Livingstone's house, I presume

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Old mines and David Livingstone's home are among the highlights of Lanarkshire, as Deedee Cuddihy discovers.

Summerlee in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire has been described as one of Scotland's noisiest museums. While the flying fan belts and whirring wheels of working machinery in the massive exhibition hall will fascinate some, schools visiting this vast heritage park of Lanarkshire's social and industrial history should head straight for its latest attraction - the "new" 19th-century coal mine and reconstructed workers' cottages.

Visitors report first to the mine's site hut, where they are issued with proper hard hats as protection against low-lying support beams, before walking a short distance to the mine itself, whose entrance is decorated with a genuine "lucky" horseshoe.

Although built from scratch as a visitors' attraction, and opened less than two years ago, Summerlee's mine looks and feels like the genuine article: cold, dank, very dark and a bit scary - especially when you catch your first glimpse of one of the realistic mining figures planted eight feet underground. But you can also get a sense of how working so closely with others in a dark and dangerous environment, cut off from the world above, would foster strong feelings of community and comraderie. Nearby, the miners' cottages and workers' houses look as if they've been there for ever, but are also a recent addition, built by a well-known construction company with incredible attention to detail. The houses are furnished in styles ranging from the 1840s to the present day, with a 1960s living room - complete with tacky coffee table, three-piece suite and a television showing filmed programmes from the times. A working well, outside privy and washhouse also feature.

Like the mines, Scotland's textile mills once employed thousands of people and it was in a tenement house built for workers at a cotton spinning mill in Blantyre, also in Lanarkshire, that David Livingstone was born over 180 years ago.

In common with the other children of the village, Livingstone went to work in the mill at the age of 10 but instead of sticking at it for the rest of his life, he became a doctor, then a missionary and eventually, one of the world's most famous explorers.

Why did Livingstone's life turn out so differently from those of his fellow mill workers? This is one of the few questions not answered at the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, which is based in the 18th-century tenement where he was born.

Teachers who have bad memories of being bussed to Blantyre on Sunday School outings should put their prejudices aside. The David Livingstone Centre no longer focuses on religion, the Church of Scotland or forcing the Christian message on the peoples of Africa.

On the contrary, the hour-long tour conducted by a guide dressed-up as a character from the Livingstone story, provides a fascinating history, geography and sociology lesson rolled into one.

Starting in the very room that the Livingstone family lived in (all seven of them), the tour proceeds by taking in mill life, African culture and ending with a potted history of the explorer's three-year, 4,000-mile journey across the second largest continent in the world.

Summerlee Heritage Park, West Canal Street, Coatbridge, NL5 1QD (open all year), Tel: 01236 431261 (adults Pounds 2, children Pounds 1) David Livingstone Centre, 165 Station Road, Blantyre, G72 9BT (closed late December until Spring), tel: 01698 823140 (adults Pounds 2.70, children Pounds 1.25).

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