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  4. The Riches Beneath Our Feet: How Mining Shaped Britain by Geoff Coyle

Mention early on of the Whin Sill rock fault excites the mind with images of the geology's man-made consequences such as Bamburgh castle and Hadrian's wall. Like the pantiles of North Yorkshire or the honey-coloured stone of Bath, they are not there by accident. To understand our lovely and complicated island landscape, we cannot simply look around. And so we have for two millennia and more, helped by men and sometimes women who came from all over the world to excavate our clay, our bismuth and our tourmaline.

Romans from North Africa left lead ingots stamped in Latin; the Irish navvied everywhere; the Germans were so randy after a day's coppermining in Hechstetter's Nick, deep under Catbells, that they were barracked on Derwent Island to protect the women of 16th century Keswick. And Coyle explains how these valuable minerals are just a fragment of the whole picture. His table of the startling number of "main" British minerals, from alum to zinc, is worth taking on walks or car journeys with inquisitive children.

Take alum, the first alphabetically, and the centre of a fascinating episode in mining involving a papal monopoly, Vatican mining experts smuggled to England in barrels, and Londoners' urine, which was part of the production method and used to ballast coal ships returning to Newcastle. Alum's mother-ore, potash, has kept up the strange-and-wonderful tradition at Boulby near Whitby. Down the deepest mine in Europe, staff from the Institute of Underground Sciences keep watch for dark matter, that elusive substance proven to exist but never yet seen.

The Institute of Underground Sciences! Did you know there was such a body? Coyle must have done from an early age, when his curiosity took him into mining engineering from a family background in face-working for coal. His age was unfortunate; when he joined the National Coal Board in the s, the prospects for an ambitious young man in that once great industry were already fading.

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Luckily his tutor, Alan Grierson, later Crown Estates' Mineral Agent — another fine title — used to tell his students: The Riches Beneath Our Feet is itself a summary — at pages it could hardly be otherwise — but it serves as a signpost to the literature available for those who want to dig more deeply. Its great value is Coyle's comprehensive swing through every sort of mining and its history, and a dispassionate view of a subject which, pace Deepwater Horizon, has generated endless bitterness, emotion and danger.

The foreword warns of the serious risks of exploring sealed-up workings. And as Cumbria grieves over recent loss of life, it is worth remembering that Whitehaven lost men and boys in the Wellington pit explosion and in , when the William pit went up.

But he is also fair to the entrepreneurs. The Fitzwilliams of South Yorkshire were so respected that the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers joined with them to try to protect the family's park always open to the public from open-casting vindictively ordered by Labour's Manny Shinwell in He cannot fit everything in; take, for example, his brief but moving account of the Aberfan tragedy 20 years later, when people, including children in school at the time, were buried by a spoil-tip landslide.

Your tour guide is eminently qualified to take your group on a conducted tour of a coal mine. I guess you'd walk away with a new perspective on what the job entails, especially in the old days or in third world countries. Mining disasters are common occurrence in China, where the number of deaths is measured in the thousands. State-run mines have some resemblance of order and organisation.

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Deaths in ones and twos do not get a mention. There are no enquiries, no coroner's reports, no due process. It pains me every time I hear of a major mining disaster in China, the country of my origin.

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Every death is not a mere stat. The economic miracle has driven the peasant farmers to seek work elsewhere. Income disparity and lack of other skills forced them to accept any work, even great risk is involved.

We all now share in the joy, rapture and perhaps a little emotional for the successful rescue of all the trapped miners in Chile. Good news are in short supply.


Hi Danny I don't know if you remember me. Good to see you having a great time in Wales, have you had a leek yet? I noticed on your homepage you have a Quiz, Name the nine languages that have over million native speakers. There is now 10 as of Punjabi has 76 million native speakers in Pakistan and 29 million in India. Hi Mal, your name rings a bell, though my memory for events from my school years is terrible - I think every time I read a book I forget another person, or maybe an entire day.

Are you still playing chess? Ethnologue gives 28 million for Eastern Punjabi and 63 million for Western Punjabi and says "There is a continuum of varieties between Eastern and Western Panjabi, and with western Hindi and Urdu".

The Riches Beneath Our Feet: How Mining Shaped Britain by Geoff Coyle

There are also quite a number of Punjabi speakers where I am in east Oxford! I think I'll leave it off the quiz for the moment, anyway, though ten would be a nice round number. When it comes to safety, the Chinese mining industry seems to be where the UK was sixty or more years ago. They should be able to learn from technological improvements in the rest of the world, but it will be interesting to see whether legislative reforms will work without political changes that give individuals more influence.

As it is, the central government seems to pass a lot of laws that are largely ignored by local governments and private corporations. Hi Danny I notice the Ethnologue figures are quite old and I can see your point with eastern and western versions.

There is a bit of controversy over whether they are separate languages or not. The decision to divide the language has been controversial and most Punjabis and many linguists do not divide the language into two. I have only played in 2 chess tourneys in the past 3 years although I still play a bit socially. Mail will not be published required. How Mining Shaped Britain , which helped to provide background for this.