Walking into a cage, being so close to the person next to you that you can feel their breath on your neck, hearing the sound of the rickety iron doors lock and descending 300 feet below the surface of the ground into a damp, cold, claustrophobia-inducing mine shaft may not sound too appealing, but brave the fear and you will be rewarded with a breath-taking, informative, entertaining and inspiring experience.
Big Pit Beaenavon is one of the few places in the world where you can follow in the footsteps of the miners who once roamed the narrow shafts in search of coal. The mine, which closed its doors as a working mine in 1980, is now preserved for the public as Pwll Mawr Amgueddfa Lofaol Cymru, or the Big Pit National Coal Museum for those of us who don't speak Welsh.
Before beginning your journey you must come prepared - wear proper footwear and rug up! This is not a recommendation but a requirement. The mine-shaft is cold, damp, and slippery. Whilst it is safe and well maintained it has not been altered for tourists and still resembles the shaft that was mined by hardworking men and women only a few decades ago.
You will begin your tour by sitting in the miners waiting room, just as those men and women would have done everyday before beginning their shift. The anticipation building as you are greeted by a Big Pit employee. Making this experience more authentic is the fact that your tour guide will be an ex-miner; an experienced man or woman who has worked the mine, experienced the threat of methane explosions and worked long and physically exhausting days below the surface of the earth.
They will lead you through the corridors and into the changing room where you will be fitted with a glamorous bright yellow miners hat, complete with a luminous headlamp to ensure you can see where you are going once you are underground. The helmet, cap lamp, belt, battery and 'self rescuer' is the very same equipment which would have been worn by miners prior to the closure of the mine.
The lovely staff are more than happy to take a photo for you once your are in full costume and this will be your last opportunity to sneak in a selfie before cameras and phones are taken off you, and stored away for safety reasons.
Next you begin the descent, once you have been stripped of all of your belongings you will be loaded into the cage and penetrate into the mine-shaft.
The tour itself is about 40 minutes long, with about 30 of those minutes being spent 300 feet below the ground. Robert, our fabulous ex-miner come tour-guide, was both informative and entertaining. He told us stories of the child labour force which was not abolished until the early 1900s and, with passion, described what would have happened to the miners who tragically lost their lives during the massive explosions at the Llanerch Collery in 1890 and the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd in 1913, where 176 and 439 men and boys died. At Big Pit, three men were killed in an explosion in 1908 and another three men lost their lives in a fire in 1913.
Robert described the sense of comradery among the miners and their horses alike, who spent long, cold, dark days below the ground together. He also told us a few jokes which I won't share here, as I am sure he reuses them on each tour!
Being below the surface and seeing the tools, the horse stables, the narrow, dark shafts and the small nooks gives you a sense of the mental and physical strength required by those men who worked the mine. Despite the obvious dangers facing them Robert assured us that, missing the sense of loyalty and brotherhood of the mine, he would return to the job without hesitation should Big Pit ever reopen.
When you exit the mine your eyes will take a moment to adjust to the light of day. Take a minute to consider that you have only been in darkness for 30 minutes; imagine the effects the mine would have taken on the eyes of the men, women and children who frequented that mine for more than half of their lives and those of the horses who were kept underground for months at a time.
On the surface, those not brave enough or unable to venture into the mine-shaft can enjoy a virtual tour of a modern coal mine in the multi-media Mining Galleries. Journey through the Pithead Baths and take a walk through the historic buildings and machinery to gain a true appreciation of the technological developments that have aided modern-day mining.
At the top of the hill you can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee in the canteen where the mine workers would have dined and admire the view over the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre.
If you are travelling from Cardiff, Big Pit will take about 45 minutes to travel to by car and public transport options are available - it is well worth the trip.
There is no admission fee to the Big Pit National Coal Museum, however donations can be made at the visitor centre and shop when you leave the site.
The museum is open daily from 9.30am-5pm with the last underground tour departing at 3.30pm. It is recommended to call for opening times in both December and January as they may differ from the rest of the year.