Ever since the mid 1980s I have taken a particular interest in stories involving miners. It came about as a result of mixing with them every other week for around a year.
When the strike started the call went out for immediate support to all forces in the country. We went to Nottingham and were on duty for 48 hours before coming home and being told to have a good sleep because we were going back a couple of days later for a week.
I can’t recall how many times I went to Nottingham & Yorkshire but it was quite a few. We did have some trouble, particularly at Orgreave, but mostly we were just├é┬ákicking├é┬áaround outside the pits with miners. We would stand opposite each other on the picket lines on shifts, when both sides had completed our shifts we often spent time together in the local miners social club. I remember we got so friendly with a particular group of strikers that one of the coppers ended up serving behind their bar when we were off shift.
Many of ├é┬áthe management staff still worked, together with the occasional bus load of ‘scabs’. We were invited down the pit to see what life was like.
We all geared up in orange suits with helmets & battery packs, most of us already had steel toe capped boots because we had bought them from the mine stores; they were cheaper than the boots we normally wore and offered much more protection.
We were given a ├é┬ásafety briefing and made our way to the pit head. I have no idea how deep we went but it took ages to get to the bottom. ├é┬áI’m not sure how far out we went from the pit ├é┬áhead but I’m sure it was measured in ├é┬ámiles. I seem to recall than in an 8 hour shift the miners spent half of it travelling to and from the coal face. We rode the conveyor belts for ages, every so often we had to jump off the belts while still moving and jump onto the next one. It seemed so archaic, I imagined the transportation system looking exactly the same 50 or 100 years earlier.
Eventually we got to the coal face. We stood around one of the mine managers while he told us about the risk of being blown up by exploding coal dust, or being crushed by collapsing rock. He then told us to turn off our lights. I have never, before or since, been anywhere which was so dark. You’ve not seen dark until you have been somewhere with quite literally no light, and there aren’t many places like that ├é┬áin my life. Not even when I’m really pissed off at work.
We were to enter the coal face at one end then crawl down the length, which was about 100 yards, then exit at the other. The place we crawled was between the pit props. The props were about 4 feet high, so for a guy over 6 foot it was not the most comfortable walk I’d ever had. The props were hydraulic rams positioned every few feet literally holding up the roof.
As we crouched between the props we watched miners working the huge drills which were massive circular bits which span round and bit into the coal face knocking it from the rock as it fell onto conveyor belts to be whisked away.
Every so often someone pressed some button which advanced the pit props forward a few feet. As the props moved forward the ceiling collapsed behind them, rock and coal was falling just inches from us. I managed to pull a piece of coal from above my head, I still have it in the loft somewhere. The props moving and the roof collapsing was mightily scaring. You really felt that any second the whole place could come down on top of you.
We gradually made our way along the face to the other side, virtually on all fours. It was such a├é┬árelief├é┬áto make it to the end and be able to stand up at last.
I wasn’t the only one to comment that going down to the coal face was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life.
That afternoon when I was on the picket line, i shook the hands of several miners. I looked at them differently after that.
I was sad that four lads died at Gleison this week.