Last Monday, my mate Les Davies rang me to see if I was at a loose end. He’s a very keen photographer, and some weeks ago we’d chatted about possible locations for a shoot.
He’d first broached the subject after we met at a gig. Les sings in a band with some old friends of mine, and he was struck by the way I was dressed. He asked me if I’d be willing to model in a photoshoot for him. I agreed without hesitation. I modelled for a friend of mine several years ago, when she was doing her foundation course at the art college in Glyntaff. Even though I’ve never seen the finished pictures I’ve been told that they created quite a stir at her final show.
Les had something with a vaguely Gothic/horror/fetish theme in mind. He was looking for somewhere old, derelict, neglected and (most importantly) accessible. I mentioned a couple of locations in the valley, for which we’d have to seek permission, and Les suggested a place he’d heard about – the Boys Village, in the Vale of Glamorgan.
It rang a vague bell, but I didn’t know where it was or very much about it.
Anyway, we were both free on Monday, so we decided to go forth and explore. Les knew it was somewhere near St Athan, so he programmed that into the satnav. We stopped off at my place on the way to pick up a few things, so I grabbed my old OS Landranger sheet 170 and had a quick look at it while we were heading down the valley. I couldn’t put my hands on Explorer sheet 166, which would have given us more detail around the smaller villages, but it would do for now. When it comes to finding my way around, I’m a firm believer in Belt And Braces.
To our surprise, the Boys Village was even marked on the map, near West Aberthaw, sandwiched between the cement works and the power station. Neither of us were really familiar with the area, so we were relying on the marvels of technology to get us there.
However, I don’t think the satnav was familiar with the area either. I’m sure it would have quicker to get to St Athan via Barry than via Junction 33 and down a series of country roads. We drove through some fantastic countryside, past beautiful thatched houses and tempting olde-worlde pubs with names like the Green Dragon. It’s hard to believe that the valleys of South Wales are only half an hour’s drive to the north.
When we reached Gileston, we switched the satnav off. It was trying to take us to St Athan, which was the closest we could find to our intended destination. We could have played with the gadget and programmed in the grid reference, but neither of us were sure how to do it. Instead, we realized that we’d have to rely on my basic navigation. This normally involves a combination of inspired guesswork, dead reckoning, divine guidance and my unerring ability to find a pub. In the absence of a pub, we found ourselves touring through ever-smaller lanes. There was nobody about so we couldn’t even ask directions. Anyway, we’re blokes – we don’t ask directions; we’d rather be lost for ten minutes.
Suddenly we spotted a small complex of buildings to our right, half-concealed behind a hedge. Some instinct, rather than the little device on the windscreen, told us we’d reached our destination.
‘That’s it!’ we said together. Les pulled the car over into a little layby at the entrance to the complex and we got our gear ready.
The photos which follow are a combination of mine (the plain ones) and Les’s (which are labelled with his website details, so you can see some more!) – but I think it’s fairly obvious which are which …
The entrance was blocked by some large boulders, so it would be impossible to drive onto the site, but there was no fence or other security measures. Les and I were able to stroll straight into the complex.
I don’t know what we’d been expecting, but the whole place was eerie from the word ‘go’. Abandoned buildings are usually strange enough anyway, but even in broad daylight and blazing sunshine the place felt haunted. The buildings were low, plain and fairly utilitarian in design. In one corner of the ‘village’ was a small church, which we decided to explore later.
We made our way into the nearest building. The interior was white-tiled, with smaller rooms leading off the largest, and I imagine it was probably a canteen. The interior had been vandalised, but even through the windows and doors were smashed and the walls were covered in graffiti, there was no evidence of its ever being used as a drugs hangout. We found a few discarded cigarette packets and pop bottles, but we’d been expecting to find old needles everywhere. We’d have spent the first hour of a shoot in the valleys engaged in sharps disposal, so this was a pleasant surprise.
We did our first set of shots in this big central building. I contented myself with a few interior shots, while Les tested the light and shadowplay from various angles.
Then we got the real shoot under way. I put my hood on, and we started work in earnest. This one is one of the first batch Les took, inside that echoing white-tiled room. It would make a perfect location for a horror film; it even felt like the room in Saw.
Les was really pleased with this first location, so we wandered around for a bit. I discovered this slightly overgrown foundation stone on the front of the main building:
and this very impressive and somewhat incongruous war memorial in the middle of the site:
Meanwhile Les walked on ahead and took some more exteriors before exploring the church.
This was a major surprise. I was expecting a modernist interior, in keeping with the inter-war architecture of the rest of the site – but just take a look at this fantastic mock-medieval ceiling:
The interior had been vandalized, of course, but the graffiti was strange to say the least. On the west wall, the words GET OUT were daubed in silver paint. Near the north door, we found this rather ominous message, presumably painted by the same person:
Opposite that, also in silver paint and looking as though it was the handiwork of the same person, was a very strange item claiming that a girl had been raped and murdered on that very spot. Deciding that all the graffiti must have been the work of some local lunatic, Les and I took some more pics here before moving on. Sadly, we didn’t have a way of reaching the high windows in the west wall – we really fancied a photo of the hooded man peering in from outside.
Les had been told that there was a swimming pool somewhere on the site. As we left the church by the north door we spotted the unmistakable glow of Inter-war Municipal Swimming Baths Blue some distance away.
The pool was a fair size, well over six feet at the deep end, and must have been a cracking facility in its heyday. At one end was a ladder, rather shakily fixed to the concrete lip, and Les asked me to perch on the top while he took some more shots.
The next place we looked at was the sports hall. It was in terrible disrepair, and the changing rooms had practically been demolished. While we were looking around, I found some graffiti which indicated that we weren’t the only people to have been there in the previous few days.
It was strange to think of a gang of kids, probably from Aberthaw or St Athan – it’s too far from Barry, unless they cycled there – writing their little tribute to a pop legend in a place where the chances of anyone else seeing it were pretty slim.
By now Les and I were starting to feel like amateur historians or archaeologists, extrapolating the purpose of these abandoned buildings from their interior layout and the remnants of their contents. However, the next building we came to was obviously the pump room and the home of the electrical equipment. I love looking at old mechanical equipment, and I’m especially fascinated with the factory nameplates – ghosts of Britain’s engineering heritage. I just find the names evocative of Empire and austerity and the country’s vanishing manufacturing industry.
We took another batch of photos here before moving on to what must have been a dormitory block. Then we found the single graffito that made the whole shoot worthwhile – the perfect illustration of what Les had been trying to achieve from the start:
We left the Boys Village after about an hour and a half. Les had taken about three hundred pictures, from all angles and using many different settings to vary the effects. We reactivated the satnav and soon found ourselves back on familiar territory. We drove on to Merthyr Mawr and scouted around Candleston Castle – but that’s a location for another day, and another set of costumes!
Later, at home, I googled the words ‘Boys Village’ and ‘Aberthaw’. I learned that it had been built as a holiday camp for miners’ sons from the valleys, at a time when even seaside holidays were a luxury, and foreign holidays were just a fantasy unless you were exceptionally wealthy. It was an age before regular international flights, widespread car ownership, and the ready availability of a break in the sun, made the holiday away from home just a dream for many. It was a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of the industrial valleys, an era when incurable diseases like polio and diphtheria ravaged the childhoods of thousands, and the economy, still reeling from the Wall Street Crash, was entering a decade-long depression relieved only by the advent of another global conflict.
Looking back through my pictures, I imagined charabangs from the valleys making their way through the narrow lanes, their passengers cheering wildly as they disembarked at their temporary home, free from the privations of home and able to experience a radically different lifestyle – if only for a week or so.
I checked another couple of websites as well, just out of curiosity, To my surprise, BBC Wales seems to have missed out on an atmospheric and haunting location for Doctor Who or Torchwood, just on its doorstep. Maybe they don’t know about it.
In any case, it’s too late now. Apparently the whole place is scheduled for demolition any time. A lot of the site has already been cleared, and no doubt it will become another housing estate for the super-rich of Cardiff. I certainly hope the war memorial can be preserved in some way.
In a perfect world, some or all of the buildings would be moved brick by brick to the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans. (Although, as someone pointed out on the South Wales Anarchist forum a while ago, the Museum of Welsh Life seems to have a strictly agrarian/rural bias.) The country’s industrial heritage is glossed over or sidelined, confined to a reconstructed row of old houses from Merthyr. But the Boys Village is as much a key component of our industrial past as the rusted pithead at Trehafod, or the Blaenavon Ironworks.
Whatever becomes of the Boys Village, Les and I felt privileged and excited to have visited this forgotten corner of Wales, and immortalized it in photographs.
Incidentally, I dug out Explorer sheet 166 yesterday. While the buildings are marked in outline on the map, the place isn’t labelled. We’d have been driving around for hours if we’d taken it with us. It was proof that it sometimes pays to use an outdated map, as well as state-of-the-art technology.