On Friday morning I failed to connect to the wifi in Aberdare Library (as usual for a Friday), so I buried myself in some beautiful old maps for a couple of hours instead.
I’m sure I’ve told you before about the Aberdare Local Board of Health maps. They were adapted from the Ordnance Survey maps by the forerunner of our district council, set up in 1854. Aberdare Library has a chest of drawers full of them, together with later maps and even more detailed maps from the same era.
The ALBH maps are printed on huge sheets of linen, encapsulated in plastic to protect them. They were hand-coloured to show the buildings, topographical features and sewer system (the lack of which, after all, was one of the reasons why the Board of Health was established in the first place). They show a wealth of detail which Geoff and I have been drawing on to research our Street Names Project. Here’s part of Aberdare town centre, c. 1870.
I’ve been working on the Street Names Project at home, trying to arrange each section into a logical order, as I explained in A New Approach. If we can take the reader on a virtual tour through the various communities in the Cynon Valley, it’ll be far more interesting than just presenting them with an alphabetical list and filling it with cross-references.
I haven’t had any problems doing that with Trecynon and Gadlys, and Aberdare town centre has been relatively easy too. I did the northern part of Aberaman quite quickly, using the street map as a guide. Once I got as far as the Aberaman Hotel, though, I had to concede that I didn’t know the area well enough.
I spent an hour or two studying the maps of Aberaman and Cwmaman on Friday morning. I was armed with a magnifying glass, an up-to-date street atlas, and our alphabetical list of streets which forms the working outline of our book. I was able to pinpoint a few of our ‘lost streets’, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Even so, just poring over the maps didn’t enable me to construct a mental model of the area.
There was only one thing to do. The weather forecast seemed settled for the rest of the day. There’s a disused railway line (the Dare-Aman line) at the top of Monk Street, which runs across high ground above Aberaman and into the heart of Cwmaman. I had my camera, the scans of the maps, and an afternoon to kill. I clearly wasn’t going to get online any time soon, so I packed up my stuff and headed for the hills.
I hadn’t gone very far when I spotted a chap walking some distance ahead. He was walking no fewer than seven dogs. I had to feel slightly sorry for him – I used to have my work cut out with just one. It didn’t take me long to find my first mystery, either.
Just above King George’s Field I passed a short row of cottages, sitting some distance from the western edge of the line, but there was no sign of a name plate. There’s nothing marked on the street map, either. I should have asked the people who were sunbathing in their garden what the row is called, but it seems like a daft question, doesn’t it?
Every so often I looked to my left, trying to get a fix on my position from the street layout just below. I knew I’d entered Godreaman when I recognised one of the huge chapels that punctuate the streets of our Valleys.
[A digression: Godreaman is another area which poses the question I tackled in Where Do We Draw The Line?. On Thursday I resorted to comparing notes on several internet sites. I keyed in each street name, and made a note of whether the sites said the street was in Aberaman, Godreaman or Cwmaman. Then I restructured the section on the Aman Valley on that basis. (I decided not to start a separate block for Glynhafod, though. There’s only so far you can take this sort of hair-splitting.)]
I was able to pinpoint my location when I arrived at the overbridge dividing the rest of the village from Woodland Terrace. If you’re travelling to the Globe Inn by taxi from Aberdare, your driver will take you under the bridge towards Woodland Terrace and then turn down Fforchneol Row. I don’t think I’d ever been into Woodland Terrace before, but on Friday I had a good reason to. There’s a cast iron ALBH nameplate on the end house, and I wanted to add it to my collection of photos. I clambered down the slope from the line and walked under the bridge into Woodland Terrace.
I decided to press on towards Cwmaman and see if I could turn up any more of the old nameplates. I headed along Fforchneol Row, most of which is made up of very large modern detached houses, and eventually found the old part of the street. The Globe Inn is at the southern end, and its location is marked on the old maps as ‘Globe Row’. There’s a large gap separating Woodland Terrace and Globe Row, with a couple of little blocks between them. It’s the sort of mystery which Geoff and I keep coming up against when we’re trying to reconstruct the shape of the Victorian Cynon Valley.
I wasn’t especially surprised to see the door of the Globe firmly closed. The Aman Valley is rather short of pubs these days: the Mount Pleasant closed after a serious fire about twenty years ago; the Ivy Bush is now a private house; the Shepherds Arms is currently up for auction; the Fforchneol (Bonki) seems to change hands every other month. That leaves just the Globe, Glynhafod Workmens’ (the Top Club) and Cwmaman Institute (the Bottom Club) to cater for the entire population of the lower Aman Valley. Martin obviously doesn’t get enough trade to merit opening in the early weekday afternoons. Now that he can legally open all day, he doesn’t bother. How ironic is that?
I walked along Station Terrace and emerged onto Fforchaman Road. I was a lot further from the centre of the village that I’d thought, so I headed for what used to be the square. I was thinking that I could do with a glass of Coke and a sit down to study my maps. I was making for the post office when I spotted a street sign for ‘Pit Row’, pointing down a narrow lane between two blocks of terraced houses. Pit Row is one of the names on my list, so I decided to investigate.
I followed the line behind the houses and down a slope, where I found two semi-detached houses facing onto the hillside opposite, with nothing else nearby. I assume that they were once a series of cottages which have been knocked through to make two large dwellings. I need to do some more work on the census returns and electoral registers to prove my theory, but at least I can transfer Pit Row from my list of ‘lost streets’ and back to the land of the living once more.
The approach to the square is dominated by the Institute and the Shepherds. The post office, supermarket and takeaway are all below the square now. There’s an old red telephone box near the Shepherds, and a slope leads down into Pwllfa Road, where I found another cast iron nameplate. There’s a Pwllfa Place on my list of streets, too, but that’s nowhere near the square. It’s beyond the church, which would have taken me well out of my way on Friday afternoon. It’s marked on the recent street map, but that’s no guarantee of its existence, as I’ve discovered recently.
I walked past the Institute, which has never been my favourite place to have a drink, and around onto what used to be the heart of the village. There was a small library there, and a betting shop, and a couple of other shops, but they’ve all closed in recent years. The only place still open is one of the wonders of our modern age: Queen Ti’s Tearooms.
Kristy M. introduced me to this eccentric little watering hole a few years ago, when we’d been exploring the Cwmaman Sculpture Trail one afternoon. It’s owned by an English lady named Lucy Mumford, who settled in Wales and decided to open a café-cum-internet hangout-cum-rehearsal space in the village. I’m still not sure why she chose to settle in Cwmaman, but it was a good decision. Cwmaman was a ‘hot’ name at the time, with Stereophonics all over the media, and a thriving creative scene operating out of the Institute. A lot of the steam has run out of that scene now, of course, but Lucy’s business continues to tick over. It’s good to see a place like that weathering the storm which has almost flattened the rest of the village. There’s a good selection of reasonably-priced snacks, including a decent range of vegetarian food – which is quite unusual in the Valleys, to be honest – and (of course) a dizzying choice of teas and coffees.
Queen Ti’s has since been a regular stopping place on my rare excursions to the village, as Lucy’s always up for a chat about local history. She became interested in Cwmaman’s past when she started renovating the premises, and found an old sign behind the frontage. About a hundred years ago it was owned by Samuel Badham, a tailor and outfitter. That sparked her curiosity, and she decided to find out more about the building and its surroundings.
I drank a can of ginger beer while Lucy showed me a huge file of research she’s accumulated about the former owners of the building, and general information about the village itself. I know Terry C., another regular in the library, who’s very active in the Cwmaman local history group. I wasn’t surprised to find some of his work in the file.
There was a large section about Alun Lewis, the tragic poet from Cwmaman whose centenary is currently being marked with events across Wales. There’s a section about a one-legged swimmer from the village, too (who, as I suggested, must have just gone round in circles). There were maps and photos of old Cwmaman, and lots of genealogical data about notable inhabitants.
One of the other business in the area was a printing firm run by a gentleman named Wilcox. When he retired, he sold his business to Stephens and George, who are now one of the biggest employers in Merthyr Tydfil. The walls of the shop are decorated with old photos, memorabilia of the previous occupants, and even some century-old wallpaper which was underneath several layers when Lucy started stripping it all back. The café is slowly turning into a museum of curios from bygone days.
There’s another reminder of old Aberdare in the café. Lucy has somehow unearthed an old harmonium, sold by the Harmston’s shop in Pontypool. They had another branch in Cardiff Street in Aberdare, and there’s a photograph of the interior in one of the Aberdare: Pictures from the Past books. The instrument itself needs some work to repair the bellows mechanism, but it’s in surprisingly good condition otherwise.
Queen Ti’s itself is named after one of queens of Ancient Egypt, which is why I was first intrigued by the place. Lucy’s gradually fitting it out with Egyptian themed décor, so I told her about my little collection of deities who wish me goodnight as I go to bed and greet me every morning. It’s always nice to find someone who’s as fascinated by the whole culture as I am.
Lucy gave me a leaflet about walks in the Aman Valley before I said goodbye, promising to call in again when I was next in the area. I wanted to get all the way to the end of Glynhafod in case the rain started. There are three things you should bear in mind when visiting Cwmaman:
it’s almost impossible to get a pint in the afternoon
it’s almost impossible to get a mobile phone signal
the Aman Valley has its own microclimate
I walked all the way to the end of Glynhafod without finding a single ALBH street sign. I was halfway along Kingsbury Place on the way back when I felt the first drops of rain. Luckily the buses run every ten minutes throughout the day (presumably so that people who fancy a pint can travel to Aberdare), so I wouldn’t have got too wet waiting around.
The rain didn’t come to anything, though, so I carried on walking. I bumped into my friend Justine, and she asked me why I was so far off the beaten track. I showed her my camera, and said I’d been searching for lost streets before heading back into Aberdare.
‘There’s only one road in and one road out,’ she laughed.
‘You’re not the first person to say that,’ I told her. It’s a famous line, attributed to Kelly Jones when he was asked by a journalist to describe his home town.
I walked back through the village until I got to the line again. I decided to see if there was any sign of life in the Globe, and was pleased to find the door open. There were only two customers in there, so I bought a can of Coke and sat down to look at my maps in the light of my grassroots research. I found Pit Row on the 1868 map, marked as three separate buildings. I don’t know whether it was extended before being knocked through into its present shape, though. I definitely need to look into that. I found some of the old railway lines I’d explored, but I still hadn’t solved the mystery of whether Pwllfa Place still exists. If it does, it’s across the river from Glynhafod Club. I think I’ll have to take a second trip to the far end of the valley soon, just to tie up some loose ends. This time, I’ll treat myself to lunch in Queen Ti’s as well. Watch this space…