As we travel through Lancashire on the canals it’s impossible not to be aware of the role that they played in the industrial revolution and if further evidence of the history of that period were required the towering chimneys and majestic mill buildings give us a clue to the sheer scale of the cotton industry at that time.
There is talk amongst enthusiasts for such matters of the three C’s; Canals, Cotton and Coal and that together, these three threads wove the very foundations that the north west of England was built upon. Strangely, whilst the canals and mills are obvious symbols of that era, evidence of the coal industry itself is almost totally absent. It’s strange because the volume of mines dug in Lancashire was such that the land itself has collapsed into the old underground workings and shallow lakes and meres have formed where once a dark and smoking edifice of mining paraphernalia would have stood. The above ground structures themselves are gone, bulldozed to make way for new industry and housing. Of the hundreds of tall pit head winding gear structures that once dotted this landscape there now remains just one single monument to that time.
It appeared on the horizon as we rounded a bend on the Bridgewater canal, the giant winding wheels suspended on impossibly spindly legs high above the picturesque village of Astley Green. Like a creature from another time it stands out for it’s sheer rarity and it marks the site of a remarkable museum where Gill and I spent a fascinating afternoon.
Astley Green mine was commissioned by the Pilkington Company in 1908 but such was the audacity of the the project that the shaft alone took four years to sink, descending as it did, nearly three thousand feet below the bogs of south Lancashire. The full story of the mine can be found on the museum web site here, but if you want a real hands on experience and the benefit of genuinely enthusiastic guides you really have to pay it a visit. The winding gear and main buildings were only saved by chance when it was realised that the engine house and steam powered winding engine itself were almost unique and the wrecking ball was stopped in its tracks even as it swung at the pit head winding structure. What remains is a fascinating and awe inspiring insight into the lives of a mining community and the physical infrastructure required to extract the coal from such deep seams. The engine house itself seems out of all proportion to the rest of the site until you climb the steps to the first floor and step inside. What greets you is the largest remaining steam winding engine in the world! The sheer scale of it is breath taking and it is a credit to the many thousands of hours that volunteers have invested over the 30 years it took to restore it.
The museum is currently at what I would describe as a fledgling stage but the current band of volunteers have ambitious plans for the coming years and we will definitely be paying another visit or two in the future to monitor its development. There is so much equipment, infrastructure and memorabilia to see already that it is fascinating but it can only get better as more and more machinery is restored and the facilities and grounds are developed. If you are a fan of Peaky Blinders by the way, you may even recognise a scene that was filmed there last year featuring the pit head gear as a backdrop. Alan Shaw, the set designer, was so taken by the place that he has since become a volunteer himself and has created a detailed replica of an old miners cottage on the site with lovely period tea rooms attached.
We were lucky to have our visit enhanced by the wonderful Marilyn and Stephen who enthusiastically explained everything, filling in the gaps in the history with fascinating little gems gleaned from miners themselves that have visited the museum.
As well as being a fount of all knowledge Marilyn was also insistent that Gill and I really got into the themed experience by dressing us up in period clothes and having us pose for photographs.
A twenty five minute video documentary tells the story of the mine and its eventual demise and closure in 1970 with wonderful scenes of hard labour underground and hard drinking (and singing) in the local inn.
For more information about the museum itself please visit the web page https://lancashireminingmuseum.org/ or look them up on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/TheRedRoseSteamSocietyLtd1/
If you’ve read this far then I suppose you deserve to have a laugh at our expense so here are the pictures of us playing dress up.