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Woodland Edge

A visit to Minorca Opencast Mine, Measham, Leicestershire, The National Forest, 20th November 2013

Minorca Opencast Mine

From Measham to Leicester on the back road, you pass the mine’s bund, a newly turfed embankment on a grand scale, like a whale which has swum up the Thames and got stranded. Week by week mounds of soil appear and change shape: we have, temporarily, a rusty brown Arizonian backdrop to the lovely Swepstone church.

And of course I’m driving past in a petrol engine, the citizen of a country which has woefully failed to exercise leadership in energy policy. The news is full of our indignation at fuel price rises and a race to the bottom by the political parties to pander to the short-term. This small mine (1.25m tons of coal, worth per ton about what I pay for a load of logs, over a four to five year total operation) is typical of us scrabbling round for Mediaeval-scale solutions to a challenge no-one has the political guts to face.

The coal is poor quality and was intended to be mixed at Daw Mill Colliery with better stuff, but then the colliery caught fire. About eight lorries an hour now go up the A42 to Ratcliffe on Soar power station near Nottingham.

But oh the excitement of being in a Landrover romping round the site with Nick, in charge the day we visited. Despite the mud-ploughs endlessly clearing the main routes like scavengers on a sea bed, it’s very gooey, very slippery and there we are with £800,000 diggers slewing their way around us. We are bombarded by facts and new uses of familiar words: ‘We are coaling the middle seam today’. But there isn’t much coal here compared with all the muck, clay and sandstone, which then take up half the site before being put back in the hole (in an industrial version of double digging, for the gardeners amongst us). It’s a surprisingly precise operation, the prehistoric monster vehicles extracting just the coal from these wobbly small seams, so it doesn’t need much cleaning. It reminded me of how delicately enormous horses can extract timber, with a word from their handlers.

It’s a modern take on a primitive craft. There are extremely neat box files in the office, ensuring compliance with no end of regulations. There are complex contracts and charging systems. But then you see a little black and white cross-section of the seams which could be a hand-inked 19thcentury version of the same, extraordinarily beautiful things. The drivers don’t much use their radios: their various vehicles spend long noisy days in an intuitive, fast-moving, repetitive dance. Was mining always like this? I suspect so, unless a disaster struck.

The mine was controversial in the village, even divisive. It will be restored to agriculture with more trees and further habitats, partly due to the interventions of the National Forest Company. If nothing nasty flows into the environmentally-sensitive Gilwishaw Brook (and great efforts are being made to avoid this), all will be well. The monumental craft of working the earth’s big holes is impressive, even moving. But it’s no solution to the bigger problem of CO2 and meanwhile sea levels will rise, just where the poorest will feel it most.