Labyrinth

In which The Author goes off-piste

Earlier this week, faced with cloudless blue skies and frost-covered pavements, I decided to head into the unknown realm which I described last time with the words Here be Dragons.
Cwmdare sits in a side valley running roughly east-west, surrounded by dramatic and beautiful hillsides. It starts at Broncynon Terrace, on the hillside above Aberdare College. The main road climbs steeply to the ‘square’, and then levels out before petering out at the entrance to the Dare Valley Country Park. It’s a fairly compact village with a primary school, a single shop/post office and a pub clustered around the square. There’s an active chapel opposite the school, a disused chapel on Bwllfa Road, a ‘Free Mission’ halfway up the hill, and a small Anglican church in Queen Street. More or less opposite the mission hall are a recreation ground and a children’s playground, adjacent to the miners’ welfare club. All vestiges of the industry which brought Cwmdare into being are, unsurprisingly, long gone.
This comparatively small community grew up in stages, and can be divided (more or less) into four parts.
Old Cwmdare is the area centred on the square; the main road is lined with houses, and there are a few terraces branching off to either side. This is where the majority of the original housing stock can be found. The houses break off abruptly near the bus turning circle at the entrance to the country park.
The road runs on to the tiny hamlet of Bwllfa Dare, where several coal mines once blighted the landscape. A steep terrace of neat cottages, a couple of detached houses, and a rambling farm mark the limits of human habitation. Beyond this point there is nothing but wilderness.
New Cwmdare consists of Maesgwyn and the neighbouring streets, and the smaller estate more or less opposite. Maesgwyn is a large postwar council estate built on a former farm of the same name, on the northern side of the main road. The rest of the council housing (to judge from my limited knowledge of the area) is a more modern mixture of flats and maisonettes.
That leaves New New Cwmdare. And that’s where the fun starts.

Trecynon and Cwmdare

New New Cwmdare is a large development of substantial private houses to the west of Broncynon Terrace, which has been steadily growing over the last three decades or so. On the western edge it’s bounded by The Ridings, a long road skirting the country park. The southern road into The Ridings is a continuation of Hazel Drive in Landare; at the other end it curves around and meets Heol Brynnau, in the heart of the development. It’s hard to tell where Cwmdare ends and Landare begins, in fact. Luckily for me, there’s nothing worth photographing for my Vanishing Valleys project, so I don’t have to draw an arbitrary line between the two.
It’s not an area I’m especially familiar with. Pam’s parents live in one of the side streets. Janice and Glyn used to live nearby, back in the days of the Youth Entertainment Society. I’ve been to their houses several times. My friend Brian J. lived a bit further up, but don’t ask me to find his house again. The only time I went there was in his car, and we were chatting the whole time, so I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings.
My first real exploration of New New Cwmdare happened several years ago, completely by accident. I was in Aberdare one Sunday when Janice rang me to see if I was going to the extra rehearsal we’d arranged. (Fortunately for the audience I wasn’t performing, but I was helping backstage, so I needed to work on the running order with the kids.) I jumped on the bus, travelled through a mystifying maze for about fifteen minutes, and jumped off when we – eventually – got to Broncynon Terrace. As soon as I recognised the houses I realised it was time to bale out. I decided to walk home when we called it a day. One adventure is enough for a Sunday afternoon.
This week I found myself in New New Cwmdare again – this time, by choice. I’d already delivered a substantial number of Plaid Cymru papers in Landare; well, the parts I was reasonably familiar with, anyway. With a couple of bundles left over from Saturday’s assault on Cwmbach, I decided to press on in Aberdare West.
On Monday afternoon I walked from town through the country park. I circled the bottom lake, climbed a steep path which Shanara and I discovered a few years ago, and emerged at the corner of The Ridings and The Dell. My heart sank when I saw the former houses were numbered over 100. This was going to be a nightmare.
I did the dozen or so houses at the end of The Ridings, then dropped down into The Dell. Ten houses – easy stuff. Then I walked to Lakeside and my heart sank. No fewer than forty-six bloody houses are squeezed into this little portion of the map, all detached, all with small driveways, and all with their own quirky letterbox arrangements. As the name suggests, they overlook the bottom lake – although it would be more accurate to say they encroach upon it.
I’m sure they’re lovely houses inside, and (of course) the views from the bedrooms/patios/conservatories must be stunning. Personally, I wouldn’t choose to live in that area, even I could afford to.
In common with most of these new developments, there are absolutely no amenities – no shop, pub, school, social centre, play area, or anything else that helps to build a functioning community. As with Landare, to which these new houses form the extension on the extension, it’s a mere dormitory. (There are hourly buses in each direction throughout the daytime six days a week, but nothing early in the morning, after 6.00 p.m., or on Sundays. Even if I wanted to re-enact my magical mystery tour, I couldn’t.) I’d like to imagine a thriving culture of gardening clubs, walking groups, bridge fours and wife-swapping parties, but I get the impression that everyone spends their time simply watching whatever crap is on TV. It’s not my idea of a neighbourhood, thank you very much.
I didn’t have enough papers to do the whole of The Ridings, and the light was starting to fail. I decided to quit while I was ahead. I did Oakwood Court, and then found a short cut into Linden Crescent. From there I dropped down to Hazel Drive (the only part of the original Landare I hadn’t touched so far), and made my way home. At least I had an idea of where to go on Tuesday.
Tuesday morning was also stunning, so I armed myself with a fresh bundle of papers and set off at about 11.00. I took a handy short cut through Park Lane, skirted the edge of Cae Pugh (Pugh’s Field), and emerged just below Camelia Close. From there it’s a short walk to Cherry Court, which was as far as I’d got on Sunday evening. Unknown territory lay beyond.
I made sure there was no more Cherry Court hiding anywhere, and then tried to find a short cut into Ashbourne Court. According to the updated street map I’d found online, they back onto one another, but without a connecting road. The street map seems to be designed exclusively for motorists, though – there are no footpaths marked on it.
Because I grew up in the vicinity, I know every back lane, gully, trip, and rat run in Trecynon and the Gadlys, That local knowledge speeds things up tremendously. I can nip from one street to the next without doubling back too often. I can’t say the same about Landare. I thought I’d found one handy short cut, but it ended at a brick wall. I did find a little flight of steps into Camelia Close, and from there a path between two houses led me to one end of Ashbourne Court. Result!
While I was walking from house to house, I met a pleasant lady who was spreading salt on her driveway. I handed her a paper and we chatted for a minute. She told me I’d missed a short cut from Cherry Court – which I’d suspected was there – and I made a mental note for next time.
Ashbourne Court turned out to be a shallow U-shape at the top of Maple Drive. I’d passed the end of Maple Drive the previous day, and didn’t like the look of it. It’s quite a steep hill, and in the gathering twilight I couldn’t tell how far it extended. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were only seven houses in the whole street. Rowan Court, branching off to one side, is only five houses. I was on a roll!
There are only thirteen houses in Linden Crescent. The footpath took me back to the bottom of The Ridings, and I was in business again.
It turns out that the little cluster of houses at the top end was one of several clusters strung out along the road. Numbers 1 to 39 are in a cul-de-sac on one side; numbers 40 to 84 are in a cul-de-sac on the other side, and there are more pockets and loops further up. As I’d come to expect by this stage, there’s even a cul-de-sac off a cul-de-sac: The Oaks branches off one branch of The Ridings. The postman was doing his rounds, too. We crossed paths three times along that stretch, and I realised I’d also passed him in Cherry Court when I was starting my journey. I didn’ t envy him – I was merely putting a paper through every door. He had to make sure the letters went through the correct door. (He had a van, mind you. That’s cheating in my book.)
I decided to leave the rest of the new part until reinforcements arrived. I’d made a sizable dent in two hundred papers, and there’s no point in breaking off mid-street. Instead, I split Old Cwmdare into manageable chunks and tackled it on Wednesday and Thursday (after David dropped another bundle in on Wednesday night).
On my way back from Bwllfa Dare on Thursday, out of curiosity, I decided to take the footpath running alongside the school, As I’d feared, it led me straight into the labyrinth. I don’t know what route I took from one side to the other, but dead reckoning enabled me to arrive at the Welsh School within about five minutes. From there, it was – quite literally – downhill all the way to town.
Today we’re meeting mob-handed again, to tackle Maesgwyn and the estate opposite, and finish off the rest of New New Cwmdare. If I haven’t posted anything else by Thursday, please send out the search parties. Wish us luck …

No Country For Old Men (or Women)

In which The Author explores a space-packing exercise

This week I will be mostly delivering Plaid Cymru newspapers.
Actually, it took up a fair portion of last week as well, but I really didn’t mind. After over two months of torrential downpours, interrupted only by the occasional heavy shower, it’s been nice to get some fresh air and exercise.
We were the first political group in the Cynon Valley to declare our candidate for the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections. Cerith Griffiths, a firefighter and union activist, fought the seat in last year’s general election, and accepted our nomination late last year. We’ve been able to get the drop on the opposition by starting our campaigning early. (Labour announced their candidate a little while ago; he subsequently withdrew, and they’ve only recently found someone else.) The party has set its sights on winning some Valleys seats, and we’re going all out to support Cerith.
At last week’s branch meeting we received the first tranche of our campaign newspapers. Cerith had somehow managed to get an impressive eighteen thousand papers (that’s ninety bundles, boys and girls) into his car, and walked into the room with a big grin on his face.
‘We’re going to need a bigger boat!’ he announced, to laughter all round.
We divided them up between the various districts, and at the end we went our separate ways, each with several bundles of papers and a designated area to hit over the next few weeks.
As I told you in ‘The Postman’s Burden‘, I decided to start counting the number of doors in each street as I made my way around Trecynon, Robertstown and the Gadlys. (Those three areas make up a fair chunk of the Aberdare West and Aberdare East electoral wards.) I knew from my previous leafletting expeditions (the first of which I told you about in ‘Nooks and Crannies‘) that I could expect to deliver somewhere in the region of two thousand.
However, two thousand eight-page newspapers occupy considerably more space (and weigh far more) than two thousand A5 leaflets. As a result I’ve been covering my area in short bursts, interspersed with visits home to restock. I jotted down the numbers as I went along and made a spreadsheet to track my progress, mainly to make sure I didn’t miss any of the back lanes scattered throughout Aberdare West. I failed to gain access to the sheltered accommodation at Maes Rhydwen and Cynon Close, and didn’t bother with the similar block at Pen Llew Court. (Elderly people almost invariably vote Labour anyway, as I noted in ‘No Future‘. There’s not much point in wasting time and effort on places like that.) Let’s assume I wrote off a maximum of forty doors there, for the sake of argument.
The numbers climbed steadily as I made my way through the areas I know well. After doing the five houses at Gelli Isaf, sandwiched between the old tramroad and the River Cynon, which pretty marks the northern limit of Trecynon, I made my way up a slippery footpath and emerged at the top end of Aberdare Cemetery. I included the big houses opposite the cemetery, but shied away from the caravan park a bit further down. There was a sign at the entrance which said ‘No canvassers without prior permission of the site owners’, so I decided not to risk it. I didn’t get as far as Dawkins Place (which may count as Trecynon – or even Cwmdare – depending on which source you consult). That can wait until we hit Penywaun a bit later on.
I finished off the large estate of Trefelin at lunchtime on Sunday, and was able to add 142 houses to my Trecynon total. And it’s an impressive total.
I’ve covered the entire area bounded by the A4059, the river Cynon, the link road by Tesco, St John’s churchyard, Aberdare Park, and the main road through Trecynon, and all the streets branching off the road as well. Even though I didn’t put a paper through every door (there are some commercial premises and a large number of obviously empty properties), according to my spreadsheet I’ve passed nearly 2100 letterboxes on my travels.
But the fun didn’t stop there.
On Saturday morning David Walters and I headed for the car park of the Ynyscynon Inn, at the northern end of Cwmbach. We were joined by Cerith and his girlfriend Alison (in one car), Pauline Jarman, Brian Arnold and Danny Allen from down the valley (in a second car), and Peter Fenner, Cerith’s election agent (in a third car). It was time to blitz the entire village.
Cwmbach is a very large area which I explored in some detail last summer, on one of my periodic tours in search of the Aberdare Local Board of Health street signs. There are remnants of the original settlement at either end, some old parts in the centre, and odd Victorian bits and pieces dotted here and there. Apart from those, virtually the entire place was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a sprawling council housing estate (known locally as ‘the site’).
Subsequently, private developments have completely swallowed the old heart of the community. Probably the best-known of these is Pant Farm, which covers a huge expanse north of the main road through the village. There’s another development north of the Ynyscynon Inn, and a rapidly spreading complex at the southern end, near the station. That’s not to mention the burgeoning estate across the river, near the large Asda supermarket. I almost feel sorry for anyone who’s bought a place there on the strength of its location. According to Google Maps, it’s only about three hundred metres from Cwmbach Station as the crow flies. In reality, it takes the best part of ten minutes to walk from one to the other. It’s right next to the river, too. After the winter we’ve had, would you want to live on a flood plain?
A couple of the Plaid gang had hit the area around Rose Row and the new houses off Tirfounder Road earlier in the week. That was a nice big patch out of the way. We were at the other end, and needed to fill in the space in between. David had printed off some maps, and we started dividing up the streets into bite-size chunks.
Since I was on the spot, so to speak, I decided to take the area immediately surrounding the pub. Everyone else set off for Pant Farm, a few minutes’ drive away. I took a bundle of papers and set off into unknown territory.
When I was studying A Level Biology, many years ago, I came across a lovely word which has stuck with me to this day: Invagination. (It always used to attract titters from the boys in school, because it contains the word for lady bits – which may or may not be the reason I remember it.) It refers to the way that a piece of tissue can fold in on itself, creating a little pocket. Of course, these infoldings can give rise to further infoldings, allowing a very large surface area to be enclosed in a comparatively small volume. It explains how the human lungs are about the size of two clenched fists, but have a combined surface area roughly equivalent to a tennis court.
Invagination also seems to be the way that town planners and developers go about designing their estates. The street map shows a nice straight road, but the physical reality is very different. Let me explain …
I live on a nice straight road. There are no front gardens, driveways, steps, or other obstacles. All the front doors open straight onto the pavement. The postman can start at Number 1, blast through my side of the street, turn around at the far end and do the other side, and be on his way in a couple of minutes.
You can’t do that in a new-build development, no matter what you might think after glancing at the street map. On the ground you find yourself going in and out of little culs-de-sac and down mysterious alleyways, and in and out again, all the while having to negotiate a bewildering array of gates, driveways, gardens, or – worst of all – entrances which lead only to a side door (without a letterbox), and then having to make your way back to the pavement after visiting each and every house.
When I first did some leafleting for Dafydd’s election campaign in 2010, I came up with a suggestion for a policy which he could take forward. It was quite simple: if your front door is more than three metres from the pavement, you should be required by law to fit an external mailbox at the edge of your property. Dafydd agreed that I was on to something, and I stand by my original suggestion to this day. In fact, as I’ve got a bit older and the novelty of negotiating the mini-mazes between pavement and letterbox has worn off, the notional distance between the two points keeps getting smaller. It currently stands at one metre, and looks set to decrease as I get older.
Here’s a question for homeowners in these big estates: Is there really any point in fitting an external mailbox to the front wall of your bloody house? If the postman has to walk ten yards to get to your front door anyway, confronting him with an external box when he gets there is just taking the piss. Why don’t you just fix the damn thing to your boundary wall and have done with it? While we’re on the subject, attaching the mailbox to the inside of your boundary wall, so that it only becomes apparent when the delivery person is on his/her way back out, is really taking the piss!
According to the map David had printed off, there were (at most) six streets behind the Ynyscynon Inn. They average a dozen houses apiece. It still took me the best part of forty minutes to do them all. Then I headed for the main road, lined with fewer than a dozen big houses on one side, and it still took me nearly five minutes to polish them off. I’m not quite fifty, but Peter, Pauline and Brian are quite a bit older. If I was finding it hard work, how must they have felt by the time they’d exhausted their supply of papers? It’s no country for old men (or women), I can tell you.
It came as a relief to return to the terraced houses at Well Place and Ynyscynon Street (I found a Board of Health sign in Ynyscynon Terrace, too). I did a stretch along Aberdare Road and cut down to Scales Row (three lovely old cottages which once stood alongside the Aberdare Canal) before running out of papers and heading back to the car park.
We regrouped in the pub just after opening time, and were pleased to find that we’d broken the back of the work. Cerith and Alison headed off to Blaennantygroes Road, and David and I headed into ‘the site’ to finish off there. I was off my personal map again, so we made it up as we went along.
Tre Gwilym is a mysterious little cluster of houses with no obvious numbering scheme. The maisonettes in Pant-y-Cerdin didn’t take us long, with one of us taking the upper section and the other working below. Tre Telynog is a mixture of nice semi-detached houses and inaccessible flats. Rhiw Ceris is a bizarre place which neither of us could fathom out. It must make sense if you live there, I suppose, but it confused the hell out of us.
We made short work of Crown Row and Sion Terrace, then called it a day. We’d bypassed a fair number of flats in Tre Telynog and Timothy Row, but you’re up against the law of diminishing returns in places like that anyway.
After a little while roaming around the new estate, I realised why Dad had always hated canvassing in Glandare/Landare (I’ve never been sure which is correct. You say potato!) when he was a councillor. I’d only done a short burst there on Thursday afternoon before I ran out of papers.
Somewhere in my house I’ve got a copy of the ‘Local Plan’, drawn up in the 1970s. Landare Park was growing steadily, and was supposed to have boasted all sorts of amenities when it was first put before the planning committee. Needless to say, the shops, post office, pub, play areas, community centre, phone boxes and so forth all failed to materialise. (I think I’m right in saying that it was quite a few years before the place even had a bus service.) Anyone living on the estate had to travel to the Gadlys, Cwmdare or Trecynon to buy a stamp, never mind anything bigger. Then, as now, the general assumption was that people who could afford to live in a place like that would have access to at least one car.
As a casual glance at the original local plan will attest, the estate also wasn’t intended to spread nearly as far as it has. According to documents unearthed back in the days of the Cynon Valley Profile (1986–87), Landare Park was intended to consist of some 450 houses, although we noted that ‘unforeseen contractual problems will limit the actual number of houses to 220 by 1991.’
In fact, it seems to have trebled in size (at least) since its original footprint was established in the 1960s. The houses extend to the bottom lake of the Dare Valley Country Park, obliterating a huge area of recreational land. The first time I took Shanara there, I was able to wave a hand in the direction of the huge new houses and say (in all seriousness), ‘I remember when all this round here were fields.’
When I was in junior school, Landare was still quite new, so only a few of my friends grew up there. On the other hand, my brother had a fair number of friends there, and he used to go and see them quite often. I didn’t spend as much time in the area because most of my pals lived closer to my house. As a result, I never really got to know the place. On the handful of times I’ve walked to Cwmdare that way, or cut through it on ‘the line’ between Trecynon and the Country Park, I’ve rarely wandered off the main axis. For this reason, I’ve never really taken account of the culs-de-sac which contain most of the houses.
Take Willow Grove, for example.
On the map, Willow Grove appears to be a stubby little T branching off the main road. In reality, it contains no fewer than twenty-eight detached houses – each with its own gate, driveway, steps, and custom-built assault course which the unwary canvasser has to negotiate before finally reaching the letterbox.
On the other side of the main road, Fairoak Close lies in wait. The grand frontages which greet the casual visitor are just the prelude to twenty-three individual dwellings of varying sizes, shapes and styles, each offering a variety of challenging approaches.
By the time I reached Cedar Close, where my old friend Mike H. used to live, I had just two papers left. I called it a day and headed into town. Including the detached houses in Glan Road, I’d managed to deliver fewer than a hundred papers in just under an hour.
I decided to continue on Sunday afternoon, restocking my bag after finishing off in Trefelin. I cut across the line from Aberdare Park, walked through Cedar Close and arrived in Chestnut Close. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why one street should end and the next should begin, but that’s the way it is. There’s only a little raised kerb between the two. It simply seems to defy logic – as did much of what followed.
Having emerged from Chestnut Close, I crossed over and entered Birchgrove. Once again, the street map promised me a T-shaped cul-de-sac. Thirty-three houses later I arrived back at the main road – and here’s the next part of the mystery. The main road was Beechwood Avenue when I started out on Thursday afternoon. At some point known only to Goddess and the planning authorities, it had turned into Alder Drive.
I’d been jotting down the numbers as I went, to try and update my spreadsheet later on. It was a waste of time. I still don’t know how many houses there are in Alder Drive – the numbering seems to make no sense at all. I found a house with its front gate ostensibly on Alder Drive, which actually turned out to be in Fern Crescent. I think. If it really is, then there must be two Number 1 Fern Crescents.
Cypress Court was equally baffling – it’s a looping cul-de-sac of over twenty houses, with a further three on the main road. At one point a middle-aged chap came to his front door. He’d been alerted by his dog, who’d seen me coming down the driveway. I handed him a paper and explained that I was totally lost and making my way around the estate by dead reckoning.
‘It’s fairly straightforward from here,’ he assured me with a chuckle.
Straightforward.
Remember how much I hate that word?
I think there are thirty-two houses in Sycamore Close. I’m not absolutely sure, because the odd-numbered houses are in the stem of a T, and the even-numbered houses are in the crosspiece. (Or was it the other way round? It was becoming increasingly difficult to tell.)
Camelia Close is about as far up as I’d ever been on foot before Landare ends and the road runs on into Cwmdare. I knew that the main road becomes Cherry Drive near the Welsh school. So far, so good. However, there’s a new street called Cherry Court, branching off to the left. The first house you come to is Number 16. There were just three houses – clearly I’d lost a bit somewhere. The rest of Cherry Court turned out to be about two hundred metres further down the road. I had a dozen papers left – I reckoned it would be just enough to finish that little cluster of houses.
I was wrong. Between two houses there’s a little alleyway leading to yet more houses. I’m assuming it’s more Cherry Court, but I can’t be sure. There’s certainly nothing else marked on the latest street map. I assume there’s also a short cut from there into Ashbourne Court. From there, I can make my way into the huge development that connects Landare to the new part of Cwmdare, and from there continue into the old village of Cwmdare – but that’s an adventure for another day. At least my updated street map shows the area in question, unlike the one in my memory, which I’d been trying to work from on Thursday afternoon.
On the day of Uncle Pat’s funeral, my cousin Katie and I were travelling to Llwydcoed Crematorium in our cousin-in-law Clive’s car. We were all talking about the way that people in Cardiff tend to perceive the Valleys. I told them that Jo R. in Dillons once asked me why I didn’t come to work on the same bus as Jeff.
‘Because Jeff lives at the other side of Caerphilly, and I live outside Aberdare,’ I replied. She’d assumed (like many Cardiffians, it seems) that everywhere north of Cardiff was just one long terrace stretching all the way from the Gabalfa flyover to the foothills of the Brecon Beacons.
‘Jo,’ I said, ‘this is going to come as a shock – but if you travel east of St Mellons, west of St Fagans, north of Whitchurch, or south of Penarth, you don’t actually fall off the edge.’
Katie told me a couple of similar stories from her experience, and she could relate to my conversation with Jo.
‘Have a look at the maps printed in Cardiff,’ I said. ‘Instead of having the Valleys drawn in, they just say “Here Be Dragons”.’
That reduced Katie to hysterics, and we always have a laugh about it whenever we get together.
Purely for Katie’s benefit, here’s a map of the area we’re going to try and polish off this week. Watch this space …

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