In which The Author travels to the other end of the M4
Less than twelve hours after getting home from London, I was on the road again. I was actually later starting out than I’d planned, because I’d overslept in the morning. I woke up at 9.50, panicked, and texted Geoff E. to say I’d be with him as soon as possible. About twenty minutes later, we were on our way to the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales.
My regular readers already know about my ongoing Vanishing Valleys project. The aim is to photograph as many of the old buildings and industrial artefacts of South Wales as I can before they disappear entirely. (Having said that, I realised a few months ago that I should have started it thirty years ago. Never mind.) I’ve been dividing up the maps as best I can, trying to plan a logical sequence of the areas which I can reach easily by bus, train, or a combination of the two.
The one area which I already knew was going to cause me problems lies to the north-east of Neath. It takes ages to get to Neath by bus, and it would involve at least one additional journey to reach the remote towns and villages: Ystradgynlais, Brynaman, Coelbren, Banwen, and other places which I’ve only ever seen on the map. I did go halfway to Banwen with Mother once, but she just wanted me to see the spectacular view from the top of the mountain above Glynneath.
If you hang a map of South Wales from a series of random points on the edge, drop perpendiculars, and see where the lines converge, they’ll probably meet at Banwen. It’s the geographical centre of Nowhere. I thought the small town of Bedlinog was isolated until a fortnight ago. Now, thanks to Geoff, I’ve seen the real deal.
We were heading to a small town called Llandybie, a few miles from Ammanford. Dinefwr Press are handling the production side of Geoff’s book on the Cynon Valley war memorials. We’d arranged to meet Emyr Nicholas, the managing director, to discuss the technical aspects of the manuscript submission. Fortunately for me, Geoff doesn’t like driving on the motorways; like me, he’d much rather explore the scenic route. At Glynneath we turned off the A465, headed through the village and up onto the Inter-Valley Road. Geoff’s satnav was already complaining that we were ignoring it, and rapidly recalculating the route as we drove onwards into unknown territory.
Geoff knew exactly where we going, because the Workmen’s Hall at Ystradgynlais is part of an innovative scheme to bring West End theatre to the wider country. Every so often, a live performance will be screened in cinemas. Geoff and Olga are keen theatregoers, as I’ve mentioned previously, and visit Ystradgynlais fairly regularly to see top actors doing their thing at a fraction of the cost of a West End ticket. We were chatting last week, and we all agreed that it’s the sort of thing that might get people into the struggling venues across Rhondda Cynon Taf. However, a scheme like this requires the sort of entrepreneurship that’s been a dirty word for far too long in the Labour One-Party State. (It’s already too late to save the Muni Theatre/Cinema in Pontypridd, which closed its doors last week.)
At Abercrave, we turned south-west towards Ystradgynlais itself. The views are spectacular, and I kept noticing interesting buildings to revisit with my camera, when the Vanishing Valleys project finally reaches those parts. At Coelbren, for example, there’s a fine Anglican church. A bit further on (I can’t remember exactly where) we passed a spectacular workmen’s institute. It’s disused and surrounded by security fencing. At least it hasn’t fallen victim to an ‘accidental’ fire, like so many similar buildings in Rhondda Cynon Taf.
We’d already been struck by the extraordinarily fine state of the area’s many chapels. It’s a Welsh-speaking district on the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, recovering from the short-lived industrial boom, and the chapels probably play an important part in community life. However, like many of the other Valleys, the towns and villages are in economic decline, with closed shops and abandoned pubs everywhere. The future of the Valleys seems to be as an enormous dormitory town, serving the major cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.
We left Ystradgynlais and headed north into a village with a fantastic name: Lower Cwmtwrch. It formed part of the punchline to a very old Valleys joke, and for years I’d thought it was a made-up place. One day I saw it on a map and realized that it actually existed. Not surprisingly, there’s an Upper Cwmtwrch a mile or so away. The county boundaries seem to be a bit haphazard in these parts; we drove out of Neath Port Talbot and into Carmarthenshire at one point, and a minute later re-entered Neath Port Talbot again. My friend Gaz, who’s fascinated with maps, would probably have a field day exploring the area. A little further on, we came to Ystradowen. That rang a bell with me for some reason; it might have been the name of a telephone exchange, back in the days of big domestic phone directories with the list of dialling codes at the front.
At Brynaman, we passed a small Art Deco building which must have been a cinema in its heyday. Now it’s an Indian takeaway. Geoff spotted a war memorial at the roadside as we rounded another precipitous bend and headed south towards Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. We turned north again at a level crossing, which I knew used to serve the coal facility at GcG. The road follows the River Amman through Garnant and Glanaman, and the railway line cuts through the villages as well. When I got home, I had a quick look at Stuart Baker’s Rail Atlas: Great Britain and Ireland, and it appears that it was still operational a few years ago. It’s probably not the sort of line which would see a revived passenger service any time soon, though.
A few miles further along, we slipped without any warning into the pretty town of Ammanford. My friend Nerys (who now lives in New Zealand) grew up there, and is fully bilingual, in common with most of the people in the community. It only took us about five minutes to reach the quaint village of Llandybie, which isn’t much to look at: a small square with a handful of shops, a couple of pubs (one open, one closed), and a huge sandstone church, all nestling in a basin surrounded by farmland. To my surprise, it even has a railway station. The problem is that it lies on the Heart of Wales Line – you’d need to travel to Llanelli in order to double-back onto it. It’s not really a viable day trip from Aberdare.
Dinefwr Press is tucked away in a residential cul-de-sac. As we walked up to the office I caught a whiff of a very familiar smell: printing ink. In 1988, I spent some time operating an offset litho press, and the smell of the ink threw me straight back in time. We ensconced ourselves in Emyr’s office and discussed the technical requirements of the manuscript. Although I spent two decades in the book trade, I’ve never been intimately involved with the production side of things before. Emyr and I talked Techspeak for a few minutes, leaving Geoff feeling a bit sidelined. It was interesting for me to discuss the fine details of the process, and will certainly come in handy for any future projects I happen to get involved with.
Once we’d agreed on the file formats and the layout, Geoff and I decided to head for a pub lunch. The first pub we came to – the Red Cow – was closed. Luckily, the Red Lion was open and serving food. Geoff and I had a pint each, and explored the rambling old pub with its many rooms while we were waiting for our lunch to arrive. The bar is very interesting, decorated with carved wood panels, which the barmaid suggested might have been recycled from a piece of furniture. I realized at this point that I didn’t have my camera, so I had to make do with my phone. The photos aren’t great…
My fish and chips more than made up for missing out in London the previous day. There was a huge piece of cod, plenty of chips, and a tasty salad. Geoff and I sat in the dining room and listened to the Welsh conversations going on all around us. The barmaid switched easily between the two languages, and (as usual) I felt rather jealous of the youngsters who can manage equally well in Welsh or English.
Fed and watered, we walked out to have a look at the church. It was locked, but we were able to have a walk around the graveyard. Some of the headstones dated back to the 18th Century. It seems like a very big church for such a small village, but it would probably have served a large farming community back in the day.
On the way back to the car, I spotted some interesting features on the exterior of the pub. One was a stone set high up on the frontage; the other is obviously a hangover from the Second World War.
The journey back was fairly unspectacular compared to the morning’s excursion into the Western Valleys. We drove back through Ammanford and picked up the M4 at Pont Abraham, its western extremity. From there, it was a relatively fast drive past Swansea until we picked up the Neath road, and then back via the A465. Geoff dropped me off at Aberdare Library, and I had a quick look online before heading home.
The final manuscript went to the printers yesterday, giving us barely four weeks until the publication date. We’ve cut it very fine, so I can envisage another trip to Llandybie in a few weeks’ time, to collect some copies when they’re hot off the press. This time, I’ll be taking my camera. When the Spring comes, I’ll definitely be checking out the First Cymru website. It might take me a few days (and a considerable amount of that will be spent sitting on buses), but Geoff’s opened up a whole new subset of the Vanishing Valleys for me. Watch this space…