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Back from the coal face

15 Tachwedd 2007

For Professor Joe Cartwright, Dr Annabel Cartwright and family, things may never be quite the same again.

The Cartwrights have just returned from a month on BBC television’s The Coal House where they and two other families recreated the lives of a 1927 coal mining community in Blaenavon. Joe worked long hours underground, Annabel ran a household without running water or central heating while children Kitty, 11, and Gwen, 12, rediscovered a world where they had to make their own entertainment.

Annabel, a research fellow in astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy, heard about the Coal House project and entered the family. She has a keen interest in the history of working people, while Joe comes from a long line of miners.

For Joe, Professor of Geophysics at the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences, his time at the coal face gave a real insight into the conditions faced by his father, two grandfathers and great-grandfather. He worked hard shifts at Blaentillery Drift Mine – the last working mine of its kind in the UK.

He said: "I worked really hard down there. I have never been so exhausted, every day.

"My great-grandfather died in my grandfather’s arms after a roof fall. That was really brought home to me while I was working down there. There were a few rock falls and we were told to watch the roof at all times.

"Mining is a wonderful job. It takes extreme skill – not just brute force- dedication and courage. We should be proud of the very few people still left in the industry. I feel enormously privileged to have worked alongside those colliers."

For Annabel, the small 1927 cottage presented a few surprises, although she quickly adjusted. She said: "While I wasn’t expecting hot water, there wasn’t so much as a tap or a sink. We had to get everything out of the pump. It was very, very hard for the first few days. However, I think having a background in physics did make it easier for me to get to grips with the stove."

Both parents are extremely proud of the way their daughters adapted, both to 1920s-style school and to playing with the other children.

Joe said: "They have had a hugely stimulating time, playing outside, making music, making up their own games."

Annabel added: "They never once mentioned television or missing their mobile phones – they were so busy doing lovely things outside. I hope now they will be using their computers and other gadgets far less so they can go out and do other things."

Both Cartwrights are now back at work – although the modern world is still taking some re-adjusting to. Annabel said: "We have really learned a lot. It’s lovely to be back in the 21st century – although one of the lightbulbs went the other night and my first thought was ‘Where are the matches and candles?’ "