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South Wales Adventures & The First Day of Classes

Time October 4th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by



What a great Sunday it has been!  Today I went on the Coach Tour of South Wales offered by the Cardiff University International Office. There were two options for the trip, both of which included a trip to St. Fagan’s National History museum; when I purchased my ticked, I had a choice between the Big Pit National Coal Museum or Caerphilly Castle. I decided to pick the Big Pit National Coal Museum for a few main reasons: firstly, because it is further afield than Caerphilly, and secondly because my parents are visiting me in October and I thought that they might prefer to visit Caerphilly rather than spending an hour down a mine shaft. And thirdly, while I don’t know much about Welsh history, one thing I was aware of is that the mining industry was extremely important to the development of Wales and really helped shape modern Wales, so I felt like this could be a more unique learning experience.


In any case, I am very happy to say that I am VERY glad I made the choice that I did and I had a marvelous time on the trip! We left Uni at 8:30am for Big Pit in Blaenafon, about an hour away from Cardiff near Abergavenny. It was another gorgeous sunny day, but again, quite hot once the sun was up!


The first part of our trip to the museum was to go on an underground tour–WHICH WAS TOTALLY AWESOME. The idea of spending an hour down a coal mine might sound boring to some, but I found it extremely fascinating and quite a unique experience. When we got there, we had to hand over all our watches/cameras/phones, etc, because anything with a battery is dangerous in a mine shaft. The miners working there then kitted us up with hardhats, headlamps, and waist belts weighing about 5 kilos (~11lbs) containing a battery pack and a special type of gas mask. Once we were all prepared for our excursion, our miner guide took us to the cage lift and we descended into the mine itself! Our guide was a very good-natured and extremely funny Welshman. Like nearly every Welsh person I have met so far, he was very friendly, very proud of his Welsh heritage, and just seemed very genuine. I don’t want to make any assumptions based on my brief experiences thus far, but my initial impression of the Welsh people is that they’re a very spirited, good, honest people.


Anyway, so we headed down into the mine and began our tour, which took us down many dark and winding tunnels, walking even deeper into the mine. It was quite a surreal experience–there were a few moments when I was having difficulty believing that I was really deep beneath the earth, in an actual coal mine. But hearing the stories of the mine’s history and learning about the dangers of mining emphasized the seriousness and reality of the trade, and was rather sobering, in a way–it’s easy to feel, as you descend through these tunnels and see the carts and gaze around you, that you’re in some kind of adventure film, like Indiana Jones or some such figure. But, as our tour-guide who came with us from Cardiff put it, the wonderful thing about Big Pit as a museum is that it is so “real”–it hasn’t been “Disneyfied.” Nothing about the mine or the village has been changed to try and soften it, or to gloss over the realities of mining in Wales. It might sound rather dramatic, but I really felt like I was having a very peculiar and vey heightened experience. There was something that felt so unnatural about being down in the mine that made it an almost mystical, supernatural journey; the entire time we were below, I felt as though I was intruding on something, in some odd way. And it really is rather spooky down there, especially when our guide had us extinguish all of our lights!  The cold (it was around 52*F in the mine, while it was around 73*F at the surface) and the utter silence and stillness, and that little sense that you are far below where humans are meant to reside and that being in a mine is inherently dangerous can really get to you.


All I can say is, the men who worked those mines were incredibly, incredibly brave. Our guide told us one story, about how boys around 10 years old would work down in the mine listening for the carts of coal coming, to open and shut the ventilation doors at the right times, and how they would be forced to work in complete darkness for 12 hours a day, because their candles wouldn’t stay lit due to the ventilation. It’s just insane to imagine. Another aspect of mining that I found particularly interesting was the way they used horses; being a horsewoman myself, that sort of thing always interests me. Horses were used to pull the carts and such down in the mine, but the interesting thing is that most of them were brought down at the age of 4 and then resided there permanently, never coming up to the sun light ever again.  In later years, practices were changed and they would be brought up perhaps twice a year to have some time at the surface, but as our guide explained, they’d often go a bit loco when reaching the top, and would need many hours to calm down. We got to see the actual stables in the mine where the horses were kept, their nameplates still there–in some places in Britain, horses were actually used in the mines until the 90s! Very interesting. Our guide also explained that while the horses were obviously useful, they were also incredibly dangerous–in Big Pit, a horse snapped one day and killed a man, and they would frequently pin miners to the wall if irritated. The manure also posed a serious safety hazard, due to the accompanying methane gas, so little boys would also work down in the mines specifically to clean up the manure and get it to the surface right away. The horses, however, were generally well-loved and extremely well cared for by the miners, as they provided a sort of comfort and company to the men below. More facts about animals in the mines: rats would often be attracted to the horse feed, so terriers would be brought down to scare them off/catch them; canaries were used to detect dangerous gasses–for every one breath a human takes, canaries take seven, so the canary would be the first to go if poisonous gasses were in the air…


Anyway! So after an hour spent down in the mine, we headed back to the surface, after which we checked out the 1920s (or was it 30s?) miners’ showers, which sounds a bit weird, but was actually incredibly important to the miners and their wives–up until that point, miners would typically exit the mine and have to walk home, dirty and drenched (mines are very wet places, as we learned), and would often catch cold or get pneumonia from the exposure. The showers thus allowed the men to bring fresh clothes to the mine, shower immediately after exiting, and thus walk home clean and dry, reducing the occurrence of illness. In addition to the showers, there was a small museum containing artifacts from throughout the mine’s history.


Big Pit: National Coal Museum


After spending a few hours at Big Pit, we all hopped back on the coach, where we ate our lunches, and then spent a few hours at St. Fagan’s Open-Air National History Museum. The cool thing about St. Fagan’s is that they have taken buildings from quite literally all over Wales, disassembled them, and then re-assembled them on the museum property. There are all sorts of buildings; general stores, a post office, a bakery, cottages, farm houses, barns, a manor house, etc., some of which were originally built as far back as the 1500s! It was very enjoyable visiting all the buildings and wandering the gorgeous grounds on such a sunny day. Some of those farm houses are really amazing–many of them only had two rooms, and would have housed anywhere from 4-14 people! The manor house on the property was very beautiful, especially outside, where it had many landscaped gardens for visitors to stroll through. There was also an indoor, more traditional museum on the property–my favorite part was the section on Welsh fashion through the years, which included some traditional Welsh dress.


Cottage at St. Fagan's Open-Air Museum

Manor House at St. Fagan's


Following St. Fagan’s, we very briefly popped down to Cardiff Bay. It was really just a taste of the Bay–we got to see the Welsh National Assembly, the Millenium Centre, and the Tower from the BBC show Torchwood (any Dr. Who fans out there?), but there is so much there, I definitely plan to head down there and see everything on another nice day.


Outside the Wales Millenium Centre




Today was a very important one–the first day of classes! I had two today. My first one at 10am this morning was Early Modern England & Wales 1500-1700, which I think will be a very interesting class. Today was really just an introduction, so our first real lecture will be next week. After class I walked down into City Center by myself to pick something up from Boots, one of the pharmacies here, and spent some time just walking around. There are always so many people down in City Center it is a lively place and great for people watching at all times! I started to get pretty hungry and decided to eat lunch back at my flat today, so I headed there and picked up my parcel containing my Welsh textbooks on the way. I flipped through the grammar book and am now a little scared, but that’s pretty much how I feel every time I start learning a new language.


After lunch I spent a few hours getting my school things organized, reading course guides, and filling out departmental forms. At 4 o’clock I headed off for my second lecture of the day, Material Evidence for Ancient Historians. I am pretty excited about this class, as it is all about, as the title suggests, how to interpret ancient artifacts and use them in conjunction with literary evidence. Most of my Classics background back home at Gettysburg has dealt almost exclusively with ancient literature, so this will be very educational. We also get to go on two field trips–one to the Roman settlement at Caerleon, currently being excavated, which I am very excited about because it was an article about this very archaeological site that directed me to Cardiff University in the first place! We’ll also have one class right here in Cardiff at the National Museum. So that should be fun! The only thing about the class is that because it is an upper level module, everyone in it already knows one another. That is okay, though. I am sure it will be fine and I will meet people in tutorials.


Even though it’s only the first day, I decided to head to the library after class ended and get a jump-start on my reading for Early Modern England & Wales. When I exited the library, I got my first true taste of Welsh weather! While it had been boiling hot and sunny earlier, when I left the library at around 6:30 the sky had gotten dark, the temperature had dropped, and it was windy and misting!


Tomorrow will be exciting as well–I have one lecture in the morning, “Gods & the Polis,” and then in the evening I am planning to attend a fitness class and also the first meeting of the Harry Potter Society! Wednesday I start “Life in Ancient Rome” and then Thursday and Friday I will be having my first Welsh classes.


The first week of school is always so exciting. I am rather nervous, though, if I am being honest. The academic system here is radically different from the system we use in America. Here, there are no specific homework assignments–there might be one or two “essential readings” for seminar, but other than that you are given an ENORMOUS list of starter sources and are basically expected to do your own research on the topics being covered in order to prepare for class and write papers.


I feel as though I’m starting college all over again! It’ll be a bit of an adjustment. Fingers crossed I’ll get the hang out it quickly!

*EDIT* Yay for finally figuring out how to add pictures to my posts!