THE proud men and women employed in the country’s last deep coal mine are short of party spirit as Christmas 2015 approaches.
While the rest of the UK readies itself for the festive period, the miners and ancillary workers at Kellingley Colliery are preparing for the end of a glorious and proud chapter in Britain’s history.
On Friday, the last tons of coal will emerge from deep within the bowels of the earth at Kellingley on the outskirts of Pontefract and the final remaining men in the industry that fuelled the industrial revolution and kindled the rise of the most powerful empire the world has ever known will head into a future filled with uncertainty and not a little pride.
And though they have valiantly resisted calls for a farewell party on the grounds that the death of King Coal is no cause for celebration, the staff at Kellingley will take their place alongside an expected 2,000 other people on a commemorative march at the pit planned for December 19.
There will be sadness, tears, anger and resentment but, as there is at any gathering to mark the passing of the near and dear, there will be reminiscences, reunions and retellings of a story which has left in an indelible scar on Yorkshire’s landscape and psyche.
Whilst mining in the UK has been in its death throes for decades, for all the inevitability of the closure of Kellingley Colliery the pain is being felt no less sharply by communities who have had to call on all their rich reserves of resilience to withstand a succession of hammer blows.
In May this year, energy company SSE confirmed that the Ferrybridge C power station will close in March 2016 with the loss of 170 jobs. This news was followed in September by the announcement that nearby Eggborough will also be shut down in the New Year, leading to 240 redundancies.
By the time the Government’s deadline to close all coal-fired power stations passes in 2015, coal mining in Yorkshire will have already have become a historical postscript.
The first coal mined at Kellingley emerged on the surface in 1965, five years after two shafts were sunk into the ground on a site which was to become one of Yorkshire’s ‘superpits’.
Over the course of the next half-century millions of tons of coal have been extracted, much of which is loaded onto trains to make the short journey to the nearby Drax power station where it is burned to meet seven per cent of the UK’s electricity needs.
Whilst there were seven workable seams when the pit opened, work now focuses on two main seams, Beeston and Silkstone, named from the villages where the coal outcrops on the surface many miles away.
At 2.8m and 2.4m high, respectively, Beeston and Silkstone are sizeable seams with sufficient reserves to allow mining to continue for at least another decade.
In an era where the world is continually reminded of the need to make the most of dwindling energy reserves, it is the long-term sustainability of Kellingley and the Government’s readiness to sacrifice the mining industry to appease the climate-change lobby that causes most resentment among the men at Britain’s last remaining coal face.
At its peak, the ‘Big K’ as it is known locally employed 1,600 people but a series of rounds of redundancies have reduced that total to just 450. In July, 205 men left, following on from 160 redundancies last year to add to the economic pressures on a region which has never fully recovered from the effects of the 1982 miners’ strike.
Back then, Yorkshire had more than 50 working pits but inexorably the industry has been wound down, a sad victim of political skullduggery, harsh economics and scapegoatism by those who refuse to accept that global warming was a cyclical phenomenon long before man began burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale.
Many miners regard Government subsidies for nuclear power, concessions for renewable energy and the new cosy relationship with China with a mix of disbelief, anger and resignation. There is some resentment, but also a fierce determination to make the most of their situation and a sense of defiance.
Mining communities may have been broken but they are anything but beaten.