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Apr 2016 back issue
Britainís Last Coal Mine Eckington Colliery
photographs by Damian Bird words by David Casey
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Driving from the M1 towards the southern suburbs of Sheffield, you would never guess that the village of Eckington is home to an underground coal mine, let alone the last commercial mine of its kind in England. Perched on the banks of the River Rother at the edge of the local industrial estate, Eckington Colliery offers few clues to its existence or the intense activity above and below ground. There is no pithead winding gear, once the visual calling card of mines where men descended in a lift cage deep into the Earth before they began their journey to the coal faces. Eckington does not need to wind cages as it is a drift mine. Instead of a vertical shaft, this class of colliery was driven into a hillside close to an outcrop of the coal seam. It is still classified as a ‘deep’ mine to differentiate itself from the open-cut mines where coal is extracted from an open quarry. The old deep shaft coal mines in Britain have been consigned to the history books. They had become uneconomical to operate in today’s climate of coal prices which are off their peak, and demand knocked back by changing perceptions of energy production. The last three of those mines closed during 2015, with the irrecoverable loss of mining skills. Eckington Colliery has the advantage of being a relatively new mine – it was opened as recently as 1991. But there are other factors which have allowed it to weather the storms and keep its 38 staff in full employment. Confidence is high and, within the last year, the company has invested in additional, more sophisticated mining equipment which will see the colliery flexible enough to meet market demand far into the future. The quality of the coal and diversity of ‘products’ mark out Eckington in the marketplace. But is not all coal mined in the UK a broadly similar commodity? It is worth recalling the café proprietor who was asked for a ‘tea’. “We don’t sell tea here. But we have breakfast tea, organic tea, de-caffeinated tea, Earl Grey tea, mint tea and green tea.” Britain’s coal mines have never produced ‘coal’, rather an array of material ranging from brown lignite, through various shades and grades of harder, readily combustible black coal, to anthracite which has minimal volatile elements. Demand for specific types of coal depends on their application. The majority of anthracite mined, for example, would normally find its way into steel-making – but its use there has all but disappeared with the collapse of the UK steel sector. Eckington’s coal scores well on the quality spectrum being a hard coal with a high calorific value. That is important when a customer is demanding every ‘ounce’ of energy from the tonnes of coal purchased. Its profile makes it ideal for industrial processes such as cement making which demand high calorific value and small amounts of ash-making ingredients. Coal does not come out of the mine in uniform pieces with neat 30 millimetre edges. Depending on the machines being employed to cut and ‘harvest’ the coal, Eckington’s output from its coal cutting systems ranges from ‘smalls’ through ‘singles’, ‘doubles’ and ‘triples’ to large lumps of coal upwards of 200 millimetres in each direction. The run-of-mine smalls find their way to the industrial customers but the larger pieces, once separated out, are generally sold for domestic use after washing and bagging. Eckington is preparing its campaign to market bagged coal for the winter season through the internet and retail establishments. The largest coal is popular with steam rallies.
If coal production were its only business stream, Eckington would be still assured of a commercial future; able to respond rapidly to changes in demand for the sizes of coal it can produce. Eckington has been described as the ultimate ‘artisan’ coal producer for that reason; probably the reason it is the sole survivor when larger operations have been forced to call it a day. But Eckington Colliery is set to exploit an entirely different but parallel line of business. The mine is the source of copious quantities of pure water and has recently embarked on test marketing the product, asserting that it is ”pure English water, Mined in Eckington”. The concept of ‘mined water’ is sufficiently counter-intuitive to differentiate the product in the bottled water
market from the ‘run-of-the mill’. It is certainly different.
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