AS he stood outside the Austar coal mine near the village of Paxton, Allan Stapleford gazed through the trees to his past.
For 18 years until 1993, Allan Stapleford worked in this mine as a fitter, heading underground, as part of a team digging into the rich Greta coal seam.
"There are six or eight people in a group that you depend on for your life, and they depend on you," he explained. "People become very close when you work in that environment.
"You really miss the comradeship, that's the one thing you miss, the good blokes you work with."
The days spent underground are long gone for Allan Stapleford, who is now a Cessnock City councillor. But in Cessnock, coal mining will soon be a memory not just for Cr Stapleford.
Austar is the last coal mine close to Cessnock. For the past year, the colliery has been on hold, in "care and maintenance". However, Yancoal, the company that owns the mine, has announced the operation is to be closed.
"In evaluating Austar's future, Yancoal did review the re-commencement of production, but considered closure was the best option given the level of remaining resources at Austar and the costs required to mine this resource," a company spokesperson said in a written statement.
The closure will eventually affect the 43 employees still at the mine. The company has said there will be work at the site, transforming it for "post-mining use", for up to 10 years. But, for now, no more coal will be coming out of the mine, which has existed in one form or another, and under various names, since 1916.
"It's sad, it's something that's been here that long, an unbelievable number of people have worked here," said Allan Stapleford, who was a third-generation coal miner. "It's the last of them."
The closure of Austar also closes a chapter in the history of Cessnock, a city that was built on coal.
"It's the end of an era for this region, for the Cessnock region, for coal mines," said Peter Jordan, the northern district president of the mineworkers' union, the CFMEU. "The place was littered with underground mines, It was just a haven of coal mines.
"It's a massive change to the culture of the place. Once upon a time, it was a coal-mining territory; it no longer is.
"The heart of the Hunter coal industry just has historical value."
Artefacts reflecting that value line the shelves and decorate the walls of the Coalfields Local History Association's museum in the former School of Arts building at Abermain, another old mining village.
Bill Holland, the association's vice president, has lived just about all of his 65 years in Kurri Kurri and is a great admirer of T.W. Edgeworth David, the geologist whose exploratory work in 1886 led to an industry and a string of communities blooming along what would become known simply as the Coalfields.
The keen scholar of local history sees Austar's closure as a tragic turn.
"I think the tragedy lies in the fact that 135 years ago, Edgeworth David's wonderful gift to the nation, the growing nation of Australia, was these coalfields," Mr Holland said. "That then gave birth to all the towns and villages, and people came from all over the world to live here, to do things here. The contribution to the growth of the Australian nation these coalfields made can never, ever be underestimated, because without that we never would have had the coal to grow our power stations, the rail industries, to establish a steelworks in Newcastle.
"In 1930, if you stood on the balcony of the Kurri Kurri Hotel, you could see the coal mines that produced 75 per cent of Australia's coking coal," he said.
As she scanned a century-old map of the coalfields, Lexie Matthews, the association's secretary, cited fellow local historian Jack Delaney's assessment that there had been 66 collieries operating on the Greta seam between 1861 and 1995.
But Lexie Matthews also knows what it meant when coal's kingdom began shrinking in the area more than half a century ago.
"I know what it's like to be part of a mine closing; my grandfather and father mined at Pelaw Main," she said "I've seen many, many changes over the time, and people do pick up, but it doesn't happen in five minutes.
"And Pelton [the Austar coal mine's original name] is only 8 kilometres from Cessnock town itself, so it's going to feel it."
Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent said he was "disappointed" by Austar's closure but argued that did not mean the end of a coal connection for local workers.
He said about 14 per cent of Cessnock's working residents were still employed in the mining industry, even if that meant travelling outside the local government area. What's more, he said, part of the land of Bloomfield Colliery near East Maitland, was in the Cessnock local government area.
But he conceded the term "Coalfields" probably no longer applied to Cessnock. However, that didn't mean a bleak future for Cessnock.
"The future is all about diversification of jobs, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket," Cr Pynsent said.
The mayor said Cessnock was growing, with a population of more than 60,000, and so was interest from a range of businesses looking at relocating to the area. So while the Austar mine's closure would mean job losses, new opportunities would be created.
"It's really hard to get back 43 jobs, but I'm confident that with the amount of business activity, it [Cessnock] will prosper," he said.
As for any hope of Austar, or other underground mines in the Cessnock area, resuming production, there are mixed views.
Bill Holland, the grandson of a miner, said of the closure, "I'd like to think it's not the end of an era, it's just a pause".
However, Peter Jordan said of the Austar operation, "we won't see that mine reopen, in my view".
Coal may no longer be king in Cessnock, as the wine and tourism industries take over, but its influence continues to shape the character of the community.
"You might take the coal out of the area, but it's still in the veins of the people who live and work here," said Peter Jordan.
Every time he walks outside the union's district headquarters at Aberdare, Peter Jordan is reminded of how much coal has shaped lives in the Cessnock area - and how many lives have been lost in the pursuit of coal.
For he walks past the Memorial Wall, past row after row of names of mineworkers from the district killed on the job. There are 1792 names on the wall.
"There's a story with every single one of them," Mr Jordan said.
Among the names on the wall are those of Phillip Grant, 35, and James Mitchell, 49, who died at the Austar mine in 2014, when a wall burst and collapsed.
"It lives with you, it never disappears," Mr Jordan said, as he looked at the two names etched into the stone, before pointing out a single flower on the ground below the plaque. He explained that was likely from Mr Grant's partner and child, who visited the wall.
While the mines may be gone from the area, Peter Jordan said the union's district headquarters would remain here, close to all those names of mineworkers.
"This is the history of coal mining in this area," said Mr Jordan, gesturing to the wall. "That's why this will always remain 'coal country'."
After toiling for black rock, many miners would head for the amber fluid. Across the road from the union headquarters is the century-old Caledonia Hotel, once popular with workers from nearby collieries.
As he sat sipping a beer in a largely empty bar, retired plasterer Rob recalled what this place was once like.
"You couldn't move," he said. "It used to be always crowded."
A pub filled with miners may now be a memory, but Rob believed traditions surrounding coal would stay in the area.
"It will still be called the Coalfields," he said. "If they change it to anything, it will be the Vineyards."
Allan Stapleford fears with the disappearance of the collieries, part of Cessnock's culture will go too.
"There was the 'mines and wines' when I was young; that's what Cessnock was known for," Mr Stapleford said. "Now the mines have gone, and that culture and identity will die out".
But Bill Holland believes coal and Cessnock will remain synonymous, and even if the collieries slide into history, what the local communities extracted from the earth will continue to shape who they are.
"Cessnock lives, these Coalfields live, and the culture, the thoughts and the history of coal mining will always live here," Mr Holland said. "It will never die.
"It's such an important part of who we are, and what makes us different from other places in Australia and, indeed, the world."
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: