Saturday, April 28, 2012

Going underground

I once worked down a pit for about four hours. I was sent underground to help service a drill used to prevent the build up of methane gas. At the coalface, shrouded in dust and roasted alive by the heat we called for an electrician. When he came; he wore a tool belt, a miner's hat, big boots and nothing else. It wasn't my idea of a pleasant working environment.

There are pits, or at least the remains of them, scattered in the hills near La Unión in Murcia. Silver, lead, iron and tin were mined here for hundreds of years on and off. It was silver won from these hills that paid for Hannibal's elephants to cross the Alps.

The last mine closed in 1990 leaving a legacy of spoil heaps, poisoned water, pithead gear and mining buildings dotted over miles of countryside. Take the narrow gauge railway from Cartagena to the edge of the Mar Menor at Los Nietos and you'll get a good idea of the scale of it all. The train is also an interesting way to get to la Unión itself.

La Unión is hardly the most picturesque town in Spain but it trades on its mining past. Immigrant workers from Andalucia, looking for work in the mines, brought their Flamenco music with them and the annual Cante de las Minas competition, held in August each year, celebrates that tradition. It is one of the most prestigious Flamenco events in the World.

The town has had a mining museum for a few years. In my opinion it ranks as one of the most tedious museums I've ever visited but recently a new Parque Minero has been opened and this Mining Park is much more like it.

A little, road-going, train takes you from the park entrance up to the mine. The people from one of the train carriages get to put on silly hairnets and not so silly safety hats and go down into the mine whilst the other carriage load are held back a while and given an explanation of the washhouse buildings where the valuable ore was separated from the worthless rock scree. They get to see the mine a few minutes later.

There is no cage to take you into the mine. It's more like going into one of those limestone caves in Derbyshire than a deep coal pit. The walk in is relatively easy with good handrails and adequate lighting that manages not to detract from the atmosphere. Our guide was good; she managed to weave descriptions of life for the miners into the detail of how the mine was worked and the horrible ways that the workers were exploited by the rich businessmen of the town.

When you've had the tour you can take the train back to the entrance or you can wander the site to take in other mine entrances, the washhouse and a tiny chapel that was once a dynamite store. If you're a serious walker there are several routes through the hills including one down to the coast at the old mining port of Portman.

If you do decide to visit the park you will need to make a reservation beforehand by phoning 968 002 140 as space is limited. We were told that they offer tours in English.

Definitely a different way to spend a day.

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