LEADEN skies brood ominously above the empty car park at Riccall pit. Once it was a bustling place, full of freshly bathed miners sharing a joke or two with the oncoming shift who were about to take over the vital role of hewing North Yorkshire’s coal.

But that was when mining was in its heyday and now their laughter rings ghost-like in the solitude. Today the only sound is birdsong and the creaking boughs of trees that were mere saplings when the new mine at Riccall was hailed as part of the coal industry’s salvation.

A lone car approaches and at the wheel is Steve Shaw-Wright, who is paying an emotional visit to his former place of work. Selby coalfield broke European coal production records in the 1990s, but Steve remembers it most during the miners’ strike.

He picketed the place arm-in-arm with his comrades; all of them tired after the long fight, hungry from months without a pay packet and with only a brazier for warmth.

Now it seems another world, the world of Dallas, of padded shoulders and Madonna’s first number one single. It was the date George Orwell chose to symbolise totalitarianism and to Steve it still does.

“It feels like yesterday,” he says. “It was obviously engineered to get rid of the miners because the timing for us was all wrong. You never go on strike in the spring because it’s getting warmer and people don’t burn coal.

“Stock piles had been done at power stations, wagons had all been sorted out, busses and vans hired to ferry the police around. They manipulated the union; they were just playing at it.

“We were put in a corner and had to fight. If we hadn’t done, if we’d waited till October time – which would have been better for us, half the pits would have gone.”

Of course, there are two sides to the argument and Margaret Thatcher had branded Arthur Scargill and the other miner’s leaders as “the enemy within”.

Scargill never called a national ballot and not all miners wanted to strike. Some tried to continue working but fell victim to highly organised flying pickets sent to harass ‘scabs’. So the Government sent in the police to protect them as they went to work.

It was to be the final showdown. Thatcher believed trade unions had become over mighty and overbearing and saw a chance to change the balance of political power. She won and trades unions were all but destroyed.

Selby had been seen as the future of mining in 1983 when a £1.3 billion pit complex opened. Miners flooded into the town on a promise of jobs for life and with good reason; the coalfield was huge, extending under much of North Yorkshire and out to sea.

A year later everything changed; brothers were fighting one another and fathers disowned their sons. In a tightly knit community, going back to work while fellow miners stayed out earned a stigma that is still there today.

“I worked here, my nephew and cousin worked here and my mother was like the matriarch. She would say you either all go back or nobody’s going back. She was around in 1926 and saw what the general strike had done to families.

“There are still people today you don’t talk to – it may be 25 years ago, but they really hurt me. There was no need to go back because there were systems and support in place. I had a mortgage and two kids, and the wife was only working part-time, but there was no way I was going back.

“I was brought up that you don’t cross picket lines. The friends I had when we set off on strike weren’t the same ones by the time it finished.”

The strike had started peacefully enough in March with picketing miners engaging in friendly banter with the police or simply kicking a ball about.

But two months later it took on a new edge. At the Battle of Orgreave, running battles broke out between picketers and police on horseback. For the first time officers used riot gear and by the end of the skirmish, 41 policemen and 28 picketers had been injured.

One of them was miner’s president Arthur Scargill who described the police tactics as “reminiscent of a Latin American state”.

Selby had its own confrontations. In June, the town ground to a halt for hours when it was cut off by miners who blockaded the toll bridge, while in August pickets gathered at the distribution hub in Gascoigne Wood to prevent a miner going to work.

They surged forward as his car arrived; the police drew truncheons and charged. Picketers were forced into a ploughed field and began throwing lumps of clay at the police.

Locals still believe TV footage was cut and reversed to show that the mud slinging came first. It was one of many examples miners cited of media bias and lies.

And then there were boys in blue from London and Manchester.

“When the local police were here they didn’t do anything and they were quite happy to talk to you. But then you get the lads from the Met waving their pay packets and I still have problems with them. In the strike, people were arrested for things they hadn’t done. But the police were being politically controlled, they just weren’t intelligent enough to realise it.”

At the height of the dispute, 97 per cent of Yorkshire’s miners had walked out. It lasted 12 months before the strike that miners hoped would save their industry officially ended 25 years ago today.

In a final act of defiance, men from Kellingley, just west of Selby, marched back to their pit with heads held high and banners flying. But they didn’t return to work that day, it was a last demonstration of pride by men who were beaten but not broken.

It had proved a liberating time for their wives. Women Against Pit Closures became a political movement to support miners and is credited with bringing feminist ideas into an industrial dispute.

Steve believes the effects of the strike are still there.

“A lot of communities are still suffering. A whole culture and a whole way of life has gone but you can still feel it and still touch it, and you can still taste it,” he says.

“It’s not as bad around Selby, but further down at places like Bentley, the village is only there because of the mine. Take away the pit and there’s no jobs. There was something for everyone and they all got a wage packet and had some pride. All that has gone.

“A lot of villages connected with mining never had any problems with antisocial behaviour, now it’s rife because the kids have got nowt to do and no money to do it with.”

Steve returns to his car, it remains alone. The sky still threatens and the silence is deafening. It’s all too much and he leaves to ponder the seminal events of 1984-85. Like other former miners he won’t be sharing a joke come election day, he will be thinking about that year of pride when the miners took on the Government. And he won’t be voting Conservative.

Record-breaking field was abandoned

THE Selby field was made up of five mines at Riccall, Wistow, Stillingfleet, Whitemoor and North Selby near Escrick, with a central distribution hub at Gascoigne Wood.

After the strike, the field went on to break European production records, but then it all went wrong again when UK Coal declared the seams were fractured and too difficult to mine. Many, including Steve Shaw-Wright, say the reserves were abandoned without a fight.

“I was very hurt when the pits closed and I still am. I get emotional very easily but on the pits I just think it was obscene. We didn’t need to close them and I was disappointed with Mr Blair that he didn’t step in. I think mining was seen as old hat, an old industry that was dirty and he was the new clean living leader and it didn’t fit into his plan.

“But we still need coal and there’s millions of tonnes of it across Yorkshire. We have the technology to get at it and we’ll need it when all the oil runs out. It might take ten years, but we will be proved right.

“I miss it terribly. You worked with a group of people who your life depended on and there was great camaraderie. There were people of all ages and you also went down the pub with them. Now young people and old people, they don’t work together and they don’t socialise together; so they’ve become frightened of each other.”

By the time the Selby complex finally closed, foreign coal was imported through Immingham Docks at less than the cost of producing it here.

“I still fight the council to keep the mine site open, they wanted to flatten them and turn them back into agricultural land. But it’s a fantastic site and a number of businesses are there now. Why take it down when you can’t find employment for people?”

History of a bitter industrial dispute

THE miners’ dispute began on March 6, 1984 when the head of the National Coal Board, Ian McGregor, announced plans to cut production, the equivalent of 20 pits or 20,000 jobs.

NUM leader Arthur Scargill called on miners to strike as they had done successfully in 1972 and 1974. But he refused to hold a ballot and it lost him the support of other trade unions.

Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government were more prepared than in the ‘Seventies. Coal was stockpiled and imported and a national reporting centre was set up to co-ordinate Britain’s regional police force. This allowed officers to be deployed quickly to trouble spots to tackle flying pickets.

Talks between Mr Scargill and the National Coal Board came to nothing. Miners believe they were forced to strike at the wrong time of the year when dependency on coal had lessened. The pickets failed to stop or even restrict power supplies.

Miners began to drift back to work during the summer and the strike officially ended on March 3, 1985 amid a legacy of bitterness.