In which The Author recalls some late-night drives
On Saturday afternoon Rhian and I called into the Glosters for a pint. We both needed a change of scene from the Prince of Wales – for different (but connected) reasons – and this backstreet pub-of-two-halves (see Another One Bites the Dust
) is one of the few decent places left in Aberdare town centre.
In a typically complicated Valleys way, Rhian is somehow related to the family who’ve owned the place since before I was old enough to drink in there. I’ve been going there on and off for years; some of the girls we knew were in school with Elaine, the owners’ daughter, so we used to call in at weekends.
Recently, I’ve started to make it an occasional bolt-hole from the idiots who seem to populate every other pub. In fact, I spent New Year’s Eve afternoon in there, finishing off In the City
and chatting to my friends Nick and Hilary.
On Saturday afternoon, we sat on the high stools at the bar and chatted to Rebecca C., a student and third-generation family barbint. A few of the other afternoon regulars were there as well, and we started talking about the village of Penderyn, about five miles north of Aberdare, where one of them lives.
It’s a small settlement on the southern fringe of the Brecon Beacons National Park, right at the edge of Rhondda Cynon Taf. At the northern end, there are two pubs, The Lamb at the foot of a steep hill and The Red Lion at the top, with St Cynog’s Church opposite the latter, surrounded by a scattering of farm buildings and fields.
There are some houses around The Lamb, a large limestone quarry alongside the main road towards Brecon, a couple of chapels, and (further south) a community centre, a village shop, a new school, more farm buildings, some grand houses, and the eponymous distillery which has made the village famous throughout the UK and beyond.
[A digression: Back in 1986-7, a gang of misfits and eccentrics (including Ross D., Rob H., and me) were working on a research project called The Cynon Valley Profile. We shared the W.W. Price Research Room in Aberdare Library with a chap named Simon J., who was working on an unrelated project about outdoor pursuits in the Cynon Valley. As well as sharing the room, we shared information and photographs, and undertook a number of expeditions together.
Towards the end of the project, I was using an early word processor to type out our findings. It made sense for me to type Simon’s various booklets as well as our own – although I couldn’t resist adding a little bit to his description of the village. As a result, should you happen to find a copy of Simon’s guide to The Foel Penderyn Walk, don’t be surprised when you read this:
Today, Penderyn still has many characteristics of a rural village e.g. a blacksmith, farms, two-hourly bus service, pubs without horse-brasses, unvandalised phone box, its setting, etc.]
Rebecca told us that she and her boyfriend had been driving around Penderyn one night when someone tapped on the car window. She wound it down very cautiously, only to see a large shaven-headed bloke in camouflage gear, with a large dog on a chain, standing beside the car.
‘You want to be careful,’ he said. ‘There are some dodgy people about.’
As Rebecca laughed, ‘He must have meant “even dodgier than me”!’
A well-worn footpath behind The Lamb leads roughly northwards across fields, marsh and moorland, and down a steep slope to a spectacular waterfall (see Going Down The River.
) If you go east from the pub car park, a rough road cuts across to the upper reaches of the Taff Valley. A couple of miles along, the Garwnant Centre serves as a base for outdoor pursuits in the enormous swathe of Forestry Commission plantations all around. Eventually, you emerge at a large reservoir to the north of Merthyr Tydfil, and there’s a narrow road around it which leads to the A470.
This minor road, known as Cwm Cadlan (or just ‘The Cadlan’) is a strange place, indicated with a signpost that would be a museum piece in most parts of the country:
It was a long time after the end of the project that I first travelled the length of Cwm Cadlan for myself. Pam had passed her driving test and bought her first car: a Mini. It was nippy, sporty, and ideal for zooming around deserted country lanes in the middle of the night. Needless to say, that’s exactly what we did! Pam would drive, I’d navigate, and we’d go exploring these remote places in the pitch darkness.
One night, Jason W. was with us as well, and he’d had a good smoke before we even set off. For an adventure, we decided to drive the length of the Cadlan, which is totally unlit, with unpredictable twists and turns throughout. We headed to Penderyn and then took the sharp right turn onto the narrow road. After a couple of hundred yards, the car headlights were the only source of illumination we had. We drove on at a fair pace until Pam suddenly slammed the brakes on.
A flock of sheep had got loose from their field, and were standing on the road in front of us. All we could see were dozens of pairs of ghostly eyes, reflecting the glow of the headlights. This unearthly sight terrified Jason, who by now was well and truly stoned. It didn’t do much for me or Pam, either.
She revved the engine, sounded the horn a few times, and revved the engine again. After a little while the sheep got the message and scattered along the narrow verges, while we crept past in case one of them panicked. A sheep can make a hell of a dent in a car’s bodywork.
The last nocturnal trip I took across Cwm Cadlan was with Carys, the night of the General Election in May 2010. She was bored, so she rang me fairly late in the evening to see if I fancied going for a drive. We decided to head for the Forestry Commission land (Carys loves trees), and before long we were negotiating the unpredictable twists and turns of The Cadlan. When we got to the reservoir, we decided to stop and take some photos by the dam and pumping house:
We drove on around the reservoir and stumbled across what I’ll euphemistically describe as a ‘courting couple’ parked up at the side of the road. That reminded me of a great story which had featured in the local press a few years earlier.
Apparently, the people who live around Cwm Cadlan had grown fed up of ‘courting couples’ heading into their vicinity in the small hours. The police weren’t interested, so the locals took matters into their own hands. One night, they cut down trees at either end of the road, trapping the romancers in flagrante delicto, and called the police.
This became a bit of a joke on Aberdare Online, especially when we had a thread called ‘Great Welsh Films That Never Were.’ After we’d seen the old favourites like Dial M For Merthyr and A Fish Called Rhondda, Vicki F. took the first prize with her magnificent and filthy Reservoir Dogging.
Anyway, Carys and I decided to head back into the forest and take some photos there. I was quite impressed by how well my camera performed, to be honest:
While we were on our way back, Carys suddenly screamed and pulled up sharply. On one side of the narrow track was something that looked like a monstrous skull. At first I thought it must have been a boulder, weirdly lit by the headlights. Then we looked again, and it turned out to be a pony, tucked up fast asleep next to a fence. I don’t think we stopped laughing until we emerged in Penderyn and headed for home again.
The most frightening experience of all, though, was one night when Pam and I were on our own. We’d started off by heading for Llyn Fawr, a large glacial lake just off the road between Hirwaun and Treherbert. We’d found the tiny track branching off the A4061, but we’d decided against trying to drive to the lake itself – it was pitch dark and even on high beam the headlights weren’t making much difference.
We reversed back onto the road, headed past Hirwaun Industrial Estate and Rhigos Cemetery, and then turned into Cefn Rhigos, just past the New Inn. From here, there used to be a dirt track called the Old Parish Road, skirting the opencast mine between Rhigos and Cwmgwrach. (I think the opencast working has pretty much effaced it now.)
It was proper rallying territory, and Pam had a great time throwing her car around hairpin turns at high speed. When we eventually arrived at the tiny village of Blaengwrach, we decided to carry on going. We headed across the A465 into Pontneddfechan, and from there onto the steep winding road to Ystradfellte.
Compared to Ystradfellte, Penderyn is a thriving metropolis. It’s got a church, a pub (which never seems to be open), a shop, and a Post Office. Apart from that, it’s almost entirely farming territory. It’s a centre for caving and hiking, but in the middle of night it’s completely deserted. There’s a long and winding road which climbs steeply from the village, slicing through the Forestry Commission land, and eventually joins the Brecon road a couple of miles north of Penderyn. There’s a lay-by close to the junction, where an ice-cream van can be found throughout the spring and summer. It was at this junction where Pam and I eventually returned to the known world.
Except that we didn’t. To our right, looking towards Penderyn, we could make out the road markings fading into the distance, and a row of boulders separating the road from the fields a few feet away.
However, to our left, looking more or less towards Brecon, there was – nothing…
And I mean nothing! It was like looking into the formless black void of Greek mythology, the Chaos out of which the Universe was formed. We both screamed, Pam put her foot down, and I don’t think the car went below 80mph until we were over the cattle grid and back in the safety of Penderyn.
Well, the relative safety of Penderyn – at least we didn’t meet any strange paramilitary types warning us about ‘dodgy people.’