On the Border

In which The Author wields the golden ticket again

Friday should have been Day Three of my jury service. As things stand, we’ve yet to see the inside of the courtroom. The whole legal process seems to be a bit of a shambles, to say the least.
On Thursday, it appeared that the court officials had forgotten about us until lunchtime. We chatted, dabbled with the coffee machine, and some of us had actually started eating our sandwiches before one of the officers appeared and told us that the start of the trial had been delayed. In fact, they wouldn’t be resuming until Monday morning, so we were free to go home. The comedian and writer Andy Hamilton once remarked that CPS stood for ‘Couldn’t Prosecute Satan.’ I can only surmise that he’s been called for jury service at some time in his life.
I’m still waiting for the court to reply to the email which I sent them a week ago last Monday. We’ve been told that our expenses claims should be processed ‘within three to five working days.’ Well, judging from the amount of work they seem to do in the offices, the money should come in handy for Xmas.
With a Megarider Gold ticket sitting on my desk, it seemed daft to spend the day in Aberdare. At about 7.30, in the words of the song, I was rudely awakened by the dustman. There was no chance of getting back to sleep, so I had some breakfast and wondered what to do with the rest of the day. The weather wasn’t especially nice – grey clouds and soft drizzle first thing – so I grabbed my camera, Netbook, tripod, and a fresh pair of batteries and set off for Merthyr.
As I mentioned last time, it’s a central point for Stagecoach, so it offers considerable scope for exploring. My friend Little Ted was on the bus, so we had a good chat on the journey over. He had things to do when we arrived, so I wandered around the town centre between buses.
If you listen to the frequent moaning of the older people in Aberdare, you’d swear that Merthyr was a bustling cosmopolitan delight. I’ve lost count of the number of times some pub bore or other has told me, ‘They’ve got everything over there.’ Presumably they must have the huge new out-of town retail park in mind, where there is a decent variety of shops on offer.
A quick walk around the town centre soon reveals the whole picture, though: all the usual small town chain stores, including Iceland, Holland & Barrett, Wilkinson, B&M, Smack Cash Generator, Dorothy Perkins, New Look, Burton, Boots, and The Works; a half-decent Wetherspoon pub; some bargain shops; an indoor market which isn’t much cop; a handful of independent retailers; a Post Office; half a dozen charity shops; the usual assortment of banks, estate agencies, accountancy firms and solicitors’ practices; a smattering of takeaways and cafés; pubs of varying quality (including some which don’t seem to be open any more); some training agencies and advice centres; a run-down bus station; a huge Tesco on the outskirts; and a large empty space where the cinema used to be.
W.H. Smith and Argos have both closed within the past few months, adding two large vacant shells to the other empty shops at the heart of the town centre. The police station is due to close soon as well (in Merthyr’s case, they’re relocating to a new building.) Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare would be ideal candidates for town twinning in the year 2014.
I dawdled around in the bus station until the T4 finally arrived, about fifteen minutes behind schedule. There seem to be a number of road improvement schemes going on at the same time, and it had got snarled up in all of them. My friend Nathan was on board. He’s now based at Merthyr Bus Station, and was on ‘route familiarisation’ for the Cardiff – Newtown run.
The T4 is the re-routed TrawsCymru (‘across Wales’) service from the capital to a market town in the heart of Wales. (Presumably there are connections to the north from there.) I wasn’t travelling that far, of course – the Megarider Gold ticket is only valid on the T4 as far as Felinfach. I wasn’t even sure where Felinfach is, but I knew that it isn’t anywhere between Merthyr and Brecon. I was on safe ground.
We made good time once we were clear of the roadworks, and barrelled up the A470 at a cracking pace. These long-distance buses are a world apart from the Valleys services. To quote a great sarcastic letter to the Aberdare Leader years ago (not one of mine, I hasten to add), the local buses ‘stop at every lamp-post like a diabetic dog.’ The T4 only has about a dozen stops between Merthyr and Brecon, and we sped through most of those without anyone boarding or disembarking.
The coach was only about half-full, and I don’t think many of the passengers were visitors, even though Stagecoach are aiming the T4 at the tourist market. A little screen above the aisle kept flashing up photos of waterfalls, farmhouses, sheep, mountains, and other desirable (if predictable) Welsh highlights. Perhaps it would help if the website was more accessible, the ticket terms and conditions were clearer, and they actually ran on time. Who knows?
I think the coach must be fitted with a GPS locator, as the screen displayed the names of the stops as we approached, and a recorded message announced them over the tannoy. The Brecon Beacons were swathed in a pale grey mist, although towards Brecon itself the sun was threatening to break through. It may have been the first week of July, but it looked and felt more like September. (Then again, for the past few years September has felt more like July used to. Go figure.)
When we arrived in Brecon, I set off in search of something to eat. I settled for a pasty from Greggs before taking some photos around the city. I’ve been to Brecon hundreds of times, of course, but it was the first time I’ve ever been on my own. It meant that I could explore the nooks and crannies at leisure, without my travelling companion urging me on to look at something else. I won’t show you all the pictures I took, but there should be enough here to give you an idea of what’s on offer.
The museum was closed for building work. Perfect timing for the tourist season!
The museum was closed for building work. Perfect timing for the tourist season!
St Mary's Church and the Duke of Wellington statue.
St Mary’s Church and the Duke of Wellington statue
The war memorial in St Mary's churchyard.
The war memorial in St Mary’s churchyard
The council offices.
The council offices
The former Midland Bank building.
The former Midland Bank building
Brecon Presbyterian Church
Brecon Presbyterian Church
This grand building seems disused
This grand building seems disused
Buckingham Place dates from the early 16th century
Buckingham Place dates from the early 16th century

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St Michael's RC Church is tucked away off Buckingham Place
St Michael’s RC Church is tucked away off Buckingham Place
This pub used to serve the best Sunday lunch I've ever had
This pub used to serve the best Sunday lunch I’ve ever had
I wandered around for about twenty minutes, weaving in and out of the haphazard lanes which branch off the main road through the compact city centre. I spent several minutes browsing in the amazing Andrew Morton Books, tucked away in a back lane. I thought my friend Barbara was inundated with second-hand books until I stepped into that shop. It’s lined from floor to ceiling with shelves, crammed tightly with books on every conceivable topic, and goes on for room after room. The owner was bringing crates in from his van, loaded down with even more stock. I could have spent all day browsing in there, if I’d had the money to burn.
After a while, I followed the flow of traffic eastwards, and made my way to the head of the Brecon & Monmouthshire Canal.
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When I win the lottery, I’m going to buy one of these cottages and a narrowboat
This would suit me just fine
This would suit me just fine
Theatr Brycheiniog (that's yer actual Welsh!) overlooks the canal basin
Theatr Brycheiniog (that’s yer actual Welsh!) overlooks the canal basin
Rhondda Cynon Taf residents will probably be horrified when they see how much it costs to park a vehicle near Theatr Brycheiniog.

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Useful tip: that’s how you attract and keep visitors, not by pricing them out of town.
I decided to make my way to the Cathedral, which is up a steep hill a short distance from the town centre. Unfortunately, my sense of direction let me down, and I ended up heading completely the wrong way. I eventually got my bearings when I saw the roof of Morrisons supermarket poking above a low wall. I made my way towards it, as I knew the Tourist Information Centre was close by.
Mother and I had a rather disappointing lunch here a few years ago, as The Boar’s Head was closed for refurbishment.

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This whole area is an odd little complex, built on the site of the former livestock market – hence the name of the pub. There’s a car park, the Tourist Information Centre, and the ‘Interchange’, which is nothing more than a bus station. There haven’t been trains to Brecon for fifty years. You can’t transfer straight onto a narrowboat, after all.
While I was looking at a large map, a Stagecoach bus pulled in to the nearest stop. The destination read ‘Hay-on-Wye for Hereford.’ That sounded promising. I could either hang around and retrace my steps at the end of the day, or continue exploring. Exploring sounded like more fun. I asked the driver whether I’d need to change buses en route, but he told me that it ran straight through. My ticket was valid for the whole journey. The game was afoot once more.
We drove back onto the A470 and headed in the direction of Builth Wells. A few miles out of Brecon, we turned into the tiny village of Felinfach. The mystery of the T4 ticket boundary was solved, at least. The OS Outdoor Leisure map OL12 includes Felinfach, but there’s hardly anything to see – not even at a scale of 1:25,000.
The problem with driving through country lanes is that they tend to be bordered by thick hedgerows. The situation isn’t any different when you’re a passenger on a bus, believe me. Even though you’re slightly higher up than you would be in a car, the view isn’t great a lot of the time. When there was a break in the hedge the views across the Brecon Beacons were spectacular. The cloud continued to thicken as the afternoon wore on, and it was a pity that travelling by bus isn’t very conducive to photography.
The settlements are some distance apart, separated by rolling fields and scattered cottages. It’s the rural heart of Wales, with bulky sandstone churches, centuries-old houses and pubs with generations of ghosts waiting to tell their stories. The A470 may be the main trunk road from north to south, but it’s obviously built along the old drovers’ route. The towns and villages along its course would have been vital staging points in the days before the advent of the motor vehicle. Nowadays, they seem almost randomly planted astride a fast modern road; a century or more ago, a farmer might have taken a whole day to get his livestock from one village to the next.
We entered and left Bronllys almost without stopping; the eponymous local hospital is probably the only reason anyone would have heard of it. A few miles further on, we spent a minute or so in the quaint little town of Talgarth.
A few miles after that we passed through Three Cocks. These places came and went almost in the blink of an eye, while elderly local people boarded and alighted here and there. The buses must be a lifeline for the inhabitants, and it’s good to know that these remote villages are still connected to the centres of population – even if they only run every two hours, it’s still better than being completely cut off.
At Glasbury we paused for a minute. The town straddles the River Wye, and is another place which I’d like to explore if I got the chance. There was a fantastic vista across the Black Mountains, and if I’d known we’d be idling for a while I’d have jumped off the bus and taken a photo or two. The driver was a friendly lad who seemed to know his regular passengers, and I doubt if he’d have minded. Maybe next time.
We were following the course of the Wye, although I could only catch an occasional glimpse of it through the window. The dramatic view of the mountains kept changing as the sun pierced the cloud from time to time. It looked as though the rain was going to win the battle for control of the sky, and I was glad I’d opted for the bus, rather than staying in Brecon at the mercy of the weather.
We passed through captivating villages and sped along narrow country lanes before arriving, almost without warning, at Hay-on-Wye.
It was only the third time I’d been there – the first time was when I was about fifteen or sixteen; the second time was after my shoulder operation in 2008 (see Making Hay While the Sun Shines.) As we made our way through the narrow streets, I spotted a road sign for Capel-y-Ffin, a Christian shrine just off the Gospel Pass over the Black Mountains. Under the name of the village, in smaller letters, the sign said Unsuitable for coaches. Having travelled that route myself in a Ford Ka, I’m not really sure that it’s suitable for anything bigger than a motorcycle.
Hay-on-Wye is, of course, the world-famous Town of Books and the venue of one of the great literary festivals (see Sentimental Journey). A couple of weeks ago, Karen J. and I had a pint and talked about collecting books. We agreed that it would be worth a visit – but, as serious bibliophiles, we’d need some serious cash to indulge our appetites. I’ve pencilled in a return trip when I win the lottery.
A small group of middle-aged walkers and a few youngsters joined us just as the rain started pelting down. I think they were glad to see the bus draw up, as they weren’t dressed for the weather in that part of the country. We left in the middle of a downpour, and a couple of minutes later we slipped without ceremony into England.
I’d been expecting to see a sign saying ‘Welcome to England’, or the Tudor Rose of the English Tourist Board, or some other indication that we’d left the country. Instead, I didn’t even notice that we’d sneaked across the border until I spotted a bus stop bearing the words ‘Herefordshire County Council.’
We were on a minor road now, and I became rather disorientated a couple of minutes later when I saw a tourist sign for Hardwicke Hall. Needless to say, we weren’t in Derbyshire; it turned out not to be the famous Elizabethan mansion with so many huge leaded-glass windows that it was described as ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.’ In fact, I don’t know what this Hardwicke Hall looks like, because the hedgerows were so high that I couldn’t see anything else.
We paused for a few minutes at the little village of Dorstone. It’s the sort of place which people decide to move to when they retire, and make daytime TV programmes about while they’re making up their minds. There’s little to keep younger people occupied.
Fans of The Archers are led to think that rural idylls like these are made up of characterful pubs, gentle farming dynasties, organic wholefood shops, a host of social activities, and colourful personalities swapping gossip and sexual partners on the village green. In reality, there’s probably a Premier Store-cum-Post Office, a group of bored teenagers playing football on the green, and a pub which doesn’t open in the afternoons. Dorstone did have a very attractive church, though, the latest in a line of medieval sandstone edifices which had punctuated our journey east.
A little while further on, a tall slender spire pierced the clouds. It’s a landmark that must be visible for miles around – the parish church at Peterchurch, in the Golden Valley. St Peter’s Church is a Norman structure built on a Saxon foundation, and I wish I’d had chance to take a photo as we sped past. I’ve always loved the place names in the Marches, with their hybrid of Celtic and Saxon elements. Further along we passed through Vowchurch and Clehonger, to name two of them.
We were soon on the outskirts of Hereford, and the bus took a very long route through the city centre, offering fine views of its many grand historic buildings. I lost my bearings for a while, but I knew where we were when we passed the Wetherspoon pub. Then it became confusing again. Even though Hereford has a City Bus Station and a Country Bus Station, our bus terminated at the railway station. Maybe it makes sense to residents of the city. It didn’t make any sense to me.
Hereford Railway Station, where the bus terminated. (Don't ask me!)
Hereford Railway Station, where the bus terminated. (Don’t ask me!)
I made my way to the Country Bus Station to check the timetable of the X4. I’d already decided that I’d head back via Abergavenny and the Heads of the Valleys. The problem was that by the time I’d got to Hereford, it was almost time to go home again. The 1610 departure wouldn’t arrive in Merthyr Tydfil until well after 1830. The last bus for Aberdare left Merthyr at 1825. The word ‘bugger’ came immediately to mind.
I checked the 39 timetable on the off-chance. That was the bus I’d arrived on. The return journey would get me back to Brecon okay, and I could catch a T4 back from there. It meant retracing my steps, but it was a possibility. I did some mental arithmetic. That would also be too late for the last Aberdare bus. Double bugger!
I had a pint in Wetherspoon (The King’s Fee) while I decided what to do next. I wanted to look up timetables online and plot a course from Hereford back to Aberdare. I settled down, fired up the Netbook, and failed to connect to the Wetherspoon Periodic Wifi as usual. I’d have to relive my late teens again, and make it up as I went along.
I watched a bit of the Wimbledon coverage on the big screen, then drank up and headed towards the shopping centre. In a side street I found a fantastic charity bookshop, with thousands of titles arranged in two adjoining rooms. As I was browsing, one of the volunteers asked me if I was looking for anything in particular.
‘You never know what’s going to come in to a shop like this,’ he said.
It’s very much like Barbara’s shop in that respect. However, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find at least a dozen The Da Vinci Code, two or three different editions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and several discarded copies of the Last Big Thing, Fifty Shades of Grey (and its sequels.) I don’t know why publishers don’t just remainder books like these immediately after publication and ship them straight out to the charity shops. It would save a lot of money on the supply chain, after all.
I headed back to wait for the X4. There were already some middle-aged women and a large number of college students waiting for it. One of the local drivers knew a couple of the women, and he came over for a chat and a smoke. Hereford is on the edge of First Midland Red territory, and buses came and went, heading further into the Marches and the Midlands.
Eventually the X4 pulled in, ten minutes late, and I knew that I was definitely going to be stuck when I got to the other end. The only possibility now was to stay on until Pontypridd and then make my way from there.
I did manage to take some photos out of the window as we made slow progress through the city. The picture of the Cathedral across the river would have been nicer if I’d been outside and able to line the shot up properly. The other one is the frontage of a jeweller’s shop. Apart from being an example of a surviving Anglo-Saxon name in the Twenty-First Century, it’s also fairly significant if you’re a Doctor Who fan.

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The journey to Abergavenny wasn’t especially significant, but we did pass some beautiful places on the way. At Llanfihangel Crucorney we passed the Skirrid Inn, but it didn’t seem to be open. Considering that it was after five o’clock on a Friday evening, that seemed a bit odd. I really hope it hasn’t become a victim of the latest wave of pub closures.
At Abergavenny we stopped for a little while, and I knew that any hope of getting home from Merthyr had long since evaporated. The last time I travelled on the X4, I was coming home from the Forest of Dean last July. That time, I dozed off and didn’t wake up until we were approaching Merthyr. This time, I stayed awake to see the dramatic transformation which has swept across some of the eastern valleys.
Brynmawr seemed run-down and dismal, in spite of its revamped bus station. The Stagecoach depot, just outside the town centre, is set to close in a couple of weeks. I saw a number of buses with their destination boards set to ‘Sorry, I’m not in service’ heading towards the garage. That’s always a bad sign that the timetable is about to change.
Ebbw Vale, on the other hand, looked as if it had been evenly split between high-tech redevelopment and industrial decay. In particular, I was very impressed by the Gwent County Archives building and the new FE College.
Tredegar was strange. While we were driving through the outskirts of the town, I saw a plastic snowman in a garden. It was either a left-over from last year’s festive fun, or I’ve spotted the Valleys’ first set of Xmas trimmings for 2014. July 4th must be a new record, surely – unless, of course, you know different.
We descended into Merthyr and arrived at the bus station just after seven o’clock. One glance told me that I was well and truly in the Public Transport Twilight Zone. Ours was the only Stagecoach bus around; the others were run by small companies which operate the Local Authority Supported Services at evenings and weekends. Taxis were poised to take up the slack. My Megarider wouldn’t have been any good on the alternative buses, and I didn’t have anywhere near enough money for a taxi. It was Pontypridd or bust.
Just before 7.30 we pulled into Pontypridd, and I checked the times of the buses to Aberdare. I’d missed one by ten minutes. The next one was over an hour away. It was raining. I defaulted to Emergency Program One (‘Fuck it!’) and headed for the railway station.
Martyn E. was waiting for the Aberdare train as well, so we had a good chat while we were waiting. I haven’t seen him for months, so we had a lot of catching up to do. I had my cash ready for the conductor, but Martyn said that they hardly ever bother coming through the trains in the evenings. As a result, I had a free ride to Aberdare.
I called to The Glosters for a Coke and a breather, then headed for the bus stop for the final leg. I’d only been there for a couple of minutes when Marc D. pulled up in the car and gave me a lift to my door.
It’s ironic that I’d been able to traverse a large portion of Wales, and even cross into a different country, on a series of interconnecting buses using a single ticket, only to be left high and dry within ten miles of my home. If only I lived in Tredegar, Ebbw Vale or Brynmawr… I’d have been able to party on in Merthyr until the pubs closed and get a bus home at 2350. Five miles in the other direction might as well be on the opposite side of the ocean.
It’s certainly something which I’ll have to bear in mind for my next expedition, whenever that is. Perhaps I’ll try a combination of bus and train, using the Valley Lines Day Ticket which I bought three weeks ago. Then again, I might decide it’s easier to just stay at home. Watch this space…
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