In which The Author takes advantage of a change in the weather
We’ve enjoyed a spell of (mostly) settled and bright but cold weather for the past couple of weeks. Having said that, Gema and I got soaked walking into Aberdare on Thursday. I was wearing my leather jacket and she’d managed to claim a lost umbrella from The Glandover, but the keen wind meant that neither of them provided much respite from the downpour. We had a few pints to mark my birthday, which had passed pretty much without incident as usual.
In fact, apart from a pint with Rhian during the afternoon, and another couple in The Glosters, it could be summarised neatly as 48 not out. Rowland had emailed me to say he was planning a visit, and Martin H. rang me in the afternoon, but in the event I didn’t see either of them. Mother had dropped a card into the house while I was out on Monday, and I rang her in the morning to thank her, but apart from that it was a quiet day all round. My friend Karen W. and I have already decided to hold our joint fiftieth birthday party at St Mair’s Day Centre in Aberdare, when we become eligible to have lunch in there – always assuming, of course, that Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC haven’t closed it by then.
Friday’s forecast was for showers, but it was bright and sunny when I left the house. I decided to head into the Rhondda Valleys to do a bit more work for my Vanishing Valleys project (see Where Do We Draw The Line?
). I bought a return train ticket to Tonypandy and set off before lunchtime, which gave me plenty of time to explore before the light failed.
It’s been a while since I travelled up the Rhondda Fawr on the train, and I always have trouble remembering which order the stations come in. To make matters worse, there were no route maps on display in my carriage. To cap it all – possibly in an attempt to confuse the enemy – all the signs at Tonypandy Station seem to have been removed. Luckily for me, the conductor spotted me frantically trying to establish our whereabouts, giving me just enough time to dive out onto the platform.
I made my way along the rather odd pedestrian walkway which links the station to the southern end of the town, and emerged at a busy traffic roundabout. I’m fairly sure that last time I was in that vicinity, the old pub had been turned into a restaurant. Now it’s a pub again. That seems to be happening a lot in the Valleys lately. I didn’t look in, but carried on walking south and headed uphill towards Penygraig. I had a target in mind.
Over twenty years or more ago, while exploring the Rhondda by bus, I found a decent independent bookshop somewhere in that neck of the woods. I’m sure that I bought my copy of William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice there. It’s a long time since I’ve been through Penygraig on the bus, and I was curious to see if my memory was accurate.
The first indication that I’d entered the village of Penygraig was the entrance to the rugby field, directly across the road from the clubhouse.
I took a couple of photos of the ground itself before carrying on up the steep hill into the centre of the village. It’s a bustling little high street with an unusual range of shops: as well as a butcher, a bakery, a florist, a pharmacy, a newsagent, a place selling soft furnishings, and an ironmonger, you can buy old-fashioned sweets, ice-cream, and collectable models and comics.
Needless to say, there was no sign of an independent bookshop. A recent report in The Bookseller suggested that there are now fewer than a thousand left in the UK. No doubt the one I bought Godwin’s book in was numbered amongst the early casualties.
However, I did find some great architecture and spectacular scenery. For example, smack in the middle of the high street I was struck by the huge frontage of Pisgah Welsh Calvinist Methodist Chapel, which completely overshadows the buildings around it. I decided afterwards that it, and several of the other photos I took that day, would look better in black and white. In fact, if you take out the cars, telegraph poles, modern shop fronts and satellite dishes, a lot of these views probably haven’t changed very much in a century or more.
I followed the road until I came to the local library, which seems to be a fairly recent addition to the village. I tried to call in for a look around, but (as we say in the Valleys) I had second prize. Penygraig is one of the branch libraries which Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC will be closing at the end of this month (see A Further Turn-out For the Books
.) When you look at the opening hours, you wonder whether anyone will really
notice when it’s gone:
At the end of the main street there’s a busy traffic roundabout. Overlooking it, side by side, are a pair of grand buildings:
Soar Chapel, on the left in this picture, is an intriguing building. Originally founded in 1832, it was one of the earliest Baptist chapels in the Rhondda. The old stone front of the later building has been preserved, but cunningly concealed behind it is a brand-new arts centre:
I walked downhill from the roundabout, following the route of the buses to and from Porth. A short walk down the hill is a very grand former pub called The White Rock Hotel (Penygraig means ‘Head of the Rock’ in Welsh), which has been converted into flats. At least it hasn’t succumbed to one of the area’s many mysterious ‘accidental’ fires:
I walked a bit further downhill and found a fairly large school. It’s now a pupil referral unit, dealing with disruptive and/or failing children. On the wall facing the main road, there’s an attractive mural commemorating the area’s role in the coal industry:
I had a funny feeling that if I carried on walking, I’d eventually end up in Dinas. (I haven’t got anything against Dinas, but I wanted to concentrate on Penygraig for the afternoon.) Therefore I doubled back, returned to the roundabout, and crossed the road to Penygraig Labour Club:
There was no sign of life, and I wasn’t even sure whether it was still open. When I passed again later in the afternoon, the shutters were open and a young chap was going in.
I was heading uphill again now, and I could hear the rush of traffic in the distance. The Mid-Rhondda Access Road is elevated above the houses to the west of the town centre, and I caught a glimpse of the fast traffic in a break between buildings. I decided to head along a side street, which climbed steeply to a row of houses. Here, to my surprise, I found an area of waste ground next to a football field, with a great view across the valley:
I walked back to the main road, and within about fifty yards I found myself in Williamstown. I knew I’d entered Williamstown, because there was a sign on a lamp-post at the end of one terraced street. The first thing I saw was a shop selling car parts. Opposite it, Sion Wesleyan Chapel has been converted into a MOT testing centre by the owners of the shop:
There were a few people waiting for a bus, and a light flow of traffic, but the place was quiet otherwise. I’ve travelled through Williamstown on the bus numerous times, but I’ve never paid it much attention. That’s why I do these fact-finding missions on foot – you miss so many interesting details when you’re just shooting through on your way to somewhere else.
The main street boasts a mini supermarket, a smaller grocery, a newsagent, a Chinese takeaway, a florist, a hardware shop, two hair salons, a shop selling filled rolls, and a tanning studio. These last have spread like a plague throughout the Valleys over the past few years; Aberdare alone has about half a dozen. The decline of organised religion can be seen clearly here: Nazareth Chapel has been converted to a day centre; a third former chapel is now the home of Penygraig Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
At the other end of the village I found the Glamorgan Hotel, opposite the Post Office and next to a fish and chip shop. I called in for a glass of lemonade. I had a quick scan through the photos I’d taken thus far, and realised that I’d have to reshoot quite a bit of Penygraig.
I set off again and found myself at yet another roundabout, with a chapel tucked away in a narrow lane, at the foot of a steep hill leading to a row of cottages. I’ve never come across a chapel called Bethabara before – it’s an intriguing name:
Looking at these photos again, there seems to be quite a bit more to Williamstown than I thought from my previous flying visits. In particular, there are a couple of intriguing large buildings in the side streets. I’ll have to pay a return visit to the area when the weather’s settled down again, armed with the Ordnance Survey map and my street atlas (and my tripod!)
The southern traffic roundabout marked the limit of my knowledge of the area; the 172 bus to Bridgend takes the road towards Tonyrefail from here. However, when I was on the hillside, I’d spotted a church nestling in the side streets to the south. That looked worth investigating. Returning to the main road, I spotted a footbridge which led towards the mysterious church. I crossed it, emerged in a row of houses with a couple of industrial units at one end, and headed for the main street. Shortly afterwards, I discovered where I was: Penrhiwfer.
I think I’ve probably come across the name of the village before, but I was never really sure where it was. I was definitely in unknown territory. The church I’d spotted was called St Illtyd’s, in the Parish of Williamstown. It was partially encased in scaffolding, although there was no sign of anyone working on it. It was a Friday afternoon in the Valleys, after all…
Across the road from the church was the community centre; it was locked up and seemed badly in need of a lick of paint. By the time I’d taken some more photos of the church, a crossing patrol man had appeared on the zebra crossing, although I couldn’t figure out where the school was. I followed the road for a few minutes, and emerged into a level stretch with another fine view of the valley:
I’ve always been intrigued by these flying saucers behind the houses. There used to be a couple which you could see when the bus passed through Ferndale, but I don’t know whether they’re still there.
I walked for another couple of minutes until a bus passed me on its way to Tonypandy. It wasn’t operated by Stagecoach, but by a company called N.A.T., and the route number was 152. It was a sure sign that I was off my own personal map and heading into uncharted waters. I was wondering whether to retrace my steps when I spotted a small road sign pointing left towards Office Row and Lewis Arms Row. They sounded as though they’d be worth exploring, so I walked down the steep gravel lane away from the main road.
At the bottom of the lane I found a large scrapyard full of crushed cars. It would have made an interesting photo, if only it hadn’t been shielded by trees. Beside it was a field with a few horses peering curiously over the gate, and around the bend I came upon Office Row:
This little terrace reminded me of the small rows of houses around Abernant and Llwydcoed, tucked away from the main road and secluded behind thick hedges. Behind it, and further up the hillside, was Lewis Arms Row. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’d been a pub there in former times, but that’s a piece of research for another trip.
I followed a rough gravel path to a narrow road, and followed it until I saw a sign announcing the grounds of Williamstown Primary School. It’s on the valley floor, below the church and the houses, which is why I hadn’t seen it from the main road.
It’s a very modern building, and the kids were pouring out as I skirted its perimeter and emerged onto a large busy roundabout. I’d found my way to the Mid-Rhondda Access Road, and now I started to get my bearings; just off the roundabout is Ty Elai, one of the many inaccessible office blocks used by Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC (see The End of Culture.
From there, a narrow footpath led around the perimeter of the offices and emerged in a small estate of new-build houses. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend a ton of money on a brand new house right next to a skip depot:
Another minute or so found me standing outside the old Williamstown Primary School. It’s huge! It’s completely boarded up and fenced off, and the site is being advertised for sale or rent. I’ve got an odd feeling that it’ll go the same way as the old Boys’ Grammar School in Trecynon – pulled down to make way for even more new houses. I was lucky to get some photos of the exterior of the Welsh School in Aberaman before that was demolished. I’m pleased to say that I managed to get a fair number of photos of Williamstown Primary School as well:
This is exactly the sort of thing that I mean by ‘Vanishing Valleys’: historic and distinctive buildings like these, erected at the height of South Wales’ economic prosperity, are disappearing at an alarming rate. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Radio 4’s PM programme. I almost choked when Eddie Mair told his listeners that it was ‘very unusual’ for a Grade II Listed Building to be pulled down. I was very tempted to email him and invite him to join me for a quick one-day tour of the Valleys, so that I could show him the gaping gaps in our architectural and cultural heritage.
From here, I had a choice between retracing my steps or heading for Dinas (or possibly Porth) on foot. It was starting to cloud over, and I didn’t know how far the latter journey would take on foot. I decided to play it safe, and made my way through the side streets until I arrived back at the Post Office. While I was walking, an unusual structure on the hillside above me caught my eye. Pigeon racing used to be a popular pastime in the Valleys, and I think this must be a pigeon loft, perched high above the village:
It didn’t take me long to walk back into Penygraig. While I was on fairly high ground I’d spotted the outline of a church amongst the rooftops, and I thought I’d try and round off the day with a few photos of it. By now, however, the batteries in my camera were running very low and the sky was growing dark. I took a few more photos of the high street, and then set off to look for the church.
The first thing I found, not surprisingly, was another school. Perched halfway up the hillside above the town, this is another rambling late Victorian building of dressed stone with red-brick corners and slate roofs. You can spot a Welsh Valleys school a mile off…
There was still no sign of the church, so I carried on uphill for a short distance and spotted its roof above the houses. I think this is the only Church of St Barnabas I’ve come across during my travels in the Valleys so far:
From here, it was a steep descent back into Tonypandy. I had twenty minutes to wait for the train, so I read the paper and hoped the rain would hold off. Luckily for me, it stayed dry until I arrived in Aberdare, at which point the heavens opened. I dived into the Glosters for a couple of pints and then made my way home.
As I was getting off the bus, the effects of all that walking finally kicked in (see That’s Torn It!
). I spent the whole of yesterday knocking back painkillers, listening to BBC 4 Extra’s celebration of Vivian Stanshall, and working my way through the 150-odd photos I’d taken on my travels.
I still don’t know where the Vanishing Valleys project is going to lead. I’ve got a few ideas already, and Rowland, Martin H., Gaz and Steven G. have come up with some suggestions as well. It might become a website, as I’d originally planned. I might be able to sell prints of some of my photos. Maybe it’ll take a different form entirely. I’ve got plenty of time to explore different avenues. Even if I just end up with a hard drive full of schools, pubs and shops which will be history in twenty years’ time, it’ll certainly be worth the effort.