National Coal Mining Museum

It’s time for another journey beneath the surface of Britain to discover another cracking day out for people of all ages. The National Coal Mining Museum, not far from junction 38 of the M1, is awesome place to go – not least because it’s free to get in and even the brilliant underground tour only cost a few pounds. It’s one of 50 underground adventures in my Days Out Underground book. To order a signed copy, visit my website or drop me an email. Of course, it’s also available to buy in bookshops and online.

Caphouse Colliery may have produced its last coal in the 1980s, but the legacy of the mine lives on thanks to this quaint and charming museum that gives an insight into the life of miners and their families. At the heart of its success are the former miners who still make the daily journey down to the coal face. Today they descend 140 metres into the ground to guide tourists around the notoriously difficult working conditions rather than to blast coal from the bowels of the Earth. The humour and camaraderie shared between these guides – all decked out in their orange coal-mining gear, complete with hard hat and lamp light – is the really priceless quality of the underground tour here. It’s a friendly journey underground, made heart-warming and genuine because these are the real deal rather than history buffs who have brushed on their coal mining knowledge.

Tours to the coal face can be booked in advance, but most people sign up for the trip when they arrive. Head to the museum’s shop and you’ll be allocated a time. There can be up to 31 trips organised on busy days, so you’re unlikely to have to wait a long time. If you have 30-45 minutes, now’s the time to wander around the museum’s exhibits and soak in area’s mining history. Exhibits here explain the origins of mining at Caphouse and cover the highs and lows of mining through the years. The exhibition keeps returning to the theme of social struggle, a theme which has gone hand in hand with mining over the centuries.

It has to be experienced to be believed. Descending into the earth inside one of the cages used by the miners is a truly awesome experience. For the miners who work here, I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that their former place of work had become a tourist attraction where people looked back to the fairly recent past. It’s not just about going underground, of course. All aspects of the job are covered in the museum and surrounding buildings, from the tradition of being in a brass band to the showers where they washed at the end of a shift. On your tour you’ll see how people mined in the days when kids went to work underground, right up to the modern machinery used in the final days before the pit closed.

I’d love to hear your experiences of travels underground – Do leave comments! And if you’d like a copy of the book, with 50 underground adventures and loads of amazing pictures, visit my website and order a signed copy or visit Amazon. My next travel guide – Around the Coast in 80 Days – is out next April and can be pre-ordered now.

Other nearby trips:

The Beatles Story

Standedge Tunnel

Western Approaches

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Standedge Tunnel

Standedge - Peter Naldrett.JPGTime for another blog about a day out underground, featured in my book that contains 50 great things to do beneath Britain. If you would like a signed copy for yourself, or a gift for somebody you don’t like, then please get in touch via my website and I’ll get one sent out.

The Pennines are amazing – such a super place to go walking, admire the views and enjoy visiting local villages. But if you’re travelling from east to west – or the other way round – across England, they can be a major headache. Even today, the journey via rail or road leaves a lot to be desired, largely because it’s expensive putting decent infrastructure in when the terrain is tricky. And the same was true back in the 1700s when canals were the big, new thing. Fortunately, there were some mighty ambitious engineers who set about creating a tunnel that was the longest, deepest and highest in the country. Yes, that’s right – the longest (in length), the deepest (underground) and the highest (above sea level).

Many engineers in the late 18th Century were obsessed with canals. They were the new form of transport. Faster than the packhorses they replaced, there was money to be made in these pioneering water channels. Textiles mills in this part of the world needed coal and wool transporting regularly and efficiently. Canals were the modern way of moving raw materials. A little thing like the Pennine hills wasn’t going to stop determined engineers and industrialists, so they hammered and blasted their way through to create a 3.1-mile tunnel.

When you first see Standedge Tunnel, it looks tiny. A small hole burrowing into a large hill. From a distance it doesn’t seem like a boat can fit through it. As you get closer, your sense of perspective increases and you come to fully appreciate the sheer scale of achievement that swallows boats in its darkness and lets them emerge on the other side of the Pennines. It’s a monumental journey that the boats make, heading into the side of the hill for a slow, two-hour trip before seeing daylight again. The distance covered makes this the longest canal tunnel in the country. It’s the highest because of its lofty position in the Peak District and it’s the deepest because of the mass of rock sitting above the water.

A visit to the tunnel makes for a great day out. Make sure you book on to one of the boat tours so you can actually venture inside and see all the different types of brickwork and get a sense of how incredible an achievement this was. The best tours involve going right through to the other side and either walking back with a guide over the hills or getting a taxi back to the starting point.

 

Nearby Days Out Underground you may enjoy:

The Beatles Story

Western Approaches

Stockport Air Raid Shelters

Days Out Underground is published by Bloomsbury and available in the usual outlets. If you would like a book signing for yourself or for a gift, please visit my website and drop me an email. www.peter-naldrett.co.uk.

 

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Western Approaches

Liverpool is a city on the rise and visitors flock to the city to enjoy the redeveloped waterfront, Beatles history and Premier League football. One of the less-known attractions in Liverpool is beneath the city’s streets and is the third chapter in my Days Out Underground book. The Western Approaches is a fabulous way to spend a few hours, getting to the heart of an key operation in World War II. We’re used to this kind of historical attraction being in London, so to find an operation room like this in the north of England – perfectly preserved – is a real treat.

Everything to see at the Western Approaches is below street level, so you head down a slope and negotiate some stairs straight away. Signs inform you when you’re passing through the thick, reinforced wall and ceiling into the protected bunker. The level of preservation in the Western Approaches control centre is astonishing. It’s almost like you’re walking into a film set, but this is the real thing. After the war, this place was sealed up and left as it was, keeping the operations frozen in time for school groups and families to marvel at.

The entire monitoring operation at Western Approaches was dependent on radio transmissions passing sensitive information in and out. This relaying of secrets was driven by electricity and some of the first things to look at are associated with the power supply. But Liverpool was one of the worst hit cities during the German bombing raids and the city’s electricity source was not always guaranteed. Planners made it a priority to provide a back-up generator and, with a huge amount of irony, used a diesel-powered engine seized from a German U-boat for this purpose.

Visitors are free to wander around the Western Approaches HQ at their leisure, reading the many information boards to get a better idea of what life was like beneath war-torn Liverpool. Access was not always this straight-forward, though. Signs posted on doors restricted entrance to many areas, while other painted instructions insist on ‘silence’. During the war there was not just the one checkpoint looking at identification papers, but several placed all over the building. This allowed a closer look at the movement of staff and, crucially, controlled who was going in and out of the Operations Room. The key cupboard was strictly monitored, and guards took their role very seriously. The whole aim of security at Western Approaches was to make sure classified information remained secret. Staff at the time knew how data collected in these underground passages could affect thousands of lives out to sea and influence the fate of millions on land.

Next time you’re bound for Merseyside, factor in some time to get underground in Liverpool and find out how the battle of the Atlantic was fought beneath the city’s streets.

Days Out Underground features 50 great trips and is published by Bloomsbury and available now in bookshops and online. Signed copies can be ordered from my website.

Nearby Underground Days Out you may well enjoy…

The Beatles Story

Stockport Air Raid Shelters

Speedwell Cavern

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The Beatles Story

By Peter Naldrett, author of Days Out Underground.

The anniversary of the iconic Abbey Road album has seen a surge in Beatles programming on the TV and radio this week. One of the best ways to get involved with Beatles history is to enjoy a trip to the stunning Beatles Story in Liverpool’s historic Albert Dock. With a subterranean element recreating the famous Cavern Club, it’s one of my favourite Days Out Underground.

Occupying the Britannia Vaults in the basement of the dock building, Liverpool’s world class Beatles attraction provides a link between the city’s industrial past and the musical history it’s well known for. Leave the posh eateries at street level and descend the stairs to embark on an underground magical mystery tour about Liverpool’s most famous sons. Getting tickets online beforehand could save you from a queue at the door and secure the all-important audio guide around your neck a little faster. The experience benefits so much from the electronic guide, which not only has a wide range of spoken information but also shows pictures and plays a selection of videos. It plays a pivotal role in introducing the story of the Beatles to you, starting with the school days of the original four – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, who was famously replaced by Ringo Starr. But don’t rely on the headphones entirely for this visit. There are so many other things to see and listen to, you’ll want to discuss them with other people in your group. There’s far too much to warrant going around in silence.

Save plenty of time for the large room at the end of the story, when the post-1970 careers of The Beatles are put centre stage. Their achievements are relayed through displays, music and videos. Each of the Fab Four have their own seated area where you can relax and indulge in McCartney belting out Live and Let Die, Lennon’s political protests, Harrison’s wonderful My Sweet Lord and Starr narrating Thomas The Tank Engine. Solo career moments you may have forgotten about are also explored here, including Ringo Starr’s movie appearance in The Magic Christian and Paul McCartney’s film, Give My Regards to Broad Street.

At the end of The Beatles Story, the Fab4 Café is a great place to reflect on what you’ve just seen and maybe enjoy a Beatles-themed bun with a drink. Large murals on the wall remind you exactly where you are. Before you exit to street-level, the Fab4 Store has a huge range of souvenirs, from T-shirts and Christmas decorations to bags and bears.

Spending a weekend in Liverpool is an ideal way to immerse yourself in Beatles culture. If you have not been there for a few years, it’s worth a visit to see how this great northern city has been transformed. Make sure you pose for a photograph with the Beatles in the statue close to the Mersey in front of the Liver Building.

Days Out Underground is published by Bloomsbury and is available now.

Other Days Out Underground you may like:

Stockport Air Raid Shelters

Speedwell Cavern

 

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Stockport Air Raid Shelters

Stockport Air Raid Shelters

Days Out Underground.

Some of the attractions in my Days Out Underground book are in out-of-the-way places, but not so the feature of Chapter 1 – this one is right in the middle of a big town. Stockport, near Manchester, has a secret beneath its streets. As shoppers pass by on the surface, a whole different world exists beneath the surface. And it’s a secret that saved thousands of lives.

Just how far these tunnels extend into the Stockport sandstone is impossible to determine from standing outside on the street. The frontage of these historically important shelters has the modern appearance you would expect of a museum, with nearby shops and taxi ranks giving the site a very urban feel. The hillside rises steeply behind the door to the shelters. A walkway winds upwards, buildings stand high above it and a bridge passes overhead. From here, the dug-out shelters pierce the hillside and form a grid system of subterranean passages and corners beneath the centre of Stockport.

Before starting the tour of the shelters, you’re given an audio guide. It doesn’t look like the most hi-tech piece of kit, but it works remarkably well. Guiding yourself through the network of tunnels, you will see several Air Raid Precaution Shelter signs. You simply have to hold your audio guide up to these circular yellow markers to trigger spoken information about the section you are in. After hearing the initial material, there’ll be an option to select further information, allowing you to go into much more depth along the tour. All the audio points are worth listening to, and there’s a lot to be gained from taking the time to indulge in the extras.

The red stone is incredibly atmospheric. Once you’re inside these long tunnels it gets easier to imagine what they would have been like, filled with people. Different passages and small rooms heading off the main route were given specific purposes to maintain a sense of normality in these hidden halls. Perhaps most important of all were the rooms given over to tools. The digging and shovelling devices kept in here were to help people in the event of the tunnels collapsing, either from a natural accident or as the result of a bomb blast. The hope was that those stuck in here could dig their own way out to safety. Other parts of this underground labyrinth were reserved for nursing mothers. Elsewhere, a large tunnel was designated as a medical area, complete with protected walls and concrete floors that were easier to clean. Ladies and gent’s toilets were provided, but as you might imagine they were not very glamorous.

Days Out Underground includes a chapter on the Stockport Air Raid Shelters – and 49 other top things to do beneath the surface of Britain. It’s published by Bloomsbury and is for sale in all good book shops, as well as online on Amazon. If you’d like a signed copy, please visit my website.

Peter Naldrett outside

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San Francisco – what’s not to love?

Driving holidays in and around California often start and finish at Los Angeles or Las Vegas, but leaving San Francisco out of the equation is something that should be avoided.

It’s a lengthy drive up the coast from L.A. to San Fran and the weather often takes a turn for the worse, but some of the best things of the classic west-coast US trip can take place in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Here are my top tips to get the most out of a couple of days in San Francisco.

  • Base yourself at Fisherman’s Wharf. Hotel prices anywhere in S.F. are through the roof wherever you choose to stay, but it’s worth forking out a little extra for the fabulous location next to the Bay. When you book, make sure you have a deal you can cancel at the last minute and then check prices again a day or two before you travel – prices sometimes fall quite a bit if the hotels aren’t full. And don’t forget to visit Pier 39 to see the sea lions that came to live here following the earthquake in 1989.
  • Take the cable car from Fisherman’s Wharf and go all the way – and all the way back. There’s nothing quite like the old cable cars going up and down the famous hills of San Francisco and it’s an experience to cherish. Be prepared to queue up to get a spot on a car, and maybe hang on for the next car so you can literally hang on and stand on the outside. It’s quite hard work and takes its toll on your knees, but what a fabulous opportunity – always go on the outside if you can! You’ll need to queue for your tickets and then queue for a place in the car. If you’ve got more than one person in your party, it’s a good plan to get somebody in the queue for the cars at the same time as you’re queuing for tickets.
  • When in San Fran… you’ve got to try the local dishes. Walk along the front of Fisherman’s Wharf and you’re bound to be enchanted by the smell of the French bakery. Pop inside here for a reasonably priced lunch of clam chowder. It’s a local favourite and is served here like nowhere else – in a bowl made of bread. You eat the chowder, soak it up with some bread and then literally eat the dish it’s been served in. If seafood is not for you, there are alternatives served in the same way.
  • Cross Golden Gate Bridge. Drive across it, walk across it, hire a bike and pedal across it. However you do it, go all the way and take in the fabulous views of this iconic structure that has been destroyed so many times in movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men Apocalypse and San Andreas. Ok, maybe save that last one until you get back if you’re a nervous traveller. If you’re driving, there’s a toll to pay when you come back from the south and it needs to be coughed up online. Be sure to drive down twisty-turny on the way back Lombard Street if you have hired a car. And it’s well worth using the hire car to motor an hour north to see the giant redwoods of Muir Woods.

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  • Visit Alcatraz – it’s a must. But be aware that you can’t simply rock up to the rock and expect to get in. If you walk to the pier taking boats to Alcatraz you’re likely see a sign saying that the next available tour is in a few days. If you haven’t got a long time in San Francisco that could be unwelcome news, so make sure you’re online booking your visit 90 days in advance when they become available. The trip itself is fascinating. The audio tour around the prison is wonderful in itself, and there are many other features of the island to enjoy. Allow at least half a day to get the most out of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Francisco, felt safe throughout and wouldn’t hesitate to go back if I had the chance. Yes, there are homelessness problems in some areas, like in many major cities, but San Francisco is on the whole a clean, welcoming city. From my experience, it’s one of the finest places for a tourist to visit in the whole of the United States.

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North of the Wall…

 

My home is close to the Peak District, so a drive to the north coast of Scotland is a long undertaking.

Last week I made the trip up to the Scottish coast road that runs across the top of our nation. It was one of the final trips I needed to make for a forthcoming book about the best things to do around the entire coast of the UK.

I’d long-planned going to this far-flung part of Scotland, and had heard great things about Balnakeil and Smoo Cave. Originally I wanted to include Smoo Cave in my Days Out Underground book, but it was one of the subterranean trips that didn’t make it as I was limited to just 50.

Having arrived at Smoo Cave on what was thankfully a glorious day, I was not disappointed. The hole you can see from the surface swallows the river, Allt Smoo, and the water cascades down into the unknown.

Walk down some steps onto a nice beach and you’ll find yourself at the huge cave entrance, with the previous day’s rain water dripping from the roof onto your head.

Inside the cave, a freshwater pool is formed by the river falling 21 metres from the surface down into this remarkable underground space. The noise is superb, and the trip can be enhanced by going on one of the tours that local guides put on in the peak season.

Just along the road, Balnakeil Beach provides magnificent isolation in the form of a clean beach that goes on and on. What a wonderful place to walk, framed by might dunes that have been formed by the fierce winds that often batter this shoreline.

The nearby craft village is well worth a visit. It was originally built with the aim of providing an early warning system for the UK during the Cold War but was never commissioned by the MoD.

During the 60s, the local council advertised for craftspeople to come and take up residency here, making all kinds of specialist produce and paying a very small rent.

The craft village thrives to this day, providing a home for woodturners, glassmakers, hair stylists and painters.

The place many people like the most though is Cocoa Mountain, a fine chocolate shop serving up tasty treats that are doused in chocolate.

There’s a nice community feel in the café and the range of chocolates on offer to have with your drink is fantastic. I went for a whisky and a maple syrup option, but you could stand there for ages making your choice. Many people do.

 

Order a signed copy of Peter Naldrett’s new book Days Out Underground here.

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