AB Tour Diary; November 25 2014 Final UK tour entry

AB Tour Diary; November 25 2014 Final UK tour entry

Williment Sport Travel tour leaders Dave Loveridge and Keith Quinn - who, along with wives Jan and Anne, on the last day preparing to drop underground for a memorable final Welsh mining experience.

24 November 2014

25 NOVEMBER 2014

The really nice thing about this supporter's tour for Williment Sports Travel was that even though the rugby watching part of it ended yesterday with an All Black 34-16 win over Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, more highlights kept coming.

It was amazing to me that the day after the celebrations of an unbeaten tour by the team which we had all come to follow, there was a full turnout for the final day's programme around the Welsh countryside.

Yes, there were whispers among our group that several on the bus had tarried late into the night at the bar, but most people presented themselves in shipshop shape. Our tour guide was Steve Griffin and he took the coach up the winding roads of the Welsh Valleys stopping firstly on a brisk morning at the Blaenavon coal pit.

We were there for a full underground tour. This was particular interest to my wife and I given that our fathers and grandfathers had worked down 'below' at various times in their lives.

Firstly we had to be lowered in a cage some 100 metres below the surface. We wore the very same equipment – helmet and cap lamp, belts, battery and ‘self rescuer’ – that had been used by the miners themselves from 1860 to 1980.

The tour took at least an hour. At times we walked and stood upright in the shafts but at other times we doubled over and had to shuffle along in a crab-like manner.  At one point we stopped and the guide asked us to switch off our helmet lamps. When we did the blackness was utterly total. My hand touching my own nose could not be seen. There were gasps from our group and a silent wish I suspect from some for the guide to quickly allow us to switch on again.

We were therefore doubly touched when a large wooden door was reached and the guide reflected for us that it was here, every day for sometimes twelve hours, a boy, often as young as six years old, would sit in the dark waiting until he heard the pit ponies approaching in the blackness of the shaft. Then the boy would pull the heavy door door open and the smelly, bedraggled horse would pass by pulling its 'dram' of coal. This important function which kept dangerous gasses from flowing up the tunnels was done by a boy who became known as a 'Trapper.' As that is the nickname of our popular ex-All Black tour leader and has been for decades we had a smile at Dave Loveridge's cheerful expense. (Dave's wife Jan confirms that their grandson does not call Dave by the normal Grandfatherly nicknames. The wee Loveridge calls his Grandad 'Trapper' too. Isn't that nice!)

The horror of the working life of the underground boys was perhaps only surpassed in squalor by that facing the ponies. Nearly 100 of these hapless creatures would live their lives underground and when they died after five or six years, probably from exhaustion, they would be buried right there, more or less where they fell. That's because we were told 'to fill a dram with a body to take to the surface for disposing would cost the wealthy owners at least one full cart of coal instead.' Our guide pointed out that the carcass would invariably have its legs hacked off and some miners would be desperate enough to smuggle the blackened meat home for meals while the rest of the body, until buried, became a heaving, smelling feast for the huge venomous rats who ran up and down the corridors.

Everyone was captivated by the coal-face experience; totally and utterly. Our understanding of 'Welshness' was somehow broadened by what its forefathers had done. What terrible lives they led but we were told all too often that to work in the pits 'was honourable' work and generations of men in families rushed to carry on the traditions.

The contrast to the rest of our day was total. Tonight at a local swanky restaurant back in Cardiff all 80 of us gathered for a swept up final dinner. Quinn and Loveridge made their final tour observations, then Martin Croad from Auckland offered some very humorous verse about some of the 'personalities' of the trip and Ross Hill of Nelson gently serenaded the group with his guitar songs; Enfys Soothill of Hawera provided her versions of some of Gracie Fields' final work from decades gone by. It was warm fun for us all followed by a freezing walk back to the hotel. We were reading of temperatures in New Zealand climbing into the 20s. Thoughts were turning homewards.

Yes, sadly it was time to say; 'its been a fun tour but it really IS time to head home now.'

And that's what we did the next afternoon, driving to Heathrow and flying out to Auckland; arriving home on Wednesday morning, full of stories and experiences, which, for most of us, ought never to be forgotten.


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