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Big Pit is a big hit

Blaenavon mine and ironworks gives pupils an experience of life underground. It never fails to fire their imaginations, writes Carl Jones

What links the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids at Giza, the Taj Mahal and Blaenavon in South Wales? They are all Unesco World Heritage Sites. Since November 2000, Blaenavon has been recognised for providing an unrivalled example of the early, formative stages of the industrial revolution.

The area around Blaenavon, immortalised in Alexander Cordell's Rape of the Fair Country, provides a constant reminder of the former role of South Wales as the world's major producer of iron and coal in the 19th century.

For history departments teaching the KS3 Industrial Britain programme of study (c 1760-1914), Blaenavon is an excellent venue to visit to capture pupils' imaginations. Not only is it the location of the Big Pit - the National Mining Museum of Wales and Blaenavon Ironworks - it is just an hour's drive from the Severn Bridge.

You don't need any prior knowledge of either site to enjoy a visit. Big Pit provides enough detailed information in its free school pack for anything from a week to half a term's work.

My recommended timetable for those considering a visit would be to arrive at the ironworks in the morning before moving on to the mine in the early afternoon. This will allow you to eat in the cafeteria before being kitted out with hard hats and a working lamp for the journey underground.

Once employing some 1,300 men, digging a quarter-of-a-million tons of coal a year, Big Pit was closed in 1980 as a working colliery and today is one of only two mining museums in the UK where visitors can go underground.

On the one-hour tour 300ft below ground, you will be accompanied by a former miner who will provide first-hand accounts and personal insights on life down the pit and show you the coal face, pony stable and ventilation shafts. It's a visit that will stay longer in the pupils' memories than any textbook paragraph.

The ironworks is equally impressive having undergone a programme of excavation, consolidation and repair since 1975. Although originally constructed as the first purpose-built multi-furnace ironworks in Wales, it now provides a magnificent monument complete with furnaces, cast houses, a water balance tower and ironworkers' cottages.

The guide here is a local historian who tells the story of the local lad falling 80ft off the water tower and living to tell the tale.

My school is a regular visitor and the day always stays fresh in the pupils' minds when the option choices are made in January.

Carl Jones is a history teacher at Rhymney comprehensive school, Tredegar, Gwent

* Big Pit National Mining Museum

Blaenavon, Torfaen NP4 9XP Tel: 01495 790 311 Fax: 01495 792618

Admission is free and opening times are from 9.30am-5pm, mid-February to November.

Blaenavon Ironworks North Street, Blaenavon, Torfaen NP4 9RQ Tel: 01495 792 615

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