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Into the bowels of the earth

Laurence Alster emerges from a pitch-dark subterranean ramble with tales of the damned and blasted.

Easily the most illuminating part of Into the Thick, the tour of a replica drift mine at the Black Country Museum, Dudley, comes just after the start. A few yards from the mine entrance, the guide asks visitors to turn off their lamps for a couple of minutes, and to listen to a taped voice telling them what lies ahead. Suddenly, you are squeezed by the most profound blackness this side of the tomb. "Are there any spiders down here, Mam?" squeaked a little boy. There was no reply. I hope Mam squeezed his hand. I could have done with someone to squeeze mine.

Visitors are glad to turn their lamps back on. When they do, they see Billy, a model of a small boy crouching, terrified, in front of an air door. In the 1850s it was the job of such as Billy to man primitive ventilation ducts for as many as 12 hours a day - often without any light at all. The sight of Billy forms a dramatic introduction to a tour which, though lasting only half an hour, gives visitors some idea what life underground was like for generations of miners. And the deeper you go into the mine the better it gets, with several well-staged tableaux illustrating the work and its various hazards. For children - most of whom, apparently, seldom mind the darkness - particular favourites are Sally the pit pony and Matthew, her driver. Like all the other models, these two are highlighted as they are introduced on a taped commentary that, along with appropriate sound effects (groaning pit props, dripping water), describes conditions underground.

These were dreadful, of course. Numerous tableaux show workers at a number of jobs, all of which involved discomfort, disease and, all too frequently, death. There were any number of hazards, the most common being collapsed tunnels, lethal gases, weak pit props and underground floods. Exhausted miners sometimes fell out of the bucket used to raise them from the mine and died. The best moments of this subterranean ramble come when various model figures slowly emerge from the pitch dark by means of well-placed lights.

Those that demonstrate rock blasting provide the biggest thrill. Visitors observe the scene, then wait for the noise. It arrives with the sensation of tunnel walls quivering and earth vibrating. Everybody laughs, if a bit nervously.

In the end, it's good to get out, as much to savour the daylight as to wander round the rest of the museum. And, although there is much more to see on the 26-acre site - a lovely model village with a 1920s fish and chip shop, a Victorian school and an early cinema, plus trolley buses, canal boats and several fascinatingly old work-people's houses, everyone agreed: nothing quite matched the drift mine.

Nothing at that particular site, that is. Further north, though, comparable excitement can be had at the National Coal Mining Museum for England at Caphouse Colliery, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Here, after being kitted out with helmet and head lamp, visitors descend 450 feet by cage into a mine that last yielded coal in 1985.

For the remainder of the two-hour tour, visitors have to rely on their imagination and their guide's commentary. Ours, an ex-miner who insisted we call him Dobbin, used the history of this particular pit to tell of more general changes in mining techniques and technology. The industry has progressed from a pick-and-shovel operation to one that is now almost entirely automated. Along the way, miners have endured perils underground and privations on the surface. Quite apart from the sundry subterranean threats to safety, there were more general miseries. In one tunnel, a traditional "snap" tin - used for holding food (traditionally bread and dripping) - shows how miners kept their lunch safe from underground rats and mice. In another, children lift a drill used for blasting. Or they try to: "Think about humping that thing for eight hours a day," says Dobbin.

Back on the surface, a largish museum offers a more comprehensive history of the industry in the region. Large notices detail technical advances, social conditions and political battles, while display cabinets hold various tools of the trade and often poignant mementoes of mine fatalities: "12 February 1856, Charles Lawson (a boy): breaking of a round hempen pit rope"; "16 October 1856, John Towns (a boy): falling down the shaft", read two entries in an official report. In another cabinet there is a coffin-shaped collecting box for the families of disaster victim and a plate rimmed with named tombstones.

The Black Country Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands DY1 4SQ. Group rates for parties of over 20: adults Pounds 4.95, students Pounds 3.95. One teacher free for every 10 students. Free preliminary visits for teachers. Tel: 0121 557 9643, fax: 0121 5574242 The National Coal Mining Museum for England, Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF4 4RH. Group rates for pre-booked parties of 15 or more: adults and children Pounds 3.75. Coach driver plus one teacher per 10 children admitted free. Free preliminary visits for teachers. Tel: 01924 848806

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