The Sunshine Miners

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When I was eighteen, I went to work on an opencast coal mine in the Swansea Valley in South Wales. It was at the top of a mountain near a tiny village called Cwm Twrch (of which there is both an Upper and a Lower).

It was bleakly beautiful, treeless, sheep roaming and, in winter, the wind took your breath away. There was nowhere to shelter.

My first job as a tip-man was to guide the dump trucks – fifty tonne monsters (known as ‘Eucs’ after the original manufacturer, Euclid) – back to the tip edge to empty their loads of grey shale, fresh from being buried and compressed for millions of years, which, when exposed to the air,  crumbled and turned black.

Twelve hour shifts night and day. Noise, screaming noise.

In the day, the dust rose out of the cut like smoke and rolled behind the Eucs grinding up the haul road.

At night, criss-crosing headlights yawed in the darkness. Beyond the lights, black.

It was on the edge of the living world. I remember looking down the Swansea Valley at the rain, sleet and snow drifting in the sleeping lights of the villages.

I had a hut on metal skis. It had a cast iron stove made by one of the fitters. The anthracite the Eucs brought me up from the cut burned so hot it turned the stove red and the sulphur dried my throat.

In winter, when the Eucs got stuck, the tow ropes froze into the ground and I had the chisel them free and hook up a D8 bull dozer to pull them out.

In my high viz jacket, waving my torch, I was very small: Eucs, bull dozers, graders, face shovels and scrapers. The foreman told me, ‘These machines have no mercy.’ I could have been killed and buried and no one would have known when, where or how. Once, a three foot rock fell off the top of a Euc and hit the peak of my helmet, flipping it off; another time, a hydraulic pipe burst in my face spraying me with burning oil; and a Euc tyre exploded, they were six or seven feet tall, like a bomb spraying stones like shrapnel that cut my cheek.

The night shift foreman was an odious man. I caught him sneaking off site to go to the pub in his car with the lights switched off. I lit him up with my torch. After that, whenever he got nasty, we would ask him, ‘Have you been drinking?’ and he would shut up. He left soon after, or was sacked. I never found out which.

The South Wales coal field is notoriously faulted and the coal seam at the bottom of the cut twisted and dived like a shining whale’s back. Norman, who operated the coal shovel, told the General Foreman where to find it when it disappeared. Once, they argued and it was a week before Norman relented and told him where it was. That was a very expensive argument.

After a few months, one of the drivers, Dai the Coot (polished bald since his twenties) taught me to drive Eucs. The General Foreman knew. It was how everyone learnt.

When they thought I was competent (I wasn’t), they gave the oldest Euc. It had tyres as bald as Dai. It rolled and bounced off all four wheels in the ruts and, if I wasn’t tightly strapped in, I hit my head on the roof of the cab. The hardest part was positioning it under the face shovel exactly where the operator wanted it. If I didn’t get it right, he would wave me away imperiously from his glass cab high above and make me do it again… and again, while the other Eucs queued and waited. The other drivers started calling me Sunblessed because I got my Euc stuck and wouldn’t let me use the bald tyres as an excuse.

Years later I went back. The cut and been filled in and planted with conifers. There were a few opencasts left in South Wales but all the deep mines were closing and, with them a way of life. Now, it’s all gone.