A group of devoted volunteers are refashioning a coal mine crucial to Wales' coal mining heritage into a carbon-zero destination. MICHAEL JONES visited the Crumlin Navigation Colliery to find out more.

THE Crumlin Navigation Colliery, sitting in the heart of the Valleys, boasts a gorgeous cluster of red-brick buildings – one of only very few coal mines where the surface buildings are still standing.

Built in 1911, at its peak 145,000 tonnes of high-quality coal were produced there every year.

But decades of neglect threatened to irreversibly damage the buildings, which were closed in 1967.


Defiantly, however, they have withstood the elements and still stand tall today.

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Four of the hardy volunteers who dub themsevles 'the shovellors'. From L-R in front: Vera Jenkins and Marie Davidson. Behind, L-R: Bob Jenkins and Bill Davidson

And they have “huge potential” to be used by local businesses, says Vera Jenkins, chairwoman of Crumlin Navigation Community Trust, which manages the site on behalf of the South Wales Building Preservation Trust.

But firstly, it is important to recognise the significant role the mine played in winning both world wars.

“During our two wars, we helped save the whole of Great Britain,” Mrs Jenkins, who is a coal miner’s daughter, says. “The Ministry of Defence wanted the best, clean-burning steam coal.

“Normal house coal turns black and puffs out green, black and yellow smoke.

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How one of the buildings looked before the group started to repair the site

“So, if you imagine a steam ship using this kind of coal, the enemy could see it.

“But with clean coal, they puffed out white steam, so they wouldn’t know whether it was clouds or ships.

“It was massive in helping steam ships transport armies, food, supplies and so forth.”

Indeed, this is where the site gets its name - 'Navigation' being a nod to how it helped British ships safely navigate the oceans during the wars.

It was crucial in building Wales’ economy, too.

“Without that pit belching out smoke, we wouldn’t have what we have today,” said Marie Davidson, sister of Vera and treasurer of Friends of the Navigation - a separate group that helps support the trust.

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Bill Davidson helping to clear restore the land

Which is why a hardy group of volunteers are so determined to not only preserve the site’s historical legacy, but ensure it also plays a role in assisting future generations.

“We need the whole world to know that we are not just the Valleys that saved the world, but that we are going to produce opportunities for the new economy,” she said. “We want to go from fossil fuel to carbon zero.”

The means to do so are already there.

There are plans to put in a hydro-station in the nearby River Ebbw and the land benefits from mine water which reaches ground level at 18-27 Celsius, providing electricity and heat for the buildings.

A stretch of land – currently gravel, mud and dirt – could be used for up to 80-90 car-parking spaces and there are plans for electric charging stations.


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A historic sketch of what the site looked like

And, if the group receive funding, they could repair the buildings to the benefit of the local economy.

“Our sole purpose is to preserve the purpose and bring them back into community use for small businesses,” said Mrs Jenkins, who is also ex-Mayor of Caerphilly Council.

“We feel Crumlin has been left out, right in the triangle between Monmouth, Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent.

“We want to make Crumlin a destination.”

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Inside the book launch of Crumlin Stories - an oral history of the mine

However, there is a “huge stumbling block” explains Bill Davidson, membership secretary for Friends of the Navigation.

There is a serious problem in that the River Ebbw flows underground in a culvert beneath the site and is 100 years old.

It means there is a weight limit for the Navigation site and before plans can be enacted, there needs to be investment to either ensure the culvert can sustain more weight or to redirect the river.

Succinctly put, they need help.

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An old image of the bridge towering above the site when it was in full production

“We need professionals who are willing to be trustees and help out with accounts and submitting grants,” Mr Davidson.

Mrs Davidson added: “We are getting to the point where we can’t continue any longer in our current capacity.

“People don’t realise that we have this potential on their doorstep and we need professional help to realise that potential.”

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Work gets under way helping to bring one of the buildings up to order

“We need the big boys to realise there is so much opportunity here,” added Mrs Jenkins.

"We have a Rolls Royce appetite but a bicycle income, as my father would say."

Her husband Bob, who is also a trustee, quipped: "A couple of millionaires would be handy."