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Step into the heart of iron and coal: virtual reality transports visitors back in time at Blaenavon World Heritage Site

Those interested in industrial history and Welsh heritage will be able to discover the sights and sounds of Victorian Blaenavon this spring, with the unveiling of an advanced digital project at the world-renowned Blaenavon World Heritage Site.

In partnership with Big Pit National Coal Museum, Torfaen County Borough Council launched a brand-new 360⁰ virtual reality experience yesterday (25 March 2019), which allows users to experience life as it was in the Blaenavon World Heritage Site during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Featuring real characters from Blaenavon’s industrial past, the ‘Time Travel in the Blaenavon World Heritage Site’ experience uses audio storytelling and three-dimensional technology to display the town’s rich industrial history through three virtual reality films ― showcasing life at Big Pit, the town primary school and the home of a local family in Blaenavon Heritage Town.

Using smart devices, the immersive content can be viewed at three iconic locations across the internationally celebrated region, including Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon World Heritage Centre and Blaenavon Heritage Town ― which all feature in the immersive films.

Available to view via the Blaenavon Digital Passport, the VR features portray the trials and tribulations encountered by Blaenavon’s industrial workers, as well as families and communities during the Industrial Revolution ― with each educational film based on real characters and factual information sourced from local history groups and Blaenavon archives.

From experiencing the hardship of working life at Big Pit with local miner, Henry Underwood, to celebrating the opening of St Peter’s School ― which was built by Sarah Hopkins in remembrance of her brother and Ironmaster, Samuel Hopkins ― users can watch in real-time as modern-day Blaenavon landmarks and buildings return to a momentous time gone by. 

The films can be viewed with or without an accompanying VR headset, which are available to borrow from Big Pit National Coal Museum or Blaenavon World Heritage Centre. Plus, visitors can revisit the on-site experience and view the digital package at home using a desktop browser.

In addition to the arrival of the new digital package, Torfaen County Borough Council and Big Pit National Coal Museum have unveiled three bespoke Time Travellers’ benches to support the project ― with a different bench design located at each site for visitors to use while enjoying the immersive VR films.

Created by Welsh artist, Rubin Eynon, each bench has been designed to commemorate Blaenavon’s rich heritage and forged out of local materials to represent the area’s coal and mining industries.   

Internationally recognised as the world’s major producer of iron and coal during the 19th century, Blaenavon World Heritage Site is an exceptional testimony to the dynamic forces that drove the Industrial Revolution, and it is hoped that the new immersive experience and Time Travellers’ benches will encourage visitors to further engage and take interest in Blaenavon’s rich heritage.

Yesterday morning, Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Lord Elis-Thomas and local councillor, Cllr Alan Jones attended Blaenavon World Heritage Centre to announce the opening of the new visitor experience and unveil the commemorative benches.

Local students Leah Seabourne and Maddie Watkins, both age 8, from Ysgol Bryn Onnen were among the first to trial the VR experience, after performing a stunning rendition of Sosban Fach and Daw Hyfyd Fis with their school choir to mark the occasion.

Maddie Watkins, age 8, said “The Time Travel experience is amazing! It was really interesting to hear the stories of real people who lived and worked in Blaenavon and I think it will help lots of people to learn more about its history.

My favourite part of the VR films was watching the buildings right in front of my eyes transform into how they looked all those years ago”.  

Cllr Alan Jones, Executive Member for Business, Tourism, Leisure and Culture of Torfaen County Borough Council, said: “We would like to thank Welsh Government, Visit Wales and Big Pit National Coal Museum for supporting the funding of this project, which uses cutting-edge technology.

“We hope that everyone visiting the Blaenavon World Heritage Site will enjoy visiting the locations of the Time Travellers’ benches and experiencing the virtual reality films ― which will show them what it was like to have lived and worked in Blaenavon during 19th and 20th centuries.

“We hope that the benches will encourage both old and new visitors to visit the site, so they can fully experience the rich industrial heritage it has to offer.”

Deputy Minister for Culture and Tourism, Lord Elis-Thomas, said: “I’m delighted that we’ve been able to support this new development at the Blaenavon World Heritage Site and would like to congratulate all partners involved in this excellent project, which will benefit the town, Torfaen and the South East Wales visitor economy.

“Through their collective effort, visitors can now experience an exceptional journey, where they can walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.

“In order to enhance the visitor experience, it is vital that Wales’s rich, cultural heritage attractions are relevant to modern day and provide a uniquely Welsh experience. This project has done exactly that ― and is an excellent way to discover more about Wales’s past during our Year of Discovery.”

Posted on: Tuesday 26th March 2019