In which The Author ponders another geographical question
Back in 198–, my friend Leigh was running a DIY punk label from his parents’ house in Penderyn. This period was the height of the anarcho-punk scene which had been inspired by Crass and their contemporaries. That itself had been a direct response to the initial punk rallying cry of, ‘Anyone can do it!’ It reached its peak around the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, with dreadlocked, alcohol-fuelled grindcore bands playing wild gigs in small venues up and down the country. Phil, Leigh, some of the Carpenters boys, and I used to see the likes of Carcass, Doom, Filthkick, Extreme Noise Terror and Chaos UK.
One record label which played a seminal part in the growth of the anarcho scene was Peaceville, run by the legendary Hammy. Leigh had some of his LPs, which he was distributing at his band’s own gigs and those which he helped to organise.
At the time I was working with an Apple Mac-based system, and was able to do some typesetting for Leigh’s flyers and cassette inserts (remember them?) during my lunch breaks. I was also operating an offset litho printer, and ran off flyers and handouts for him during work time, in between printing the in-house newsletter. It’s the nearest I ever got to Anarchy in action. The scene operated a strict barter economy, so Leigh used to pay me in records.
One of his stock items was the debut LP by Leeds band Gold Frankincense and Disk Drive – Where Do We Draw The Line? A slab of chunky, beefy, musically-interesting, intelligent, politically-astute, keyboard-driven prog rock, in a gatefold sleeve with the lyrics printed on the inside, it was very much out of kilter with the rest of Hammy’s output. GFDD’s main man Andy Tillison once told me (quite proudly) that it was Peaceville’s worst-selling LP. It had only been on Leigh’s turntable for about thirty seconds before I decided that it would settle his tab nicely. It did the rounds of Aberdare for a while. Pam and Jason W. loved it. I’ll write about meeting Andy again (see Our Friends in the North), but for now I’ll let the title serve as inspiration for this entry.
The ‘line’ in question was the boundary (physical or notional) that people erect between each other. The LP cover was a portion of the Ordnance Survey map covering Hadrian’s Wall. On the inside was a photo of the Berlin Wall. The first song ended with Andy’s impassioned cry, ‘There is only one man-made artefact visible from Space – and not surprisingly, it’s a wall!’ Then there were the fences that surrounded the townships of the apartheid regime, and the Iron Curtain which (although none of us knew it at the time) was set to collapse within months of the LP’s release.
Anyway, this lengthy preamble is just scene-setting. About ten years ago I came up with the (not unique, I dare say) idea of photographing all the chapels, pubs, schools, churches, interesting buildings, statues, and other features of the Cynon Valley. We’d done much the same thing in 1986-7, with the Cynon Valley Profile. Things had moved on. Chapels had fallen into disuse and/or disrepair. Pubs were closing, or being converted into flats. School buildings were being replaced by more modern facilities. It seemed as though the local authority was hell-bent on selling off as much empty land as possible to property developers. I thought it was probably time to update the work we’d done with the Profile.
Of course, film was expensive, processing was expensive, and only about half the photos I took were actually usable. This was long before I was online, so even though I made a decent start around Trecynon and Aberdare, I didn’t really know what I was going to with the results anyway. Consequently, I soon put the project on the back-burner with all the others. Over time, I progressed to a digital camera and explored the possibilities of the virtual world. Once I finished work, the project came back to life. And, like Topsy, it just growed …
I decided that it would be silly to confine myself to such a narrow area. South Wales is big, and fairly easy (if time-consuming) to get around by public transport. But the digital camera takes 300+ photos at 12MP, and runs for ages on a single set of batteries. With a bit of planning, decent weather, and a pair of sturdy boots, I could record one district at a time and put thumbnails online. I even had the idea of selling prints of the photos to online customers. I could get high-quality A4 (or bigger) prints done in the local pharmacy, send them to people all over the world, and maybe make a few quid out an accidental hobby. In a moment of madness I bought a domain name (which reminds me, I must email my pal about hosting it for me) as a shop window for my photography.
So far I’ve managed to record most of the top half of the Cynon Valley, some of the Rhondda Fawr, Bedlinog, Blackwood, Nelson, and parts of Merthyr Tydfil town centre. I’ve also scanned a few selected photos which I had kicking around in a drawer, of things like Hirwaun Flats and the Phurnacite Plant demolition. Anyway, I was organising the shots into folders on my hard drive over the weekend, and came up against a small problem.
Actually, it’s not a small problem at all – it’s pretty fundamental to the integrity of the project. And it’s this:
How exactly do I decide where one folder ends and the next begins?
Take Aberdare, for example. I’ve got about 250 photos, which all live in a folder called Aberdare. There’s also a subfolder called Green St Methodist Church. One of our drinking buddies is the local circuit minister, Revd Robin Wood, and I explained the aim of the project to him over a pint one night. He very kindly let me have the run of the church on a Friday morning so I could photograph the interior. It makes sense to separate them out from the rest of the Aberdare photos.
But is there any need to create sub-folders for Foundry Town, Daviestown, and Maes-y-Dre? Personally, I don’t think so. Although they constitute residential districts on the outskirts of the commercial centre, they’re all served by the same Post Office, parish church, and councillors. If you catch the train or the bus, or drive to ‘Aberdare’, that’s pretty much where you’ll find yourself.
Slightly further to the north, just across the road from St John’s Church, one comes to the next notional area – the Gadlys. This should be pretty clearly defined, in theory. After all, just a hundred yards down Depot Road one finds the buildings of the former Gadlys Ironworks. You’ve got one long terrace which runs as far as the bottom gates of the Park, with side streets branching off on both sides.
On the east side of the road, the houses end abruptly as they did when they were first built, on a ridge overlooking the ironworks. Now, that same line forms the boundary of Tesco. A dozen new houses have been built in the last few years, but otherwise the area is pretty much unchanged. On the other side of the main road, the houses also occupy the same footprint as they did a century ago, and stop dead at the edge of St John’s School. But where does it end to the north? Some people say that the Gadlys ends halfway down Tudor Terrace:
Both Phil and Jeff the plumber have told me that, back when the houses were being built, the north side was built first. It seems that the land to the north was owned by one person, and that to the south by someone else. This (apparently) is the reason why there are Lime trees planted on the north side, but not on the south side.
Without opening too much of a can of worms, when I was a kid I always considered the dividing line to be slightly further north, at Broniestyn Terrace. Certainly, when I was growing up, what is now the Premier supermarket was the Gadlys Co-op. In my mind, that was Gadlys, not Trecynon. But the street names didn’t really make sense, in retrospect. Why would Gadlys Co-op be on Gadlys Road? After all, the main road out of Aberdare is called Cardiff Road. In Trecynon, the (old) main road is called Hirwaun Road. The main road through Hirwaun to the north is called Brecon Road, and the one running east into the next valley is called Merthyr Road. (Then again, if you follow Manchester Place in Hirwaun to its logical conclusion, you don’t end up in Manchester, but on Rhigos Road – which will take you to Rhigos.) Logically, Gadlys Road shouldn’t really be on the Gadlys. No, surely there must be more to it than that …
I’ve been faced with a similar dilemma here:
(That’s one of mine. Don’t bother searching for the link, by the way, it’s just a placeholder at the moment.)
Is the Iron Bridge in Trecynon, or Robertstown? If we define Robertstown as the five streets or so east of the railway line, then it’s in Trecynon. Even so, I imagine a large proportion of people still refer to it as ‘Robertstown Bridge.’ While we’re in the vicinity, what about this, about thirty yards downstream …?
This is the railway bridge across the Cynon. By my own criteria (being east of the line) this photo was taken from Robertstown. If I’d snapped the same structure from a bit further upstream, it would have gone in my Trecynon folder. What happens when you’re right on the edge? Do I keep it in one folder and risk people missing it, or waste my bandwidth by duplicating it? I haven’t even touched on the problems inherent in drawing the lines between the more-or-less continuous housing that makes up Aberaman, Godreaman, Cwmaman and Glynhafod. At least there are natural breaks between Aberaman, Abercwmboi, Glenboi and Mountain Ash. I’m still not entirely sure where Darranlas stops and Miskin starts, mind you.
Walk the almost unbroken ribbon development stretching from Treherbert to Llwynypia (as I did two years ago) and you’ll apparently pass through Tynewydd, Treorchy, Pentre, Ton Pentre, Ystrad and Gelli. (As Eric Morecambe almost said, I’m not necessarily listing them in the right order.) While consulting Wikipedia last week, I found out last week that there’s a place in the Rhondda Fawr called Pen-yr-Englyn. It was news to me.
A shout-out on Facebook turned up some information from my pal Simon M., who used to live in the area. He said that it was between Treorchy and Treherbert, and reasserted its identity in Passport to Pimlico style a few years ago. That was news to me too.
I also found out that there was a place called Stanleytown. I asked about that as well. Neola, who was born there, told me that it was ‘five streets, a pub and a very steep hill.’ Fair enough – Robertstown is five streets, a pub, but no hill. That’s got a separate folder. Mind you, it did have a church and a nursery school. Maybe Stanleytown needs a subfolder, on account of the hill. I had to level with Neola and told her I was inclined to leave it alone. The inhabitants must know where their communities start and finish, I suppose. But it makes my cataloguing task a real challenge.
For a while, it crossed my mind to use parish churches as benchmarks. In England, it’s easy. The 1: 25,000 Ordnance Survey maps of England show parish boundaries. They haven’t changed for centuries, defined by streams, lanes and hedges since Time Immemorial. But in Wales the parishes were replaced by Communities back in the day. I doubt if many people know for sure where their hometown begins and ends, except in places like Llantrisant where the townsfolk still ‘beat the bounds’ once a year.
My friend Hywel George and I discussed a similar idea for Aberdare over a pint a few years ago. Hywel is a keen amateur historian, with a particular interest in ecclesiastical history. He’d drawn up the boundaries of Aberdare Parish. We were wondering whether ‘beating the bounds’ would be an interesting way for people to acquaint themselves better with the place where they live.
After chatting to Hywel, I wondered whether he’d hit on a good idea. Many places in rural England have a parish council, and that helps to establish a common identity in the minds of their inhabitants. But I’m not convinced that the same principle would work when trying to catalogue photos taken in the post-industrial Welsh valleys. Our religious tradition is more strongly rooted in Nonconformism than in Anglicanism. The ‘parish church’ isn’t really at the heart of the community in Wales in the way it is in England. Friends of mine who live in Abernant worship at St Fagan’s Church in Trecynon.
Furthermore, not many areas of the valleys have ‘community councils’ (which seem to be simply a way of increasing Council Tax bills). Would anyone looking for pictures of Bryncethin (a village north of Bridgend, where my friend Lucy G. currently lives) really think of looking in an online album called St Bride’s Minor? I don’t think so, personally.
It did cross my mind to follow the electoral boundaries at first. But they shift all the time. In 1974, we had to learn the names of the eight counties in Wales which replaced the previous thirteen. Villages which had been in Breconshire were now in Mid Glamorgan or Gwent. Those counties were dissolved and new lines drawn in 1996, when Wales introduced unitary authorities. This time, towns in what-had-been-Glamorgan found their way into what-had-been-Gwent, and vice versa.
[A digression: I’ve been corresponding with a chap named Bob Deal, from Baltimore, MD, who’s researching his family tree. His great-grandfather was born in a street in Trecynon which has subsequently been renamed. He’d found a reference to the vicinity in this very blog and contacted me via the comments field. I did some research in Aberdare Library and was able to solve an eight-year mystery that had stymied Bob entirely. Because of the distances, and the fact that not everything is online, I’ve been able to help him out with some more odds and ends. Two of his ancestors were married in a chapel in Beaufort, which is now part of Ebbw Vale, in the County Borough of Blaenau Gwent. Another ancestor was born in Dowlais. I’ve had to point him towards three different archives, purely because the county lines keep moving.]
They might move again soon. The Electoral Commission recently announced proposals to carve our valley into three. The northern wards would be subsumed into a new Heads of the Valleys constituency, along with Merthyr and Rhymney. The central third would be lumped into the Rhondda, and the southern wards would be annexed by Pontypridd. The council wards might have been another idea, but they change names as well from time to time. And, to be honest, not even the PCSOs assigned to Aberdare West & Llwydcoed (my ward) are entirely sure of the extent of their area.
After a while (and much studying of OS maps) I decided that the most logical approach was to catalogue my photos by geography. After all, the Cynon Valley forms a fairly discrete area, running roughly north-south from Penderyn to Abercynon, with Cwmaman, Cwmbach, Abernant and Cwmbach tucked away to the sides. Once you go over the Maerdy Mountain you’re in the Rhondda, and go over the Merthyr Mountain and you get to Merthyr. Easy!
A leisurely walk to the south is the town of Ynysybwl. It’s in the deep gorge of the Clydach, sandwiched between the Cynon and Rhondda Valleys. A former mining community, it’s always been more closely linked to Pontypridd than to the Cynon Valley of which it forms a part (for administrative purposes, at least). You won’t read about events in Ynysybwl in the Cynon Valley Leader. (Although, come to think of it, you won’t read about many events in the Cynon Valley in that particular rag nowadays.)
Ynysybwl stories have traditionally found their way into the Pontypridd Observer. So, should I start a new album for the Clydach Valley, just for pictures of Ynysybwl, Glyncoch and Coed-y-Cwm? Should I incorporate it as a subfolder of the Cynon Valley and hope the Electoral Commission plans get junked? Or should I bite the bullet, made it a subfolder of Pontypridd, and hope for the best? What happens to Cwm Clydach in that case? It’s a side valley off Tonypandy, where my friend Karen Roberts is the councillor. There’s another Clydach further west. Confused? You will be!
I really need to consider the cut-off points of the whole project. I’d already decided to draw the southern limit of the area at the M4. Then I glanced at the map again and discovered that I’d exclude most of Bridgend. Did it really matter? After all, the heritage is all north of the motorway. Except Ewenny Pottery, Coity Castle, the Ford plant …
Should I go as far north as Pont-Nedd-Fechan (where the old Gunpowder Works are surely worth recording?) If I do, I’ll have to take in Banwen, Coelbren, Blaengwynfi, and weird places like those. How far west do I need to go? Neath? Swansea? Llanelli …? How far east …?
I’d welcome your suggestions, folks. Please don’t just comment when this feeds through to Facebook. I’ll never be able to find them again with the bloody Timeline shambles. If you have any ideas, hints for things I might like to record, or tip-offs about buildings that might be under threat of demolition, please leave a comment below. They’d be greatly appreciated!