Today I walked through tunnels where coalminers would have cursed and shovelled under lamplight 150 years ago. Now it’s lit by the sky and the passage has become a trench since the covering 40 metres of earth - and half the seam - was torn away by huge excavators. It’s brutish, accidental archaeology but still uncovers the occasional artefact like a nineteenth century soda bottle.
This is Potland Burn opencast mine in Northumberland – or ‘surface’ mine as the owners UK Coal would prefer. Whatever the name, it is still a huge hole in the ground where giant trucks shuttle back and forth like worker ants. Until you get up close, when they become ‘ma-hussive’ (my youngest son’s word, strangely apt). From about ten foot above the driver, Ian, waved me to climb up the ladder to his cab. It took me eight rungs just to clear the wheel. Before the growling engines fired up he went through a series of ‘pre-flight’ checks which mainly comprised testing the three separate braking systems – when you are in a £900,000 vehicle on steep slopes with a 100 tonne load you don’t want to let gravity get the whip-hand. Then we were off and bouncing along the packed earth tracks. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face but had the disconcerting feeling that I might be in the dream of a seven year old who had spent the whole of Christmas day playing with his toy quarry set.
The availability of these monster machines and the relative absence of union power in the surface digging world means ripping the ground away to get to the coal is now preferred to deep mining in shafts and tunnels. Changes to planning regulations suggest that we might see a lot more of them as the national appetite for minerals and energy appears to be overruling local objections and concern about coals hefty global warming impact is ignored.
Well-managed modern workings can come and go quite quickly: returning scarred land to forest, farmer’s field or parkland within five years. Tomorrow, I’ll be rolling out a giant map of the UK illustrating where some of the new open pits might be with well-placed bits of coal. We stored the props in the back of the car before driving for dinner in the shadow of St James Park prompting our sound man, John Gilbert, to point out “You’ve brought coals to Newcastle.”