In which The Author refreshes his memory of
the parts Google Streetview didn’t reach
In ‘The Folks Who Lived on the Hill
‘ I wrote about the area of Trecynon where I grew up. I confined myself to a fairly narrow compass of a couple of streets, writing largely from memory.
It’s been a very long time since I took a long and detailed walk through the streets of my childhood. Even though I moved back to Trecynon nearly twelve years ago, my regular walking routes seem to be focused on the main road, the village square, St Fagan’s Church (for weddings and – mostly – funerals) and a few side streets around my house.
When I compare Trecynon to the Hirwaun of my mother’s childhood, or Cwmbach before the new houses were built, or Cwmdare when we were kids, it seems that remarkably little has changed. For the most part, the lanes and trips and gullies and tips are still pretty much intact.
Some years ago my friend Olly and I were chatting over beers and trying to draw our home areas from memory. It was harder than either than of us imagined. Olly lives in a comparatively ordered grid of Victorian streets close to the town centre, but even so it took him a couple of attempts to sketch the layout and get the street names right. Compared to that rather formal coordinated development, Trecynon has grown organically, spreading out from the bank of the river Cynon from which it takes its name.
It was originally called Heol-y-Felin, a reference to the mill beside the river which was the main feature of the village when the first houses were built. I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life in Trecynon. Olly spent a lot of time there when he was a teenager, knocking about with a couple of lads I knew. It still took us about half a dozen goes to remember all the back streets and short cuts. Our mental maps were faded and frayed at the edges.
That all changed on Friday. Dafydd, a friend of mine, is standing for Plaid Cymru in the forthcoming election. Dafydd’s father Rowland and my father were old friends; Rowland used to edit the local paper back in the 1980s, which is when we first became friends. I used to do the odd bit of hackwork for them now and again, in the days when it really was a local paper and we made our own typos, rather than importing them from Cardiff or Merthyr. When Dafydd’s candidacy was announced, I immediately contacted Rowland. I told him that if Dafydd wanted any leaflets delivered around Trecynon and Robertstown, I’d be happy to take them off his hands. After all, it’s quite a large area, and it would free his team up to campaign elsewhere.
On Friday, armed with well over a thousand copies of their newsletter, I set off from door to door around what should have been familiar streets.
I decided not to do the blocks immediately around my house – they could wait until another time. The weather forecast was for showers, so I thought I’d go a bit further afield to begin with, and try and make the most of the weather. I started off in Union Street, just round the corner from my house, and did one side of the terrace fairly quickly. At the bottom I turned into Bell Street and soon picked up a fair burst of speed.
Even here, the houses I remembered as a child seem to have changed dramatically. The big house on the corner of Union St and Bell St was the home of one of my brother’s schoolfriends. I vaguely remember a tumbledown place which looked like something from a South African shanty town. Phil used to tell me about the slum-like conditions his friend and his siblings endured when he was growing up. Many years later, Phil said ‘I think his mother might have been an alcoholic.’ It’s surprising how the wisdom of age sheds new light on childhood observations. Maybe, as Blake had it, we really do make the transition from Innocence to Experience. Now, the house is a smart and desirable property in a good location.
I was sure that most of the houses in Bell Street had coal cellars. I could have sworn there used to be dozens of iron grilles set into the pavements. Now, there only seem to be two or three left. I imagine that everyone’s switched to gas by now. The skyline has also altered since I was young. Chimneys are redundant, so they’ve mostly been pulled down, giving a flat uniform roofline across the streets.
When I walked along Alma Street, I was sad to find that ‘the haunted house’ where my mates and I used to play seems to be empty again. There was no sign of an estate agent’s board outside, but there was a pile of junk mail inside the front door. I added one of Dafydd’s leaflets to it, in case the owner’s working quietly on the place and returns before Thursday.
Just along from there, the Gospel Hall where my parents sent me to Sunday School a few times is also up for sale. Hen Dy Cwrdd, a historically important chapel on the corner, has had a new roof built. It’s got a blue plaque now. There’s talk of converting it into a heritage centre. The Mount Pleasant is still closed, although there must be a live-in caretaker as the lights are on at night. The hair salon is still there, having changed its name half a dozen times over the years, but the chapel on the fourth corner is now a nursery.
Back in Bell Street, I passed my friend Andrew’s old house. I’ve got a vague feeling that the big building on the corner next door used to be a shop, but I can’t be sure. I’ve got the former borough librarian Richard Arnold’s list of old pubs at home. I don’t think there’s a comparable list of old shops. That would be an interesting research project for the summer holidays – or maybe my retirement.
Now I was on my old stamping ground – Meirion Street. I went up one side, crossed over, did the other side, and eventually found myself at the three bungalows I mentioned in ‘The Folks Who Lived on the Hill
‘. These were the first real gardens and pathways I’d had to do so far. The rest had been old-fashioned terraced houses like mine, where the front door opens straight onto the street.
From there I went down into Gadlys Uchaf and did the six houses there. My friend Ian’s parents still live in the same house that they did when we were growing up. Ian’s father John and his sister Elizabeth are Plaid Cymru councillors, and I couldn’t resist scribbling ‘COALS TO NEWCASTLE’ on the top of the leaflet before I posted it through John’s door.
A minute later I was at my old house. Our front gate used to be overshadowed by a huge bush, which needed regular trimming so that people could come in and out. Now, the whole front garden seems to have been turned into an arboretum. Getting to the front door was a bit of a battle, and I wondered for a moment whether anyone actually lived there. Next door, Miss Rees’s old house has had radical surgery, and the garden seems to have been landscaped.
Now I had a brand new experience. I entered the little lane halfway up the hill for the first time in my life. There are two or three houses here, with their front entrances at right angles to the rest of the street. When we were growing up, there were two young sisters living there whose idea of ‘playing’ seemed to consist almost entirely of shrieking at the tops of their voices. While we lads were off making dens, sliding down the tips, or skimming stones in the river, these two were recording sound effects for slasher movies. I can’t even remember their names.
Back on the street, I encountered my first case of Voter Resistance. A woman came out of her house holding the leaflet in her hands.
‘I don’t vote,’ she said, tearing it in half and putting it ostentatiously in the bin. I shrugged and carried on around the corner back into Bell Street. On the end of this block is an empty shop, that used to be a motor spares dealer until a couple of years ago. When we were kids, it used to be a bookie’s. It wasn’t one of the brightly lit betting shops that we know these days, but a mysterious place of blacked-out windows, with an extractor fan which exhaled a constant stream of tobacco smoke into the atmosphere.
I made my way back into in Alma Street again. We can date this street fairly accurately from the name – to the Crimean War or just afterwards. I did about a dozen houses before coming to a wooden gate between two houses. It occurred to me that it was the side gate into what used to be Ian’s grandparents’ garden. We used to spend hours there, potching in the shed or just nattering in the garden, while Mrs Daniel would bring us glasses of pop and biscuits. Old Mr Daniel and his son John would keep in touch pre-telephones by yelling to each other across the back wall. Dai passed away late in 1984 or early in 1985, when I was studying in London. I posted a sympathy card – it was the least I could do for Ian’s sweet old gran.
At the bottom of Alma Street the houses stop abruptly at a high wall, with a patch of rough ground beyond. Back when we were kids you could scale the wall and take a short cut across to Gadlys Uchaf, past the foundations of a couple of old brick buildings, or carry straight on. More derelict foundations ended at a brick doorway, before a flight of stone steps led down to the old tramroad and the iron bridge.
When I was about sixteen, a local builder, the father of some pals of mine, built a large bungalow at the end of Alma Street. I’ve seen this area marked on old maps as Prospect Place, but I don’t know exactly where it was, or the extent of it. The iron bridge itself, a tramroad bridge over the river Cynon dating from 1811, has recently been awarded a blue plaque by the Institution of Civil Engineers.
I went back up Alma Street and into Belle Vue. This was where more of our friends lived when we were growing up. It’s an odd tucked-away place of some forty cottages, which seems to ramble freely into St John’s Street and back out again, and which changes from a tarmac street to a narrow unmade lane about halfway along. There used to be steps down the tips here too, but now the old customary footpaths have been annexed by private gardens. When Dad was a councillor, he always used to dread rights of way disputes arising between neighbours. Looking at the places where we used to play, I imagine he must have dealt with a fair number in his time.
I returned to Bell Street and carried on to the end, before doubling back and returning to Union Street. On the way I passed Heolyfelin, one of those stone buildings that punctuated the village streets in my childhood. I don’t know whether it’s still in use.
At the top of the hill I emerged into Ebenezer Street, named after yet another chapel which dominates this short stretch of road. We used to hold our annual carol service here when we were in junior school. It’s up for sale now. It’ll probably go the same way as Noddfa, just a hundred yards away – converted into a private house. A wooden gate opposite the chapel leads to a couple of houses which you’d never guess were there. It’s no wonder the relief postmen get confused when they first do our walk. Mansel and Miriam’s shop used to stand right on the corner of Mill Street. It was jam-packed with every imaginable piece of hardware the tradesman or do-it-yourselfer could ever need. It’s a house now.
As you can guess, Mill Street leads down to the site of the building which gave the village its original name. Although it’s marked on old maps, I’ve never been able to pinpoint it on the ground.
Here you can see the real organic development of Trecynon which I mentioned earlier. The houses don’t ‘match’ – they’re a higgledy-piggledy mixture of traditional cottages, short terraces, and newer houses with large gardens. Most of them are raised quite some distance above the road, with flights of steps leading to the front doors. There’s an enormous variety of gates and different styles of letterbox to negotiate. Each one has its own distinct character, with some residents clearly taking a keen interest in their gardens, and others seeing them as a necessary evil.
I was surprised at how many of these old places were unoccupied, like the ‘haunted house’, but with no obvious sign of being on the market. Given the choice of a ‘starter home’, built in no time in amongst hundreds of other identical properties, or an interesting old cottage like those in Mill Street, I know which one I’d plump for every time.
I did the other side of Mill Street, a similar randomly-constructed row of houses. Another one of them was a shop when we were growing up. The owner was D. Allen (don’t ask me his first name – I just remember the name painted above the plate-glass window) and it was the only shop in Trecynon that opened on a Sunday afternoon. I can’t remember when it closed for good.
When Tom James was the village postmaster, the post office used to be a few doors away. A few weeks ago Gaz and I were talking about Trecynon; he’d never realised that the odd position of the pillar box, fifty yards or so from the post office, dates back to the historical layout of the square. Now, on the corner, I had a choice of routes. I could have gone straight down Harriet Street, or explored yet more virgin territory. I decided to take the road less travelled.
Just behind the old post office, ever since I was old enough to explore that area, I’d known that there was a signpost pointing towards ‘Primrose Hill’. I’d only heard of Primrose Hill in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (the animated version, of course), as the place where Pongo initiates the Twilight Bark. When I was young I think I must have assumed it was some sort of Trecynon in-joke, like the words JOE’S CAFE painted on the back of a barn on the old tramroad. However, it’s real. You climb a short rise and drop down to a pair of large cottages, just at the top of a slope. One is in fairly decent nick. The other one looked empty.
Behind Primrose Hill are Clive Street and Clive Place, a pair of fairly steep terraces dropping towards the tramroad.
[A digression: It was only on a visit to the Museum of Welsh Life a couple of years ago that Mother and I realized where the street names in Trecynon had originated. In 1819 Robert Henry Clive (1789–1854), the grandson of Clive of India, married Harriet Windsor, the daughter of the 5th Earl of Plymouth. They made their home at St Fagan’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan – and presumably one family or other owned most of the land around Trecynon. As I’ve already mentioned, the parish church is dedicated to St Fagan; Harriet Street, Windsor Street and Clive Street all meet at a common point just south-east of the church. St Fagan’s Church certainly dates from around the time of Robert Clive’s death, so it would make sense if it was named with him in mind. As Mother and I stood in the museum, reading about the history of the place, the missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place.]
Finally I came to one of the most mysterious streets in the whole of Trecynon – Stag Street. Named after a long-vanished pub, it runs parallel to Harriet Street, tucked away behind the Full Moon. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before. There are about a dozen cottages there, all accessed through gates and down little flights of stone steps. They seem almost as random as the cottages in Mill Street. This must have been the old heart of Trecynon, before the population expanded to man the ironworks and collieries, necessitating the long four-square terraces which make up the bulk of the village. I found myself wondering what the inhabitants must have to contend with during snow, or flooding, or when they became too infirm to manage the steps. I was thinking this is no place for old people to live when a woman in her early seventies came to the door, proving me wrong. I suppose if you’ve lived there all your life, you get used to steps, and slopes, and rainwater pouring down your front steps.
I crossed the bypass, leafleted the three new houses just before the railway bridge, and then did the two cottages at Arthur’s Place – another place I’d never set foot in before that day. As I was crossing the road again, Shanara texted me to see where I was. That was a good point to finish. I headed to our new local, the Llwyncelyn, and a few minutes later she joined me. By then, I was ready for a pint!
When I got home, I put a status on Facebook in which I referred to the weird nooks and crannies I’d discovered that afternoon. A couple of my friends commented on it.
My old friend Andrew L. said, ‘I always thought Trecynon was the most interesting and peculiar village in the upper Cynon Valley!’
Gaz replied, ‘Yes, I agree with Andrew, there are lots of peculiar places in Trecynon. I didn’t realise my house existed until I bought it. It’s a bugger if you want to book a taxi though – you have to give them precise instructions as the address bears no relation to where the house is.’
Personally I think Andrew was dead on the money. We may have lost some pubs, and most of the chapels, and a lot of the old shops, but we’ve retained the character of the village. It hasn’t doubled in size, like Cwmdare; it hasn’t been radically remodelled, like Cwmbach; it hasn’t been levelled and rebuilt, like half of Hirwaun. It’s where I grew up …
As Ray Davies once sang:
This is my street,
and I’m never gonna leave it
And I’m always gonna stay,
if I live to be ninety-nine
‘Cos all the people I meet
Seem to come from my street
And I can’t get away
‘Cos it’s part of me …