A black hole leading into the past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 February, 1994, 12:00am

MEN had died down here, buried alive or crushed in cave-ins. Others passed away in their beds, still in their 40s, their lungs poisoned by black dust.

They don't say ''Coals to Newcastle'' for nothing. Northeast England's main city was one of the conduits for an industry that spawned an empire.

Millions of tons were hacked out of the nearby Northumberland and Durham coalfields and shipped off down the River Tyne to fuel the industrial revolution.

And I was surrounded by it, in a time-warp, back to 1913, one year before the outbreak of World War I, crouching in a drift mine in the village of Beamish, only a few kilometres from the city.

I was blinded by the light as I left the mouth of the black tunnel, and in the cobbled street outside the colliery yard I almost walked into the dray horses.

They were standing obediently as the draymen rolled the barrels of ale off the cart outside the Sun Inn. A miner's wife smiled sympathetically and hurried off, clutching her bonnet.

I was tempted to pop in for a beer, to escape the biting wind and warm my hands by the coal fire, but the music of a colliery brass band wafted towards me.

They must be playing in the park, I thought, and jumped on the tram to investigate. It was only two stops.

I dropped into the haberdashery next to the park to look at the oil lamps. Five shillings and sixpence (HK$3). Too expensive! The headlines in the newsagents weren't too pleasing, either. It looked like war couldn't be avoided. Thank God I could step back into the 90s.

For you don't need a time machine to enter Beamish village, even though it is authentic early 1900s in every respect.

This is a living replica of mining life in those tough days, England's first open air museum of social, industrial, and agricultural history.

So realistic is Beamish that it won the European Museum of the Year Award in 1987, and British Museum of the Year Award in 1986.

And people come here from many parts of the world to experience a British way of life that has been overtaken by progress.

The buildings are all original. The drift mine and the colliery were worked from the 1850s to 1958, and have been partially re-opened for visitors.

The colliery cottages, with their fireplaces incorporating coal-fed ovens, were brought from a nearby village, stone by stone, and re-built. They are furnished exactly as they would have been.

The same applies to the row of houses at ''the top end'' of the village, which were once occupied by the wealthy and educated, the solicitor, the dentist (one room was the surgery, and has all the original tools), and the music teacher.

The ''villagers'' are all local people, wearing 1913 garb. You can have your picture taken in sepia, wearing your own choice of period clothing. Even the camera is a replica.

The village school with its old wooden desks and the chapel with its working organ were also brought here and re-assembled.

Then there is the railway station with its steam locomotives, the co-operative store, the fairground with its steam-driven roundabouts, and even Home Farm, with its Georgian buildings, cattle, sheep and poultry.

Sitting in that damp drift mine, Joe Cummings, a retired miner, talked about those ''good old days''. Not so good really. His father, traditionally, had also been a miner, and died prematurely.

''Many men died in pit accidents. Most who survived would not see 60,'' he said. ''If a miner died, his wife would be turfed out of her cottage, as they were owned by the mining company.

''If she had no relative to look after her, then she would have to go into the workhouse.

''But people were close then. These were real communities. There was very little crime. There was nothing worth stealing.'' I did eventually pop into the Sun Inn for a beer. It even has stables for the dray horses. It, too, was saved from demolition, its numbered stones brought here, and re-assembled.

In those days drinking was condoned by many employers. They argued that if a man drank, he had good reason to earn money and so would be a good worker.

The Sun is operated as a working pub, and its staff have the plastered-back hair of yesteryear and wear aprons and waistcoats. Much to my chagrin, however, the price of a pint was totally up-to-date.

Details of Heritage sites in the UK can be obtained from the British Tourism Authority in Hong Kong, phone 522-0044.