Have Megarider, Will Travel

In which The Author makes the most of the day

Yesterday afternoon I did something which I haven’t done for well over twenty years. It felt surprisingly good to relive my carefree youth, and even though I was knackered afterwards, it whetted my appetite for more of the same. To quote Prof Jim al-Khalili once again, let me explain…
It was the first day of my jury service, and I was in Merthyr Tydfil bright and early. I phoned last week to ask about the situation with travelling expenses and bus tickets – in particular, the ‘day returns vs Megarider Gold’ dilemma which I mentioned in The Partially-Online World. The lady I spoke to accepted that, given my particular circumstances, they’d reimburse me for a Megarider Gold ticket to cover me for a week. I bought the ticket first thing in the morning, and arrived at the court in plenty of time, in spite of a long delay on the approach road into town.
While going through the security, I realised that I’d left my camera in my bag. I explained to the guard that I usually carry it everywhere, and with the nice weather we’ve been having lately it would be a shame not to have it with me. He agreed with me, and tucked it away for me to collect at the end of the day.
When I got to the Jury Room, the others were already there, and we had a briefing from the lady I’d spoken to last week. Then we watched a DVD about the whole trial process, and settled back to be called. I was halfway through Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee, and (after being advised by friends to take a book) I ploughed on with it. In the event, I was glad I’d taken it with me.
At just after midday, we were told that the defendant had pleaded guilty, and that we were free to go. I retrieved my camera from the security people and headed out into the noonday sun. I could have headed straight back to Aberdare, but the bus station is right opposite the court. As I was walking across the road, I saw a bus depart for Bedlinog. That gave me an idea. The Megarider Gold ticket covers all Stagecoach services in South Wales. Merthyr Tydfil is pretty much the northern hub of the bus network. I had the afternoon to myself. A plan was coming together.
Within half an hour I was passing through the ‘retail park’ at Dowlais Top, on a number 2 bus bound for Bargoed. I haven’t been over the top into the Rhymney Valley for years, and I was surprised by how little has changed at the northern edge. Apart from a smattering of small new-build housing estates, and some light industrial units on the outskirts of the villages, there doesn’t seem to have been much progress in the years since heavy industry receded from this part of the world. Admittedly the landscape is much greener than it was when I was younger, but the waves and troughs of the economic cycle have largely left the place untouched.
(Incidentally, I noticed a sign by the roadworks outside Merthyr this morning, trumpeting that the work was being carried out under the aegis of European Union Objective 2. Call me cynical if you like, but Objective 1 didn’t exactly do a bang-up job of revitalising the run-down areas of the UK. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Objective 2 until this morning. It seems to be the only prospect of any inward investment in the foreseeable future. A few weeks before the European election, I was talking to some friends about the prospect of UKIP winning the lion’s share of the vote. I told them, ‘If Britain leaves the EU, Wales is finished. We might as well just build a wall along Offa’s Dyke and put signs up saying CLOSED DOWN.’)
The bus made steady progress into the small town of Rhymney, and I looked across the valley to an impressive cluster of old buildings which looked worth exploring. A few moments later the bus took a sharp bend in that direction, and we entered the village of Pontlottyn. I made a mental note to start portioning up the Rhymney Valley into convenient sections for the Vanishing Valleys project.
Pontlottyn is the penultimate stop on the railway line from Cardiff, and the railway itself crosses the road on a majestic stone viaduct. I wondered about jumping off the bus to take a couple of photos. Then again, I could probably photograph just about everything of interest in Rhymney and Pontlottyn in a single day, and then work my way gradually south, as I’ve already done in the Cynon Valley. I need to apply some sort of system to the gathering of photographs, as it’s becoming more chaotic as time goes on.
From Pontlottyn we followed the course of the river due south to Tir-Phil, and then took a little wiggle into Phillipstown. I never knew that the village existed until yesterday. Actually, ‘village’ is overstating the case – it’s just a cluster of terraces high up on the valley’s side. The scenery is spectacular. All the same, I’m not sure whether I’d move there – there’s precious little to do in Aberdare, but it’s a veritable Las Vegas in comparison to Phillipstown.
I was completely adrift by now. It had been so long since I’d explored this part of the country that I was relying on bus stops and school names to give me some sort of reference point. I know we passed through Brithdir, because I saw the railway station just before we dropped into the village. There were a couple of spectacular chapels there, and one rather down-at-heel pub with some afternoon customers outside, taking advantage of the sunshine. It’s another place which I could probably polish off in an hour or two.
I was amazed by the transformation which the valley had undergone. We were approaching Bargoed, and across the new road I could see a large Morrisons supermarket and a modern library extension overlooking the railway line. We wiggled into Aberbargoed before we descended into the town’s brand new bus station, and I stepped out for a breather.
I had a quick look at the network map, helpfully displayed at the entrance. There were two buses into Blackwood, taking different routes, so I decided that it would be my next stop. I was making it up as I went along, as I used to when Rover tickets were £2.95 and bus timetables came on paper, not via a series of unreliable and/or outdated websites. I had half an hour to kill, so I thought I’d explore the town centre for a while.
I climbed up the steps from the bus station and the first thing I saw was a row of three shuttered shops. I don’t know whether Wednesday is half-closing day in Bargoed. Maybe it’s always like that. Anyway, I pressed on and called into the numerous charity shops in the main street. I’ve been trying to track down Jasper Fforde’s novel Lost in a Good Book for months. It goes against the grain for me to pay full price for a book after twenty years in the trade, so I always call into the charity shops to see if I can strike lucky. I drew a blank, but I did find David Hall’s biography of Fred Dibnah for 50p. Today, in Merthyr, I found the same book marked down to £2.99 in The Works. The job’s a good ‘un!
I carried on walking up the main street until I found Hanbury Square Baptist Church. Well, it was hard to miss…

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I don’t know whether it’s my imagination, but I’ve found that Baptist chapels often seem to be much more ostentatious than those of the other Non-conformists. This one certainly is.
Further along, I found the police station and police court side by side.

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A little way on again was a pub on its own. It was hard to tell whether it was still open, or had closed down. I spotted a poster in a shop window for an event there, and it was dated fairly recently, but there was no sign of life.

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I’d almost reached the end of the main street, and was about to retrace my steps when I spotted something on a little raised area, with the main road arcing around behind it. Look at this for a spectacular piece of sculpture.

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It’s hard to gauge the size from a photo, but each of these heads is taller than I am. It stands at the top of a flight of wide steps, with words carved into the riser of each one. I don’t know whether the heads are actually carved out of coal, but it’s very dramatic and quite poignant.

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I noticed at this stage that my photos weren’t as clear as usual, and wondered whether the heat had got to my little camera. I solved the mystery later on, as you’ll see.
I walked back towards the bus station, pausing for a couple of photos which epitomise the Clone Town effect. This is the same building, at street level and then above.

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I wonder what – if anything – lies behind that grand façade.
I made it back to the bus station just in time to catch the 27 to Blackwood. The first few minutes were déjà vu for me, as we drove through Aberbargoed and then branched off towards Markham. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Markham before. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see. We passed a large field divided into plots for self-build houses, opposite a new estate of identikit four-bedroom houses. I know which I’d prefer.
The self-build site is called ‘Church View’ and I wondered where the church was. We passed it a few minutes later, on an elevated piece of land opposite a whitewashed pub. In fairness to the developers, it probably would be visible from the new houses, if you had a powerful telescope and a hot-air balloon to gain enough height.
Using my street atlas, I reckon we must have been at Dan-y-llan. I was tempted to jump off the bus and catch a quick pint before carrying on, but I decided against it. It turned out to be a good choice. The pub was closed for a ‘cellar refit’, and due to reopen either today or tomorrow. I didn’t fancy waiting around.
We passed through Markham, which was unremarkable apart from a school and a community centre. A few minutes later we were in Argoed, which was remarkable only for the fact that someone had added the letter B to the sign at the entrance to the village. Bargoed? Argoed? You say potato…
There wasn’t much else to see on the approach to Blackwood, and I didn’t even know we’d arrived until I saw the Chartist Bridge loom up on my left. This is one of the photos I took on my last visit, a few years ago. It’s quite a feat of civil engineering.

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I was ready for some refreshments now, so I jumped off the bus and made my way through the high street to The Sirhowy. It’s a Wetherspoon pub, but one of the half-decent ones. I bought a glass of Pepsi and sat in the window with my book, wondering where to go next. I was travelling without my Netbook, so I couldn’t even look up timetables on the fly.
I knew that I could get to Pontypridd easily enough, on the 7 bus via Nelson. I also knew that I had enough time to get to Caerphilly, and then make my way into Pontypridd from there. I probably should try and do another trip on the 7 in the next fortnight or so, while it’s still there. It’s one of a number of routes which Stagecoach are cutting across South Wales, as I’ve already explained in my other blog Is Your Journey Really Necessary?
Yesterday, though, I decided that Caerphilly was worthy of a visit. I drank up, had a quick look in Blackwood’s half-dozen charity shops on the off-chance, and then caught sight of something which had turned up in conversation about a month ago.
In Television Killed the Variety Star, I mentioned my pal Geoff’s collection of picture postcards, showing the old theatres and cinemas of Wales. We were wondering whether the huge art deco cinema which once dominated the high street of Blackwood was still there, or whether it had been demolished, like so many of its contemporaries. Well, yesterday I found out the answer. Not only is it still there – it’s now a five-screen cinema with all the modern bells and whistles. I don’t know whether it’s in private hands, or whether Caerphilly County Borough Council are involved with it. Given our own borough council’s lamentable track record when it comes to the entertainment sector, I suspect the former may be the case.

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The bus journey from Blackwood to Caerphilly might have been a new one for me. It’s been so long since I’ve been in that neck of the woods that I honestly couldn’t be sure. I doubt it somehow, because I think I covered pretty much the whole of South Wales in those heady pre-deregulation days. It was hard to tell, because the whole place seemed shiny and new, as though it had emerged from years of industrial grime with fresh energy.
The villages sped by, and I found myself trying to make mental notes of places to revisit with my camera and OS maps to hand: Maesycwmmer, with its huge stone viaduct thrusting boldly across the Rhymney; Ystrad Mynach, with its solid chapels and schools; Llanbradach, which seems to stretch on for a mile or more; and finally the run into Caerphilly itself.
I didn’t even know we’d arrived there until we passed a pub called The Green Lady, which is the Reverend Robin’s new local. Suddenly we were in Caerphilly, and the unmistakeable profile of the Castle filled the windscreen.
It’s many years since I’ve been there, and the town has changed a lot. Even so, that mediaeval stronghold at its centre stubbornly resists any attempt to drag it into the Third Millennium. I jumped off at the Interchange (it’s not just a bus station!) and walked back past the Conservative Club in search of a building I’d spotted from the road. I found it in a cluster of side streets, on the oddly named Van Road. (I must look up the origin of that name one day.) It turned out to be Van Road United Reform Church, built in 1903.

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I walked past a couple of pubs, still toying with the idea of a quick pint, before finding my way to the war memorial. It stands on a little pedestrian island in the middle of a busy road junction with a modern library at its rear, almost in the shadow of the castle. Its poppy wreaths were untouched. I don’t know whether they were the ones from last year’s Remembrance service, or to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. It was a stark contrast to the picture I’d seen on Facebook over the weekend, of a drunken lout passed out on the steps of the war memorial in Aberdare.

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I walked up the castle ramparts and across the wooden bridge to the gatehouse.

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Some years ago I held a CADW supporter’s card, which entitled me to free admission to Wales’s historic buildings. My membership lapsed, and I never got round to renewing it. It’s a shame, because I really fancied exploring the castle yesterday. However, it was already past five o’clock, and the gates close at six. I toyed with the idea for a moment, and walked up to the gate itself. It didn’t take an army of archers or cauldrons of boiling oil to drive this particular rebellious Welshman away, I can tell you.

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Maybe next time…
I walked around the castle for a while, reflecting on just what a secure fortification it must have been in its heyday. Just look at the moat for a start – you’d have to penetrate the outer walls before you even got to that. Then there are the inner walls, a few feet thick at least. All the while, arrows (or worse) would be raining down on you. You’d be better off giving up and going home.

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That’s the leaning tower, which was almost destroyed in one assault on the castle. It famously out-leans the Tower of Pisa. Shanara and I were coming home on the train one day, and she commented on the shoddy paintwork on the interior of our compartment. Then we looked again and realised that Arriva Trains Wales had painted the end of the compartment with a silhouette of Caerphilly Castle. You can guess what gave the game away, I’m sure.
I walked around the exterior for a while, and found this curious opening, about as high as my waist, at ground level. I peered inside and it was a shaft heading straight upwards. It was pitch black, so I don’t know what its original purpose was. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, though, so maybe that’s got something to do with it.

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Near the bridge to the entrance I found this bronze casting of the castle, showing its position in relation to the surrounding area. It’s a fine piece of craftsmanship, isn’t it?

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As I walked up the slope from the castle, I spotted another bronze statue a short distance away. First, though, I wanted to get closer to something which had caught my eye when I was standing at the water’s edge. It turned out to be a sculpture carved out of a tree, with the words of our national anthem chiselled into its belly.

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There was another monument dedicated to a Caerphilly man whom I really should know more about.

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My regular readers won’t be at all surprised by what happened next.
Yes, you’ve guessed it – my bloody batteries died!
I rummaged in my bag and found a pair which had a little drop of juice left. I switched them over and managed to take another half-dozen photos before giving up. While I was fiddling with the settings, I realised that the camera had been in Macro mode for much of the day. I don’t know how it had happened, but it may have explained the fuzziness and curvature of some of the photos.
With normal service resumed (for a couple of minutes, anyway), I made my way back towards the top of the hill. In particular, I was drawn to this rather mysterious Egyptian-looking building in a side street.

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I was half-expecting to find it decorated with Masonic symbols. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the Wesleyan Methodist Church!
I made my way back to the Interchange. Rhondda Cynon Taf (and other district councils) take note: this is how you facilitate an easy transfer between modes of public transport, not by putting six lanes of busy traffic between them…

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I caught the 120 bus from here to Pontypridd, and then the 60A back to Aberdare. I’d have liked to have stayed longer in Caerphilly, and especially to have taken a photo of the statue of one of my great heroes.

Tommy Cooper was born in the town, and his statue stands not far from the castle. That was where I was planning to go before my batteries died. Besides that, it was approaching six o’clock. After six, bus timetables in the Valleys enter a twilight zone of Local Authority Supported Routes and small companies who don’t accept Stagecoach tickets. I know this from bitter experience, but it often takes people by surprise.
Two exchange students from Stüttgart worked with us in Dillons many years ago. We gave them the Thursday afternoon off because they were keen to visit Caerphilly Castle. The following day, they moaned all morning, because it had taken them twenty minutes to get there (by train) and an hour and a half to get back to Cardiff (by bus.) Six o’clock represents the watershed in transport provision, and it’s a very obvious deterrent to the adventurous tourist. I decided that it was better to be safe than stuck, after all. There was a moment of light relief at the bus stop, when I noticed the route map of another service around the town. Wasn’t this where Fireman Sam lived?

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Watch this space. We were told today that we wouldn’t be needed at court again until Monday. That gives me two whole days to myself, with a Megarider Gold ticket in my pocket and new batteries in my camera. If the weather stays nice, I think I’ll make a return trip to Caerphilly. I might even succumb to temptation and have a pint this time.
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