Drive into the former pit village of South Elmsall and you’ll see a massive steel wheel set in concrete by the roadside.

It once turned day and night, taking down miners and bringing up coal that warmed homes and kept industry going.

Now it’s all that left of Frickley Colliery, once the pride of the Yorkshire coalfield, employing 2,000 men.

The mine was closed and dynamited, like many more in the 1990s in Thatcher’s industrial holocaust.

The wheel is a mute reminder of a way of life. A slice of industrial archaeology for people who will never know the reality of the miners and their communities.

It’s a moving monument but it’s not enough to tell the story of gen­­erations who toiled under­­ground so we could put the lights on.

Not enough to pay trib­ute. If we’re ever to understand where we’re going, we have to grasp where we’ve come from: workers who put the Great into GB.

Industrial archaeology – saving the bricks, mortar and steel – began in the 1960s when historians realised mills, coal mines, ceramic works and even gasometers tell a different story of yesteryear from the country houses of the rich and famous.

It’s alright faffing about in Downton Abbey-land, admiring the ancestral portraits of Sir John and Lady Mary and their Chippendale furniture.

But where are the places of work that made the toffs their money? Gone under the bulldozer.

A big political push to save what’s left was launched today. MPs and peers of all parties joined forces to demand that industrial heritage sites that helped shape the country must be protected.

Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds says: “We have some beautiful stately homes but equally our heritage is about the history of working people.”

Some attempt has already been made to keep the industrial past alive. Big Pit in Blaenavon, South Wales and the National Mining Museum at Caphouse colliery in West Yorkshire are preserved as working examples of coal mining.

There you can experience something of what it was like to have gone down the pit. The eerie darkness, the sense of danger.

And some fine monuments were saved. At Cromford in Derbyshire, you can see the very mills where the industrial revolution started.

In Belfast, the Harland and Wolff yard where Titanic was built lay abandoned for donkeys’ years.

It’s now pulling in the tourists, reopened in 2012 with the Titanic Museum at its heart.

Old industrial buildings can be put to new uses, like Albert Dock in Liverpool, now home to a var­­iety of businesses…and a museum dedicated to the slave trade that brought prosperity to the port.

Salt’s Mill, the giant tribute to Victorian enterprise at Saltaire, Bradford, is perhaps the country’s finest example of bringing a redundant building back to cultural use. It houses the best collection of David Hockney’s art in the world.

But the movement for authentic restoration is being overtaken by a ruthless drive to exploit these buildings for residential occupation. Many mills are “saved” only to become posh apartments.

And public money to protect our industrial heritage has dried up. Queen Street Mill, Burnley, the last steam-driven cotton mill in the country, has had to close.

Everywhere it’s the same story. Our history is at risk. In London, Bethnal Green’s Victorian gasometers – likened by some to the Eiffel Tower – could disappear.

In Stoke, Price and Kensington Teapot Works, an early 19th-cen­­tury pottery complex, is under threat from thieves and vandals.

A fire has forced partial demolition and urgent work is needed to stablise the buildings.

What has been called “the grandfather of skyscrapers”, a former flax mill in Shrewsbury, has been given Grade 1 listed status.

It’s the world’s first iron-framed building – not far from the famous Ironbridge, also a world first – and here there is hope.

Parts of the five-storey building, known locally as “the Maltings” are being turned into offices and shops as an aid to conservation.

There are some structures that can’t be exploited commercially.

Ex-miners fought to preserve the headgear at Thorne Colliery, near Don­­caster.

This gaunt steel frame dominates the flat landscape, a stark souvenir of an age already slipping into lost consciousness.

But it’s edifices like these that act as triggers to the memory of what has gone.

And here’s another thing. Nobody complains that Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey and the nation’s great castles are ruins, shells of their former glory.

They are admired for what they once were and what they contributed to the Middle Ages.

So our Victorian and 20th-century industrial heritage doesn’t have to be prettified to make it attractive and meaningful.

I’d sooner see a soot-blackened, stabilised ruin of a stone textile mill that evokes the ghosts of workers past than rows of so-called executive homes.

Back in South Elmsall, the colliery wheel is sited next to the memorial where the village’s war dead are remembered.

That’s how much they value their working past…and it’s a lesson the country should learn.

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