Just Passing By

I was born in 1990 as the coal mining industry was coming to an end. I grew up in a mining village on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border in the middle of England. My childhood home stood directly opposite what was the main entrance to the village’s coal mine, but all I remember was a huge field with tall grass; tall enough for me to lose myself in my imagination on a daily basis.

One day when I was playing in that field, I fell over a large brick that had the numbers “1919” carved into it. I remember finding it super exciting and incorporated it into the scene I was acting out that day; I think I gave it the role of a bomb, most likely because an unexploded bomb had been found in that field weeks, or months, before. Me and my grandma had been evacuated to the community centre to feast on pop and cobs and gossip for a few hours. When my Mum called me in for tea though, and as with every other fantasy I acted out in that field, the brick was as good as forgotten forever.

Years later, after my failed football career and after many other childhood dreams had fizzled out, I somehow stumbled onto the path of being a twenty-one year old aspiring photographer… though that’s not very poetic either is it?

I’d just graduated and received a bursary from the Snibston Discovery Museum in a nearby town called Coalville. Alongside the mentorship and experience offered with the bursary I was expected to simply write a proposal for an artwork in response to the museum. Simple enough — except that my writing is horrendous. Back then it was even worse.

Around this time is when I began to become aware of the social and geographic change that had been occurring all around me since the day I was born. As the frustration with my writing took hold, I decided to do what I was beginning to feel was all I could do; just shoot my project and let the words write themselves as it all unfolded.

For a good couple of years, I’d known that I wanted to photograph people but I’m naturally shy, painfully so, and up until then I’d never got over that barrier. But for some reason — maybe the pressure of feeling like I had to produce something for the bursary — I pushed myself.

I sat down with my grandma and made a list of all the old miners she knew, then I grabbed the phone book. I took several deep breaths and gave them all a call. This process soon led me back to my childhood village, just around the corner from my childhood home to the home of a former miner who once worked down the pit that eventually became the field that I loved so much.

He told me so much. It was a wonderful, simple, pivotal moment in my life but the thing that really sticks in my memory is what he told me about the day the demolition at the mine began. Although I didn’t record his words exactly, the story went something like this: he managed to get permission to enter the demolition site and have a look around. Inside one of the colliery buildings he noticed a brick above the door, one that looked familiar to him. It was a brick he used to pass under most days, a brick that had the number “1919” carved into it. He asked if they would leave the brick behind for him, and they did just that. He promptly forgot about it and went on with his life.

So that brick became the final piece of the village’s coal mine. Grass I remember so fondly grew around it, slowly obscuring it from sight and inevitably leading to one of my more significant childhood stumbles just a few years later.

Just before the turn of the millennium the field was purchased for redevelopment. And so before the builders moved in he went back to collect that brick that he had saved. He simply moved it to what would have been the main entrance to the colliery - opposite my childhood home.

Christopher Mear, Snibston Discovery Museum, 2014.

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