Category Archives: West Country

Go East, Young Man

In which The Author makes some new friends and a plan

As I’ve said before, I used to spend a lot of time in Bristol when I was in my twenties and early thirties. It was within easy reach of Aberdare by bus (until deregulation) and, later, by train. Even though I had to be back in Cardiff by 8.00 p.m. to catch the last train home, it still gave me plenty of time to explore the nooks and crannies of the city.
There was a thriving alternative subculture, too. The Green Leaf café at the top of Christmas Steps provided a nice relaxing space to have a vegetarian lunch and browse the magazines and books for sale. There were green groups, feminist groups, anti-nuclear groups, anarchist gatherings, gigs, talks, and all sorts of meetings and activities. (Cardiff might have had a similar scene, but if it did, I never got to hear about it.) For a while I started applying for jobs in the city centre, thinking that relocation might be a good idea. There was a bit more life than there was in Aberdare, that was for sure.
I can’t really remember why Bristol fell off my radar: maybe because the train fares kept going up; maybe because Cardiff itself was starting to offer interesting ways to spend my time. Maybe because it was starting to resemble every other city – the small record shops and bookshops were closing down, and the centre was increasingly becoming a victim of the Clone Town phenomenon (see ‘Location, Location, Location‘). Whatever the reason was, my visits gradually dwindled to nothing.
It came as a bit of a surprise a couple of weeks ago to learn of a forthcoming event via the Cardiff Anarchists Facebook page. The Bristol Radical History Group was going to host a talk entitled ‘The Spanish Anarchists of Merthyr Tydfil in the Early Twentieth Century.’ The Spanish anarchists of Merthyr Tydfil? What the actual …?
I clicked ‘Interested’ and checked out the venue details. It was the Hydra Bookshop, which I’d never heard of. I had a quick look on Google Maps and learned that it was in Old Market Street, a stone’s throw from Temple Meads station, but not a part of the city I was familiar with. I know the areas around the Broadmead shopping centre, Colston Hall, and Corn Street and St Nicholas Market, pretty well. I still don’t know why I’d never gone the other way whenever I left the station.
When I got home I dug out my old A-Z street map. It would be a ten minute walk from the station, at most. I decided that a break away from Aberdare would make up for missing out on London before Xmas. I booked my train ticket, as I related in my other blog ‘Online booking? Not worth the trouble‘ on Friday. On picking them up from the machine at Aberdare Station, I decided to check the normal fare. I’d wasted twenty minutes of my life and hadn’t saved a single penny. On the other hand, £14.90 puts a day trip to Bristol in the same price bracket as a coach trip to London, more or less.
One of the strange things about living in South Wales is that in order to get to the ‘West Country’ you actually have to go east. I set off from Aberdare just after 1000 on Saturday, got an immediate connection at Cardiff Central, and arrived in Bristol at around midday. That’s a decent day trip by anyone’s standards.
It was raining there, too, so I jumped on a bus and headed for the Broadmead. I wanted to have a look in Waterstones, and they’ve got a branch in the Galleries shopping centre. Unfortunately, their ‘range’ is just about as limited and predictable as the range in every other Waterstones these days. I left empty-handed and went for a walk through the Broadmead instead.
I said it was an old street map, didn’t I? In fact, it’s so old that it doesn’t include Cabot Circus (which is just more shops, rather like the Grand Arcade in Cardiff). However, one of my original observations about the West Country still holds true – the women there seem to be far more attractive than they are in Wales. I wandered around for a while, killing time, falling in lust occasionally, and hoping the rain would ease off before I headed out to the bookshop. (There aren’t any photos for this entry, I’m afraid. It was too wet to use the camera while I was out and about, and by the time the rain did stop it was dark.)
I made my way towards the bookshop between showers, and quickly found out how outdated my map was. (It was either that, or the city fathers had got wind that the Welsh were coming, and had removed the street signs to confuse the enemy.) I walked a fair distance before realising I was heading the wrong way. I cut across a busy road, plunged into a maze of side streets, took another wrong turn, was set on the correct course by a couple of friendly coppers, and eventually made it to Hydra with about ten minutes to spare.
I’ve often commented about what a small world it is. Even though I might not remember exactly where or how I’ve met a particular person, the chances are that I’ll bump into someone I know on my travels. Last time I was in Bristol, I met a friend from Aberdare, who was doing some market research in the Broadmead. On Saturday afternoon I opened the door of Hydra and ran straight into Darryl, a history postdoc and Plaid Cymru member from Ynysybwl who writes an interesting blog called ‘History on the Dole‘. He was standing just inside the door, holding a very large cup of tea, and seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. Darryl told me that he’d done quite a bit of research into the subject of the talk, so he’d come down to compare notes with the speaker. I decided to get a cup of hot chocolate and grab a seat before kick-off.
Hydra is the sort of place which first attracted me to Bristol back in the day. It’s a bookshop and coffee shop, run as a co-operative by a group of youngish politically savvy people. The shelves were subdivided into sections on Politics, Economics, Environment, Culture, and so forth. The bulletin board was full of posters and flyers for events, talks, meetings, campaigns, demos and advice lines. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but I’ll make a point of going there again next time I’m in town. The shop was already quite full, and people kept coming in behind me, so I didn’t have chance for a good look through the shelves. I took my mini-bucket of hot chocolate and settled at the end of a comfy settee to enjoy the talk.
A very pleasant chap named Roger kicked things off, explaining the background to the event. He’d been to an annual conference called ‘Unofficial Histories’, where academics and researchers can exchange ideas away from the scrutiny of university authorities. That was where he’d met the guest speaker, James Yeoman. James is doing his PhD at Sheffield University, and has a particular interest in the Spanish anarchist movement. They’d exchanged contact details, and James had been invited to give his talk as a result. After Roger’s introduction, James cranked up his laptop and unveiled the fruits of his research.
I won’t steal his thunder, as he’s obviously hoping to publish his work. Suffice it to say that it’s an aspect of semi-local history which I had no idea about. He’s been back and forth to Wales to rummage in the archives, and was in Merthyr last week, in fact. It was fascinating to see some light being shed on an overlooked episode in the political life of the South Wales coalfield.
The talk was followed by a lively and good-natured discussion, with Darryl adding a fair bit of information from his own research. I’ve got a feeling he and James will be exchanging notes in the near future. I added an observation about the political atmosphere of the Valleys in the twenty-first century, and contrasted it with the situation of a hundred years ago. That sparked off a bit of a debate with a Welsh ex-pat named Hannah and a chap named Stuart, which was nice. It was almost like being back in university, with a range of opinions and perspectives flying around.
The chap I was sitting next to turned out to be from the Forest of Dean. We chatted for a little while about the shared heritage of our neighbouring coalfields. I got up to go and spotted Tom F., one of my anarchist pals from Cardiff, standing near the back of the room. He knew Hannah, of course, and introduced me to a few more people before suggesting, ‘Pub?’ That seemed like a plan, so everyone made their way out in dribs and drabs. I wanted to have a word with Darryl, though, and by the time I got outside everyone had vanished.
Today’s Top Tip: When you’re in a large city and someone says the word ‘pub’, remember to ask which bloody pub? It’s not like being in Aberdare, where there are only three decent pubs and Thereisnospoon to choose from. There were at least five pubs on Old Market Street alone. I popped my head into each one in turn, but there was no sign of the others. Slightly dejected I headed back towards the station, where there’s a large Thereisnospoon at Temple Quay. I didn’t want a pint, but I knew I could access the wifi and send Tom a quick message to see where they’d all gone.
It turned out that they were in the Volunteer Tavern, only a short walk from the bookshop, but tucked away in a side street. I’d never have found it without consulting my trusty old map. Roger, James, and the chap from the Forest (whose name I can’t remember, alas) welcomed me into their group and we chatted for a good while about all manner of things. They’re very knowledgeable about aspects of history of which I’ve only explored the outlines. The chap from the Forest even knew about C. B. Stanton, Aberdare’s MP during the Great War. They were extraordinarily well-informed, and I felt like a bit of a dilettante, to be honest. My interest in history was almost killed off entirely in school. I’ve only recently managed to rekindle it, largely thanks to books by Simon Garfield and Prof. David Kynaston drawing on the Mass Observation archives. It was fascinating to listen to the discussion about the nature of academia in the present era, when the focus of acceptable ‘research’ seems to be getting narrower and more prescriptive.
I headed back to the station in time for a train back to Cardiff, and missed my connection by five minutes. Between Newport and Cardiff it seemed as though the driver was attempting a historical re-enactment of his own – trying to outdo Trevithick’s grindingly slow first ever train journey in 1804.
I had a quick pint in the Golden Cross before heading back to Aberdare. At Pontypridd a gang of lads in their late teens and early twenties boarded, and engaged in loosely antisocial behaviour for the next half an hour. Needless to say, the conductor didn’t emerge from his cubbyhole, so all the other passengers had to put up with their crap. As always, my return to the Valleys after an interesting day out was accompanied by a plunge in my mood. I was back in the land where nothing ever happens, except gangs of rowdy kids roaming around the streets (and pubs) of dying little towns.
I’ve offered to put some feelers out locally, to see if James can give his talk a bit closer to the centre of the Spanish anarchist action. I also had a confirmation email from the BRHG yesterday, so I’m on their mailing list for future events. All in all it was a very enjoyable and worthwhile way to spend a wet January Saturday.
Most importantly, though, it’s replanted the idea of relocating to Bristol in my mind. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing to keep me in Aberdare. As long as I have access to the Internet I can work from anywhere in the UK. If I sell my house I can clear a few debts and have a safety net while I get settled in somewhere else. I think I’ll definitely look into the situation next time I’m in Bristol – and for only fifteen quid it’s well and truly back on my radar.

Another Road Trip

In which The Author is left in charge of the travel arrangements

A very long time ago (so long, in fact, that I can’t even remember what year it was), my friend Arwyn landed himself a job interview. He’d seen a newspaper advert for a company recruiting photographers to work on cruise ships, and Arwyn had sent his CV in. He was a keen amateur photographer, but had never undertaken that sort of work before.
This was the late 1980s or early 1990s, though. It was a good time to be young and confident. We were young and confident, and in those days we sent our CVs in to any job ads for which we were remotely qualified and/or experienced.
To his amazement, he was invited to meet the people involved at their headquarters in Esher in Surrey. He told us the good news when we met up for our regular weekend beer and nonsense session.
At the time, we were drinking in The National Wine Bar in Aberdare. There’s a whole host of stories to be told about that place. It was an old school building which had been converted into a bar-cum-nightclub-cum-pizza restaurant by an English chap named Brian W. (If you think young people go out binge-drinking now, you should have seen us twenty-odd years ago.) Brian had his fingers in lots of pies: he was involved in the buy-to-let housing market, and rented the ground floor of The National out as small retail units. Brian was a bit of a caricature of the London wide boy, and always had deals going on. It was quite hard to tell whether some of them were entirely legit. He was a nice guy and we got on well, but there was definitely a touch of the Delboy about him. He was a very 1980s character.
Anyway, Arywn told us about his job interview, and immediately started worrying about how he was going to get there. Arwyn knew that his own car probably wouldn’t make the journey, and wondered aloud where he could hire a car at fairly short notice.
I said, ‘We can hire a car from here!’, and went up to the bar. The bar manager (whose name I can’t remember. Let’s call him Mark, for the sake of argument) was serving a couple of customers. When he had time to chat, I asked him about hiring a car. He told us that we had a choice of a Ford Fiesta for fifteen quid, or a Ford Escort for twenty quid – for the whole day. We just had to pay for the petrol. It seemed like a cracking deal.
I took a fiver out of my wallet and said, ‘Okay, we need a car for Thursday morning. Here’s our deposit for the Escort.’
The rest of us decided that it would make a change from being stuck in Aberdare, and immediately volunteered to go with him, to share the driving and help find the place. The road trip was on.
I arrived at the National at our appointed time on the Thursday morning, but there was no sign of Arwyn. Wendy, who looked after the cash side of things, was in the office, and Mark arrived a couple of minutes later. Shortly afterwards, Ross arrived. There was still no sign of Arwyn and Gareth W., who were heading down from Hirwaun in Arwyn’s car. It was a good thing we’d left ourselves plenty of time.
We sat in the office for a while until the boys strolled in. In line with Arwyn’s prediction, his own car hadn’t even made it as the washery of Tower Colliery before breaking down. They’d had to catch a bus into Aberdare, leaving his car where it was. Gareth, who was to be our main driver, filled in the paperwork and we paid the balance of the hire fee. We were good to go.
Then we encountered the next problem.
If you’ve got a nice new suit, but wear only the trousers regularly, leaving the jacket in your wardrobe, repeated exposure to the elements and frequent washing mean that eventually the colours won’t quite match. That was exactly what had happened to Arwyn’s suit – the jacket was several shades darker than the trousers. Luckily, Ross was wearing his trenchcoat, which fitted Arwyn acceptably well. If he kept it on throughout the day, we figured that the mismatch wouldn’t be immediately obvious.
We left Aberdare and headed straight to Cwmdare to pick up Rob H. We’d calculated that there’d be room for five people, so we’d invited Rob to make up the numbers. However, when Ross knocked his front door, Rob’s father answered.
‘Rob must have forgotten about it. He’s still asleep,’ he said apologetically. ‘He’s dead to the world. I wouldn’t want to wake him now.’
So then there were four…
The drive along the M4 was uneventful, marred only by the fact that we’d forgotten to bring any music with us. Arwyn had a single tape – a weird indie-pop mix on one side, including Martha and the Muffins’ ‘Echo Beach’ and a Tom Waits LP on the other – which we listened to several times throughout the journey. I’d been left in charge of sorting out a route, so I was armed with an AA road atlas and the A-Z of Greater London (which covered the area as far out as Esher, fortunately.) As we made our way east, I kept switching to the local BBC radio stations, to make sure we wouldn’t be up against any unexpected detours. The other boys took turns driving, and we’d made excellent time when we arrived at the M25 intersection.
I’m not a driver, but I already knew that the M25 has a fearsome reputation as one of the most congested and accident-ridden roads in the UK. Even though we’d only be driving for a short stretch, the boys weren’t confident about approaching it. The four lanes of extremely heavy traffic were as intimidating as we’d expected; even so, it wasn’t until we came off the motorway that disaster almost struck. We miscalculated our speed on the approach to a roundabout, and nearly ended up being shunted side-on by a London bus. From then on, we were on our best behaviour.
We arrived in Esher and found a little car park near the address which Arwyn had been given. We parked up, wished him well, and then explored the high street for a while before hitting a pub. We all felt that we’d earned it. A quick pint and a bar snack restored everyone’s spirits, and we amused ourselves for a while by looking at the house prices in an estate agent’s window.
Arwyn joined us after his interview, and told us that the whole set-up had seemed rather odd. He said that the company was based in ‘a lock-up’, and that they had a few Apple computers. We pulled his leg for a while. I told him that it was possible to lease an Apple computer for a reasonable sum of money. Ross said it was probably a front for a drugs cartel, and that he should be very careful if they asked him to carry any packages through customs.
We decided not to hang around, as we wanted to try and get some distance between us and London before the evening rush-hour started. In addition, the boys weren’t keen on the idea of hitting the M25 again. I told them to leave it to me. We drove back onto the high street, and I pointed them in the direction of a blue ‘motorway’ sign.
‘It’s a short cut to the motorway,’ I assured them. ‘Just follow the road and we’ll be fine.
I think we’d been travelling for about half an hour or so before Gareth voiced his suspicions.
‘Shouldn’t we have seen Windsor Castle by now?’
I said casually, ‘No – its about twenty miles in that direction,’ and pointed more or less to the north-west.
To demonstrate how little attention the boys had paid on the way up (and so that we could take full advantage of having a reliable car!), I’d guided us onto the M3, not the M4. This is the main motorway from the outskirts of London to Southampton; we were heading miles out of our way. In fact, I think I’m right in saying that it was the one and only time I’ve been into the county of Hampshire. We stopped at a service station just before the A303 intersection, and then embarked into unknown territory again.
The A303 runs more or less diagonally across Salisbury Plain, with Stonehenge lying alongside it just outside the small town of Amesbury. As a special treat, I thought we could reward ourselves with a glimpse at Britain’s most famous prehistoric landmark before heading for home.
By now it was getting dark, and we were in the rush hour traffic. To make matters worse, we got confused at a roundabout outside Amesbury, and ended up at the site of the lesser-known Woodhenge. Until I found it marked on the map, I’d assumed that Woodhenge was nothing more than a haunting LP track (and b-side) by Mike Oldfield:

It’s an actual place, though – but without very much to see. In the gathering darkness and light rain, we were disappointed by the small concrete mushrooms which mark the positions of the original wooden structure. We found our way back to the A303, and soon saw Stonehenge in the gloomy distance. It was completely underwhelming, seen from the road in the semi-darkness. We couldn’t even pull over for a decent look at it. The visitors’ centre hadn’t been built in those days.
The drive across Salisbury Plain was fairly uneventful. However, we were highly amused by some triangular warning signs which we encountered on the war. We were all used to seeing the silhouette of a sheep on warning signs on the Brecon Beacons; on the M50 through the Forest of Dean I’d seen similar signs with a silhouette of a deer. On Salisbury Plain, ringed as it is with military bases and firing ranges, the warning signs featured the silhouette of a bloody tank! Indeed, from time to time there were huge tyre marks ground into the thin chalky soil, where heavy artillery had obviously been on manoeuvres recently.
[A digression: On a different road trip across Salisbury Plain, Pam and I spotted a policeman standing outside an isolated house beside the road. When we looked again, we saw that he was armed with a sub-machine gun. We could only guess that it was the holiday retreat of a high-ranking politician or military officer. Salisbury Plain is weird, to say the least…]
We joined the A4 and made good time into Bath, where we decided to break our journey and have another pint. I’d been to the city a number of times, so I found our way to a car park and we headed out in search of a decent watering hole. We stopped some youngsters, who were probably students on a night out, and asked them to recommend a good pub – ‘the sort of place where musicians and artists hang out.’ They pointed us in the direction of The Salamander, in the quaintly-named Quiet Street. It was an excellent call, as things turned out.
The Salamander seemed to be the sort of backstreet boozer which every reasonably-sized town (and certainly every city) had back in the day, before the plastic pub chains took over. The customers were bearded, dreadlocked, tie-dyed, denim- or leather-clad, and the place was pleasantly smokey. Considering that we’d all drunk regularly in The Carpenters in Aberdare, it was almost home from home. We bought our drinks and headed for a table in the corner, where there was a very nice ice bucket on the windowsill. I can’t remember who thought it would be a cool souvenir of our day trip, but I have vague memories of playing rugby with it once we’d left the pub.
On the way out of Bath my navigational skills let me down for the first time that day. There’s a really tricky junction on the A46 which should have led us straight back to the M4. Unfortunately, it was dark and I missed it. We were stuck on the A4 for the duration. I didn’t know my way around the back roads, so we had no choice but to follow the main road until we reached a point where we could turn around.
Unfortunately, it turned to be the centre of Bristol. I’d never been there in a car, so I was navigating on the fly. After driving around aimlessly around for a few minutes, we managed to find the start of the M32 and headed out of the city as quickly as we could.
The last stretch of the journey was fairly unexciting. We drove back into Wales and headed north, before realising that we still had some petrol left to burn. We didn’t want to return the hire car with any more than the bare minimum of juice (after all, we’d paid for it!) Thus it was that we headed straight up the A470 and stopped in Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer, just north of Merthyr Tydfil. We bought some chips to round the day off, then drove on to the point where the road to Aberdare runs across the  southern edge of the Brecon Beacons. I’m fairly sure that, for sheer mischief, we drove for a couple of miles with the lights switched off, which I wouldn’t recommend in a hurry (see Night Terrors.)
A couple of weeks later, Arwyn had to travel to Esher for a second interview; this time, I couldn’t make it, but I was able to give the boys a very comprehensive set of directions which got them there and back without a hitch. The upshot of the whole palaver was that Arwyn got the job, and spent several happy months onboard cruise ships in much warmer climes, before moving on to work for the UK Meteorological Office.
I’ve been meaning to tell you about this trip for a while, but I heard ‘Echo Beach’ a couple of days ago and it prompted me to recall it in detail; that record always reminds me of that day (for obvious reasons!) Nowadays, I’m fairly sure a hire car would cost a lot more. I was in Bath a few years ago and The Salamander had changed into a gastropub (albeit one with a fine selection of cask ales.) We probably wouldn’t have been able to steal an ice bucket without being caught on CCTV.
Of course, nowadays there’d be no need for an AA road atlas and an A-Z. I’d be well and truly surplus to requirements. Arwyn would just type the postcode of the company into Google and obtain a route within seconds. I still think my way was more fun,though.