel gets narrower, lower and more difficult to negotiate. The roof has changed from corrugated steel and sturdy looking arches to a lumpy surface studded with huge bolts and held back by metal mesh.

Jagged coal is clearly visible and brightly coloured cardboard tubes hang down. These "telltales" are to measure movement in the roof, explains UDM union rep Dave McGarry. "If it moves more than five millimetres we get out."

Finally we have to climb at right-angles through a small hole which acts like a chimney, funnelling dust laden wind past our faces at great speed.

These traditional lamps are still used to test for methane
The flame, encased in a wire gauze, changes appearance if methane is present
The lamp's design keeps the flame separate from the explosive gas
And there it is, the black, glinting coal face, two metres high and stretching off into the darkness.

Above our heads are the long tongues of the immense hydraulic pit props that are keeping this particular section of roof from caving in.

Underfoot there is a gooey sludge of coal dust, limestone powder and water through which methane bubbles up.

We hear it first, then a giant machine appears from out of the dark, chewing through coal with measured ease.

Dust sprays off the teeth of its top cutting drum at the front of the contraption, while a second, lower, set bring up the rear.

In one pass or "shear" of the 230m face it takes out 515 tonnes of coal which are deposited onto a belt running out of another tunnel, and sent to the surface.

Six men are working here in the cramped and sweaty conditions of the coal face. A further 20 or so are also underground working on developing the next face.

But despite the tough working environment, not one man I meet wants to swap mining for another career.

The camaraderie is unbeatable, says team supervisor Mark Walker. Like the other men, Mark is filthy with coal dust and is wearing just shorts, boots and safety gear.

"Due to the conditions you are working in, the heat, the confined spaces, you have to look after each other and there is no room for backbiting - you would not get very far if there was," he says.

Uncertain future

The journey back towards the lift shaft is also by conveyor belt, this time riding on top of the newly cut coal which is still warm and damp from the shearing machine.

This daily descent and rise used to be made by 2,000 miners at Harworth, now it is only 300 - with another 150 staff who work above ground.

Due to the conditions you are working in, the heat, the confined spaces, you have to look after each other
Mark Walker
Although the working relationship among the team is strong, morale has been hit says Dave McGarry, as we wait for the paddy train back.

"Not many people who work here live in the village any more, you can't go for a drink after work with everyone like we used to," he says.

At 42, Dave is pondering the future of the industry that he joined straight from school in 1978.

"We've agreed a five year plan here at Harworth and I reckon there's maybe another five years after that but who knows?

"I do wonder what would I do if the pit shut down. I had a bad accident three years ago and crushed my hand, so what work would there be for me?

"It's worrying when you think what's out there - sandwich factories in Worksop and the like."

UK Coal, the company that owns Harworth and the majority of the remaining 12 deep pits, last week posted improved results but mining is still an industry facing huge challenges.

Riding the lift back to the light and fresh air of the surface is a relief. Judging by the banter between the men of the early shift who accompany us, they too are glad their seven hours underground has ended for today at least.

But with three pits due to close this year at Selby, North Yorkshire, the possibility of a life permanently above ground is something each of Britain's 6,400 miners is having to contemplate.

UK Coal sees loss crumble to 1m
04 Mar 04  |  Business

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