My regular readers will already be very familiar with my involvement with the Anthony Nolan Trust, a terrific UK charity which helps people in need of treatment for various forms of blood cancer. If you’re new to the story, I’ll give you a brief recap.
Two years ago, a young man from Bristol named Mike Brandon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The poor bugger had only just got engaged to his girlfriend Kate, and then received this devastating blow a week or so later. Kate and Mike’s many friends, in association with the Anthony Nolan Trust, launched a social media blitz to encourage people to sign up for the tissue donor register. Using the hashtag #Shake4Mike, they spread the word via Facebook and Twitter, and highlighted the charity’s great work in supporting Mike and other people in similar circumstances.
To cut a long story short, Kate’s aunt lives next door to my mother. I got a phone call asking me if I’d spread the word – which I was only too pleased to do. Thanks to everyone else who got behind it as well, the campaign went viral, with mainstream media at home and abroad featuring Mike’s story. The number of people signing up for the tissue register went sky-high. Almost against the odds, we found a suitable match for Mike so that he could receive pioneering stem cell treatment. He was responding well, and he and Kate tied the knot last summer, as I reported soon afterwards.
I also contacted the charity directly and asked them to send me some collection boxes, which my friends in business across South Wales have been kind enough to host. Saturday’s trip to the Bridge in Ebbw Vale yielded a not unhealthy £12.00 (plus some shrapnel, which I added to one of the boxes nearer home on Monday), bringing my individual total to over £370.
Now for the bad news …
Mike has relapsed. He found out just before Easter that his cancer has returned, despite the best efforts of his doctors here in the UK.
The good news is that he seems to be a suitable patient for even more cutting-edge medicine in the USA, and this is where we need to ask for your help. However, as you can probably imagine, it’s not cheap. We need to raise a jaw-dropping £400,000 to fund his stay in the States while he’s undergoing treatment. Kate has launched a crowdfunding page to appeal for donations. It’s been running less than a week, and at the time of writing the total raised stands at over £88,000.
That’s why I’m writing this now. I know many of you got involved with #Shake4Mike as a direct result of reading my earlier entries about Mike and Kate. Now, though, we don’t want your saliva – we need your money instead. If you’d like to make a donation to the appeal, you can follow the link to the Donate4Mike page and chip in a few shillings. You can also follow the campaign’s progress on Facebook and Twitter by searching for Donate4Mike.
I’ve yet to meet Mike and Kate in the flesh, but I’ll address this last paragraph to them directly.
I take my hat off to you, Mike, for your endless courage and steadfast determination to conquer your illness. I salute you, Kate, for your unswaying love in the face of almost unimaginable circumstances. I hope one day to sit and raise an elbow with you, and thank you for your inspirational and awe-inspiring presence in our lives. I’ve got everything crossed for you both.
I can’t remember the last time I actually walked around Ebbw Vale. It was long before the Vanishing Valleys project was hatched, that’s for sure. I’ve been through it on numerous occasions, usually on the X4 bus, but it’s been many years since I disembarked and went for a wander.
Saturday’s expedition had a dual purpose, though. I really need to start documenting the eastern valleys in some semblance of order; and I had an Anthony Nolan collection box to swap out.
Rebecca C., former goth barbint of this parish, is now a goth barbint at a pub called the Bridge, a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Ebbw Vale. Her boyfriend’s family are from the town, so she’s been based there for a couple of years. The guv’nor kindly agreed to host one of our collection boxes a while ago, and Rebecca’s been keeping an eye on it for me. But it’s one of the old-school boxes, and since the charity relaunched its brand last year, I’ve been meaning to take a trip over to Ebbw Vale and change it for one of the new ones. But between Autumn rugby, Xmas, New Year, named Atlantic storm systems (we’re up to K already), the Six Nations, Easter, and election campaigning, the time has never really arisen.
Consequently, when I saw cloudless blue sky first thing on Saturday morning, I decided that the time was right to make the journey. I didn’t even send Rebecca a message to say I was on my way over – I thought it would make a nice surprise when I strolled in during her shift behind the bar.
I jumped on the bus to Merthyr, had a quick stroll around the shopping centre between connections, and was on my way to Ebbw Vale just before 11.00. On the way we passed through Tredegar, which is another blank space on my map. I noticed a few buildings and interesting pieces of public art which I’ll be recording on a return visit. I was in Ebbw Vale just after 11.00, and decided to take the camera for a walk before making my way to the pub. As usual, I’d forgotten to put new batteries in, so before I started I had to hunt down some replacements.
I called into Boots, which claims to have a ‘photo’ department on the window, but there was no evidence of it in store. I crossed the road and looked in Lloyds pharmacy, and also drew a blank. There’s a shop called Home Bargains, so I had a quick look in there as well. Call me cynical, but six AA batteries for 99p probably wouldn’t have lasted until I got to the top of the high street. My friend Donna J. suggested Argos, and I was heading in that direction when I spotted an old-fashioned hardware shop, just like the place in Open All Hours (or the legendary ‘Fork Handles’ sketch). I called in, and the owner sold me eight Duracell Plus batteries for £3.99. That was more like it!
I crossed the road, headed down a side street, took a little lane which led to a footbridge, and crossed over the main north-south road before emerging in Station Approach, where the Bridge is situated. I’ve yet to look at my Pre-Grouping Rail Atlas of Great Britain, but whatever station it was (presumably Pont-y-Gof) is long gone. The old buildings are still there, mind you, converted into a couple of nice cottages. The pub is a bit further along, in its own grounds, a decent penalty kick from the rugby ground.
I strolled in and was met by a pleasant lad in his twenties, dressed all in black, with fairly long hair and a non-hipster beard. I could see straight away why Rebecca and her pals had made it their second home. It hosts live music and (proper) rock nights, and has a small recording studio attached, too. At least they don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours.
I bought a pint, did the crossword, and then explained the purpose of my visit. He told me Rebecca wasn’t working until the evening (which kinda suits her, I suppose – early starts aren’t usually her strong suit), but we swapped out the boxes and I wrote her a note, which I left at the bar. I half-watched the football while I drank my pint, and then decided to make the most of the weather. I headed back towards the bridge which gives the pub its name, thinking it was a good place to start. Before I’d even got there, I found this quaint old chapel just off the road.
I can’t tell you anything about the history of this bridge, but it’s an impressive feat of engineering.
The inscription on the keystone of the small arch reads 1859, but the keystone of the big arch bears the date 1813. That’s only two years after the famous iron bridge in Trecynon/Robertstown was erected. I’m guessing that it would have carried a railway line, but presumably started off as a tramroad. On my next visit, I’m going to take a map and investigate it in more detail.
I retraced my steps into town, pausing to take a couple of photos of empty shops, and a rather gorgeous chapel sandwiched between them. On the way over, waiting for the bus to leave, I overheard an old guy say to his mate, ‘Duw, Merthyr’s a dump, innit?’ I decided to tweet that comment, and my immediate reaction: ‘You should have stayed on as far as Ebbw Vale, mate!’ I thought Aberdare was run-down, but Ebbw Vale makes it look like a thriving metropolis.
I couldn’t get over the size of the Catholic church at the northern end of town. I suppose large numbers of Irishmen would have come over to work in the steelworks and the coal industry, as they did across the Valleys, but even so, this is a massive building. It’s a shame that it sits cheek by jowl with a pig-ugly multi-storey car park, but you can’t have everything.
The workmen’s hall is tucked away behind the library, and I only found it by accident. (The library itself was closed for a refit, although there’s a temporary set-up somewhere.) Like most of these fine buildings, it’s now a bingo hall. It didn’t seem to be the home of rock bands, as I’d read in the papers. I made my way back down and decided to explore the shops for a short while.
It turned out to be a very short while. Half of them were closed, even though it was a Saturday afternoon, and the main street was almost deserted. Even though the high street seems to be struggling, there’s some fine Victorian architecture, – but (as with most towns in South Wales) you have to look up to appreciate it.
The Midland Bank, in particular, seems to have had an eye for distinctive and unusual buildings. Look at this odd little gem, on an island just in front of the ‘shopping mall’ (which is where I’d have found Argos, if Arkwright hadn’t got the drop on them). Between the bank and the Conservative Club, there’s some eye-catching public art, too.
I followed the main street south, and found this lovely Victorian frontage stretching for the whole length of a block. Apart from the probation office, a Polish supermarket and a hair salon, the entire place was empty. There isn’t even a charity shop or a tanning studio to relieve the boredom. Nice buildings, shame about the neglect.
Just at the end of this block I found possibly the best street name in South Wales – and I’m including the wonderful ones in Splott and Adamsdown (Cardiff). I bet this gave the Welsh-speaking locals a headache when it was first adopted.
A little further along, the mystery of the music venue was solved. This is Ebbw Vale Institute.
By day it’s a very civilised little cafe bar, by night it’s a cinema and theatre. It also has spaces for arts groups, clubs and meetings. In the next few weeks they’re hosting a David Bowie tribute act, a Motorhead tribute band, a jazz night, a couple of films, and there’s a big rock festival lined up for the autumn. Not for the first time, I saw a potential business model for the Coliseum in Trecynon (if only we could prise it from the cold, dead hand of RCTCBC, of course).
I logged into Facebook and posted my whereabouts. My old friend Neil R. replied within moments, a bit disappointed that I hadn’t told him I was heading in that direction. I explained that it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and promised to give him plenty of warning next time I’m planning to be in that neck of the woods.
I’d seen the spire of a church in the distance, so I decided to head in that direction. On the way I passed a former chapel which is now the scout hall, and some more interesting but lifeless buildings. I found another place which looked like a chapel, but it turned out to be the home of the male voice choir. Then I came to the church.
Actually, I took several steps back before getting the camera out. There’s a flight of stone steps which leads up a steep hill, and it gave me a great vantage point for these next couple of shots. I’ve already shown you some photos of St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare, which is known as ‘the cathedral of the Valleys’; I really wasn’t prepared for this tremendous red sandstone beauty, though.
You can’t get a decent view of St Elvan’s from ground level, because it’s on a little raised area surrounded by buildings on three sides. As with St Elvan’s, the only way to really appreciate this masterpiece is from above. Luckily for me, the view from the hillside is perfect.
When I was halfway up the hill, I spotted another distinctive chapel outline, so I took a small detour to record that as well. This is (or rather, was) Mount Zion Primitive Methodist chapel, apparently. No windows, only half a roof – yes, that seems fairly primitive to me.
I returned to street level, and was a little disappointed (but not really surprised) to find the church gates locked. I took a few photos of the exterior, but they don’t do it justice by a long way. It’s a wide-angle lens job.
I followed the main road down to the A4054, approaching the site of the former steelworks. The new hospital here is enormous, and must have taken a great deal of the workload from Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr. I wondered about crossing the valley and exploring a bit further, but without a map I was flying blind. I decided to leave it for another day and made my way back towards the town centre.
I wonder how many people walk or drive past this old boundary marker every day, and never even notice it. I’m guessing that L stands for Local, but the BD remains a mystery. I’ll have to ask Geoff E. if he can shed any light on it.
I came across some interesting copper plaques built into a retaining wall. This is the Armoury Hill Project, and illustrates some of the fossils which have been found in the Coal Measures. Blaenau Gwent seems to be a little haven of public art like this, and I think it’s fantastic to see the entire community coming behind it – there’s no hint of graffiti or other vandalism on any of the pieces.
I’m sorry I can’t go into any more detail about the buildings I’ve shown you here, but Gwent is pretty much virgin territory as far as my project is concerned. Over time, though, I’ll be spending a bit more time exploring the eastern valleys. There’s a regular train service to Ebbw Vale now (although exactly where the railway station is remains a mystery), and I’ve got a convivial watering hole in which to spend a couple of hours as well. While the whole area (like the rest of the Valleys) may be struggling to reinvent itself after the departure of heavy industry, it’s a green and pleasant land with some hidden architectural treasures. What’s not to like?
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.