Lost in the coalfield: Day three of the tour

Denaby Colliery inscription

Denaby Colliery inscription

A short stop at the Denaby Colliery monument

A short stop at the Denaby Colliery monument

It was somewhere near Wombwell, South Yorkshire that I realised I was lost. I was cycling from Barnsley to Doncaster but because my first Doncaster gig was in Tickhill, around seven miles south of the city I wanted to avoid the busy A635. I would take the A633 to Wombwell then take the A6023 through Mexborough and Conisborough. But somewhere in Wombwell I’d got confused. There were no signs to Mexborough and straight on was Wath-on-Dearne, but that was off my route. I turned around and took a road through Darfield. But that took me onto the A635- the road I’d been trying to avoid. I got off at the next junction.

I’d probably wasted only about three miles but I was beginning to think that I might not make my first gig in time. It was at least fifteen miles away and there was less than ninety minutes left. It was around then that my stitch kicked in. That was the last thing I needed- a little knot of pain which was manageable. My fear was that it would get worse. A few weeks ago I’d had such a bad stitch that I’d had to get off the bike and lie down on the verge. I thought of ‘mind over matter’. Had I really been forced off the bike or could I have managed?

The day had started early. Up at 5am to last minute packing and panicking. Even after that early start I hadn’t left until 9.15am, an hour after I’d planned. Still, that gave me three and a half hours to cycle there and, till Wombwell, everything was going fine. When I saw a road sign for ‘Barnsley 12 miles’ at 9.30am I set myself the target of being in Barnsley by 10.30 and made it. Then I’d got a bit lost in the centre of Barnsley and then there was the Wombwell experience.

When I planned the route I thought of the irony of passing through the Barnsley coalfield on my journey telling stories about the arctic and talking about climate change. On a global scale, coal is still a huge driver of climate change even though coal production in the UK is a fraction of what it was and the UK’s coal fired power stations are being phased out as a result of EU air-quality legislation.

I thought of a lot of things. I thought of some of the statements made about coal by Dr James Hansen, climate scientist and until-recently Director of the NASA Institute for Space Studies: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet” and “Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them.” In book ‘Storms of My Grandchildren’ James Hansen has produced a graph showing the cumulative emissions of different countries- in other words, the total emissions per person since the 1750s. Guess which country comes top and guess which was its primary fuel source? You can see the graph on http://www.campaigncc.org/climatejustice. Duncan Clark, recently more famous as co-author of ‘The Burning Question’ has slightly different, but similar findings on
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/21/countries-responsible-climate-change

I thought of the way in which many of these soon-to-be-phased-out coal fired power stations are converting to burning biomass on a vast industrial scale and how a number of organisations, including Biofuelwatch are warning of the dangers of this.http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/uk-campaign/coal-biomass-conversions/
Last year the RSPB produced a report on this subject, asking if large scale biomass was ‘dirtier than coal?’www.rspb.org.uk/images/biomass_report_tcm9-326672.pdf‎

I thought of people researching into ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (the as-yet-incomplete project to find ways of capturing carbon dioxide which is emitted from power stations and storing it underground in places like exhausted oil fields).I thought of the very recent and successful campaigns against a new generation of coal-fired power stations and open-cast mining in the UK. I’d attended the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in 2008 and read about the development of a new wave of open cast coal mines such as Fos-y-Fran in South Wales.

I also thought of the way in which the UK is financing coal projects around the world. I’d recently been supporting the World Development Movement’s ‘Carbon Capital’ campaign (http://www.wdm.org.uk/carbon-capital ), which is highlighting the ways in which the UK finance sector is bankrolling (through shares and loans) massive fossil fuel projects around the word. One of these projects is the Cerrejon coal mine in Columbia. Cerrejon is mega project: If they are successful in burning all the known coal reserves at Cerrejon, the resulting carbon emissions at over 13 billion tonnes of CO2 would be equivalent to Columbia’s domestic emissions for over 184 years. It has destroyed communities, seen many human rights abuses and provided very little energy for the local people. Since 2009 it has been loaned £7 billion by HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and RBS. http://www.wdm.org.uk/sites/default/files/cerrejon_media_briefing.pdf‎

I had recently met Richard Solly, who is the Co-ordinator of the London Mining Network which supports people around the world in resisting mining developments -like Cerrejon- in their lands (http://londonminingnetwork.org/) Ten days later I would be doing a walking tour of the City of London with Richard Solly and others, telling stories of the arctic and visiting banks and pension companies that are financing climate change that is altering the arctic so drastically.

Perhaps more than anything, of course, I thought of the Miner’s Strike. Today, I cycled by, or near the ghost-sites of collieries closed after the Miner’s Strike during the Thatcher and Major years: Cortonwood, Cadeby, Kinsley, Silverwood, Manvers Complex, Royston, Barnsley Main, Dearne Valley, Grimethorpe, Houghton/Darfield and Goldthorpe/Hickleton. I was twelve and thirteen when the Miner’s Strike was on and remember watching the news reports – of pickets, clashes with the police and the return to work. Many people now regard it as the defining political episode of the 1980s and it still hangs over us. I passed a couple of miles south of Goldthorpe, the site of the Thatcher ‘mock funeral’ that had taken place in April (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-22183736). It’s less than a year since the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw spoke of the ‘culture of impunity’ that Thatcher’s government created in the police because they needed them to act as a partisan force during the Miner’s Strike and suggested that this led indirectly to the Hillsborough cover-up. http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9751000/9751530.stm Recently, I’d listened to the ‘Reflections’ series of interviews with politicians on Radio 4. Both Neil Kinnock (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037jfmg) and Norman Tebbit (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0376x76/Reflections_Lord_Tebbit/) had spent some time talking about the Strike, Norman Tebbit expressing regret at the damage done to working class culture and communities by the pit closures.

During the debate that followed Margaret Thatcher’s death this spring several pundits and politicians gleefully informed us that Harold Wilson had closed more pits than Margaret Thatcher (‘Yea, but I bet he didn’t enjoy it as much as she did,’ I’d thought). Of course, I now think that the UK’s shift away from coal-fired electricity generation was a good thing and resulted in the biggest significant dent in our carbon emissions. George Monbiot has written about how the pit closures saved the left from an ‘internecine war’ over coal. I suppose my issue with Thatcher, at least in hindsight, is not the fact that the pits closed, but the way it was managed, or rather, not managed. There is a positive alternative: it’s called ‘Just Transition’. The idea is about managing the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a low-carbon economy in such a way that workers are re-trained and re-skilled so that they can move from jobs in the former to jobs in the latter. You can read more about it in this TUC document http://www.tuc.org.uk/touchstone/justtransition/greenfuture.pdf. It also informs a lot of thinking behind the wonderful ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ report and campaign (http://www.climate-change-jobs.org/node/14), that I’ve done some work to promote in recent years.

All through the journey I kept seeing monuments to pits that had closed or commemorating pit disasters. At the site of Denaby Colliery there was a huge wheel. Denaby closed in the 1960s but this wheel came from Cadeby, closed in the 1980s.

I picked up speed around Mexborough and thought I might make my 1pm performance on time. I needed to be off the A6023 and onto the B6094 at Conisborough by 12.00pm I told myself. I did it by 12.10pm. Then, I told myself that if I got off the B6094 and onto the little lane leading to Tickhill by 12.30pm I would allow myself to stop and drink the two pints of milk that I’d brought on my panniers from home. I got there in time and that milk wasn’t too warm and tasted good!

I got to Tickhill library -with that stitch still a tight knot of pain in my side- with ten minutes to spare. In the next post, I’ll write about the four gigs that I did for Doncaster libraries in two days. In spite of the Wombwell moment, I’d made it and started the first gig on time.

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