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I can still remember the moment when I landed at the Newcastle International Airport. I was curious and excited because it was my first time stepping on a European country. “How is England different from America? How is the Durham in northeastern England different from the one in North Carolina?” I had many questions to ask, and many answers to find out.

Daytime in Durham, England, seemed to be extremely long – the sun came out at 5 am and set after 9:30 pm. Most of the time it was cloudy, but we were lucky to have at least a few hours of sunshine every day. England under the sun was gorgeous.

A sunny day in downtown Durham

The Hatfield College, the residential hall we live in, was right at the heart of downtown Durham. We were surrounded by restaurants, narrow alleys and two- or three-story townhouses. The dark-colored roofs provided a direct contrast with the bright blue sky and white clouds. On the streets, I could hear people chattering in cafeterias and pubs, but it felt as if everything was peaceful and still. This was, perhaps, the magic power of downtown Durham.

To Durham in England, the mining industry was the economic driving force, just like the tobacco industry was to Durham, NC. I remembered visiting the Chesterfield building in NC, which was a former tobacco factory, and now redeveloped into an innovation hub. But I never experienced how it felt like to work inside a tobacco factory. In Durham, England, all mines have been closed, and yet the visit to Killhope, a museum built on a closed galena mine, enabled me to experience the life of miners for the first time.

Down the pit in Killhope Museum. Without the torchlights, it was completely dark there.

Needless to say, miners worked in extremely dangerous conditions but going down to the pits where they used to work gave me a taste of what a miner’s typical day was like in the 1800s. It was a time without electricity and plastic helmet. Workers were constantly exposed to the danger of falling stones and even major collapse once they went down the pits. They had to buy their own candles and equipment from their company too. In the damp and dark pit, I wondered how the workers managed to work with their heavy hammers that I couldn’t lift with both of my hands and deal with the sense of isolation and sometimes hopelessness they had to face. Often the pits could be in complete darkness because candles, unfortunately, were expensive items for miners too.

The first week was a busy week full of excursions and we worked for two days at our respective sites. As we all settled in and got used to our daily routines in England, we just finished the first chapter of our Durham, England story. It is an English town with a dark history in the mining, but it is definitely a town anyone can fall in love with at first sight.