Yesterday I took Lizzie to the National Coal Mining Museum for England, which is near Wakefield. Christine was working again and I’d heard that it was a good place to take kids of all ages. Plus, it had the advantage of it being free to enter.
The mining museum opened in the late 1980s, and became a national museum in 1995. You can read more about the history of the site on Wikipedia. However, this was my first ever visit. My parents never took me as a child, and I hadn’t been as an adult because we’ve not had a car until recently. It’s not very well-served by public transport – typically three buses an hour from Wakefield, 2 from Huddersfield and 1 from Dewsbury. But there is ample car parking and it’s on the main A642 road
The main attraction is the opportunity to go down the old Caphouse Colliery coal mine. Alas, you need to be at least five years old to do so and so we’ll have to come back to do that sometime after 2020 when Lizzie is old enough. Fortunately, there’s a playroom for the under-5s with a ball pit and soft play area. Collectively, this kept Lizzie entertained for the best part of an hour.
Two coal mines
The mining museum actually spans two pits – Caphouse, and Hope Pit, which is at the other end of the site. A narrow-gauge railway runs between the two, and on weekends you can get on board a small battery-powered train. Alternatively, it’s a quarter of a mile walk.
You can’t go down Hope Pit, but most of the surface buildings are open to have a look inside, and there are some information panels and interactive exhibits. However, there were no staff on hand to talk about the exhibits – and this is something I noticed generally across the day. It’s a big museum, but I feel it could be brought more to life with more staff.
Living and working
The entrance to the mining museum includes a visitor centre, and galleries focussing on the human side of the mining industry. How people lived, and the impact of industrial action, with a particular focus on the Miners Strike of the 1980s. I was born during the strike, so was too young to remember it. The museum tries to take quite a neutral line on the dispute; though it covers the hardship that mining families faced, it explains the other side as well. As a national museum, I expect that it receives central government funding, so this perhaps isn’t so surprising. But it’s a different attitude to, say, the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
One thing I noticed about the other visitors was that I was one of the youngest adults there, despite being in my thirties. There were lots of kids there (including a birthday party group) but many were with their grandparents, whom I’m guessing may have worked down the mines in their heyday, or lived in mining communities. Coincidentally, Friday marked the first time that Britain’s energy needs were met without coal for 24 hours.
Outside, you can visit the stables where two pit ponies and a horse now live. Although horses were used in commercial mining right into the 1990s (something I learned on my visit), none of these three horses has ever worked down a mine. At one time, these would have pulled a Paddy Train up the side of the mining museum site. But said paddy train was lying rusting in a far corner of the site, along with its plaque commemorating its opening in 1990. Indeed, several parts of the site are part-derelict. Unfortunately, being a free museum means that it’s reliant on donations and public funding.
This aside, I think we both had a good day out. Discounting lunch in the café, which serves reasonable but expensive food, we spent about 3 hours there. Had we been able to go underground, I expect this would have been longer. I’m sure we’ll be back when Lizzie is older.