In which The Author explores unknown territory again
On Monday I ventured into an area of the South Wales Valleys which I’ve never visited before. It came about as the result of a number of apparently unrelated factors, which all combined over the weekend in a very pleasing fashion. Let me explain…
On Friday I was in Aberdare Library, working on a forthcoming blog about one of my pet hates – public transport. I was using S.K. Baker’s Rail Atlas: Great Britain and Ireland (12th ed.) to build up a picture of the rail network in South Wales, including the disused but still extant freight-only lines. One of these closed lines, north of Bridgend, was marked in blue, indicating that it was in private hands. The accompanying note mentioned that the line was due ‘to be reopened in 2010/11 by the Garw Valley Railway.’ I was fairly sure that I’d have heard about an event like that, so I decided to search the Internet for more information.
After a false start at a discontinued website, I was redirected to the official site of the Garw Valley Railway. As I’d suspected, Mr Baker had jumped the gun slightly. According to the outline information, they’re looking at a ten-year timescale before they reach their ambitious aim of running heritage services between Pontycymer and Brynmenyn. It turned out that I’d found their website at just the right time; they were holding an open day on the bank holiday.
It seemed like an interesting excuse to visit the Garw Valley itself, and combine a look at the railway with another instalment of my Vanishing Valleys project (see Where Do We Draw The Line?) I checked the weather forecast, saw that it was good, and pencilled it in for the time being.
On Friday evening, I had a pint with Gaz and we started chatting about travelling by train. I showed him Mr Baker’s book, and suggested that we could make an excursion on Monday. I told him I’d look into the public transport situation and see what I came up with.
On Saturday morning, in Aberdare Library, I dug deep into the Traveline Cymru website (see ‘What Do You Want?’ – ‘Information!’) It’s still a bloody nightmare to use, but it does give you access to the full bus timetables (eventually.) After noodling about for about five minutes, I found that it would be possible to get to Pontycymer from Bridgend. That surprised me, for a start. Here in Rhondda Cynon Taf, you’re lucky to see a bus until mid-afternoon on a bank holiday. In neighbouring (and equally cash-strapped) Bridgend, it seemed as though they’d be running pretty much throughout the day. The trains from Aberdare were running a normal weekday service as well. Our plan looked like a goer.
I put a status on Facebook, saying that I was planning a day out on Monday, more to publicise the open day than for any other reason. To my amazement, Kath S. replied to it, saying that she was working in Blaengarw on Monday and could give us a lift as long as we were ready early. I love it when a plan comes together.
On Monday morning, at 9.30 or so, we were on our way into the Rhondda Fawr. No scheduled bus services take this route, so I haven’t been over the Rhigos mountain for a long time. (Actually, that isn’t strictly true. Huw F. and I came back that way from a meeting in Ystrad a couple of years ago, but it was pitch dark and extremely foggy. I’m not sure whether that counts.) It’s a scenic drive, but very steep on both sides; consequently, we were rather disparaging about the lycra-clad buffoons who were struggling to go that way. Rather them than us! We dropped down into Treherbert, drove through the narrow main road to Treorchy, and then turned off for the next leg of the journey: the Bwlch.
The road between Treorchy and Nantymoel is quite possibly the most spectacular drive south of the Brecon Beacons. It rises high above the Rhondda Fawr, offering motorists (and cyclists) wonderful views of the valley below. It then divides suddenly; the A4061 plunges steeply into the Ogwr Fawr Valley, and the A4107 continues across the side of the mountain towards Abergwynfi and the Afan Valley, north of Maesteg. There’s a great piece of urban art (it’s not graffiti, it’s much better than that) on the rock face at the point where the two roads diverge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I’m going to have to try and photograph it for my project – although Goddess only knows when I’ll pass that way again! Like the other mountain road, no buses go that way.
We drove on through Nantymoel, Ogmore Vale and Blackmill, all of which have been just names on my ‘to do’ list since I decided to make a casual hobby into a serious project. I’ve mostly concentrated on the areas served by Stagecoach buses for now, with a couple of excursions to Bridgend by train last autumn. Luckily, I can get to Blackmill by bus from Aberdare, although it takes well over an hour. I should be able to polish off the Ogwr Fawr Valley in a day.
[A digression: I’m going to encounter a small problem when I cross the county line. Buses in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly county boroughs are mostly operated by Stagecoach. However, Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea are served by First Cymru – and never the twain shall meet. Not even the South East Wales Transport Alliance (SEWTA) has been able to persuade these two companies to introduce a rover ticket which both would issue, and which would be accepted on each other’s services. It looks as though I’ll have to buy two separate tickets, adding to the cost of the expedition.
That’s an academic issue now, anyway. SEWTA – which represents ten local authorities and a number of bus and rail companies, aiming at providing integrated public transport throughout the area – is being wound up. Just when proposals for a proper South Wales Metro scheme (see Nice Work If You Can Get There) are starting to take shape, the main organising body is to be replaced with something completely new. It remains to be seen whether its replacement will take another ten years to make any substantial progress in this respect.]
At Bryncethin we turned north into the Garw Valley. Kath knew where she was going, but Gaz and I were pretty much in terra incognita. The road is fairly straight, cut into the hillside and running through a steep and thickly wooded valley punctuated with small settlements. We spotted a pub below the road, and pencilled it in for a visit later on. We hadn’t gone much further on when Kath pulled into a small car park and announced that we were at Pontycymer. She offered to drive us to Blaengarw itself, about a mile further on, but Gaz and I decided to look at the railway exhibition first.
There hasn’t been a train to Pontycymer since 1997, when the freight service was discontinued, but most of the line is still in place, making a heritage railway a viable possibility. Although it’s still a long way into the future, I was pleased to see that the company has already branded it ‘The Daffodil Line.’ It’s catchy and memorable, with echoes of England’s famous ‘Bluebell Line.’ It’s good to see that they’ve already got an eye to the tourist market.
We made our way into the engine shed and were greeted by some of the volunteers. Two of the members were setting up a model railway near the entrance, and we were amongst the first visitors to arrive. An enthusiastic and very knowledgeable young lad named Stephen Pearce showed us around, explaining the story behind the project, its long-term aims, and how they’d progressed so far.
They have two steam locomotives, two small diesel locos, and a Class 108 diesel multiple unit (DMU), all undergoing restoration at the moment. (I said, only half-seriously, that I’d probably travelled on the DMU when it was still in service. When the Aberdare line reopened in 1988, we were stuck with some hand-me-down DMUs for a couple of years.) They’re also rebuilding a brake van and constructing a platform beside the engine shed. The air was thick with the smell of engine oil, and when you stand beside these magnificent machines you can still sense the compressed power contained within. It’s easy to see why, nearly fifty years after British Rail ran the last steam trains, the public enthusiasm for steam power is as strong as ever.
The eventual plan is to run services for the four miles or so to Brynmenyn. Their website says that there are potential stopping points at Pontyryl, Llangeinor and Brynmenyn itself. Bryngarw Country Park lies adjacent to the line, just north of Brynmenyn, so there would be an obvious tourist connection between the two. Stephen explained that continuing as far as Tondu Station (where Arriva Trains Wales currently run to and from Maesteg) would be a tricky logistical problem. Even so, Brynmenyn is only a short walk from Tondu. I think the idea has enormous potential, personally.
Surprisingly, the scheme isn’t universally popular. Stephen told us that a small number of residents had objected to the planned reopening. Like me, he dismissed them as ‘nimbies.’ I’d love to be able to walk for a couple of minutes from my house and get on a train, rather than having to walk into Aberdare itself. (Who knows? If I live long enough, I might get the chance!) I can’t see why anyone would want to turn away a great opportunity to bring people – and, more importantly, money – to a beautiful, isolated and (let’s be honest here) rather run-down area.
They’ve also had problems with vandalism and theft, which is why the locos and rolling stock are kept in the engine shed. I suggested that a good way to combat this would be to get the local school involved with helping to clear some of the undergrowth from the line. I think that if the youngsters could appreciate the hard work involved in reviving a dormant railway, they’d be more likely to respect it. Some of them could go on to be its greatest champions when they’re old enough to really get behind the project.
I had a look at the model railway, which was operating by this time. Its owner was a long-haired chap of about my age, wearing a T-shirt with a Dalek on it, which endeared him to me immediately. He told me that he had a few visual jokes concealed around the model, which give people something to look at in between trains. As well as spotting the Pope blessing the village pub, and the Grim Reaper prowling around one of the platforms, I was amused by something he’d concealed in a clump of bushes:
Stephen took us into a portacabin, where photographs and maps give visitors a potted history of the line. There was a beautiful old map laid out on a bench, showing the railway network in South Wales at its height before the Great War. Gaz and I studied it for ages, and were amazed to see an old tramway which ran beyond the quarry at Penderyn, heading through the upper Vale of Neath towards the Swansea Valley. I’m going to have to do some more research into that one day.
While we were in the portacabin, Kath texted me to say that she was leaving Blaengarw, and wondering whether we wanted a lift back. I consulted Gaz, and then said we’d make our own way back later. After all, we’d hardly seen anything of the area so far.
I picked up a copy of the railway company’s quarterly newsletter and a membership form. It’s an affordable £10 a year. It seems like money well spent in a very worthy cause. In fact, I’ve got a feeling that I might have found a new interest which could occupy an occasional Saturday. Even though my back problem would sideline me when it came to heavy lifting, I’m fairly sure I could wield a paintbrush if the need arises.
We said our goodbyes and headed off to explore Pontycymer itself. The main road divides the village more or less in half, and we confined ourselves to the eastern side. The first thing we saw was hardly encouraging:
I know it was a bank holiday, but that was pretty much the story for the rest of the town. Just around the corner we found Pontycymer Constitutional Club, and I joked that half of the ‘acts’ they’d booked were probably the same professional karaoke X Factor wannabes who sing around the pubs and clubs of the Cynon Valley. Sure enough, there was a poster in the window advertising a gig by The Monophonics. There’s no prizes for guessing who are the main source of material for this particular tribute act.
[A digression: My Facebook friend Siân S. runs a pub in Pontyclun, and The Monophonics played there a couple of months ago. She mentioned the fact that the gig had taken place, and I added a comment: ‘They’re really authentic, aren’t they? Almost as bad as the real thing.’]
I spotted a rather grand brick church on the hillside, which is unusual in itself. The Anglican churches in the Valleys were mostly built of dressed stone, in that High Victorian style, and I haven’t come across many brick churches on my travels. This is St David’s Church:
From our vantage point on the hillside, we could see another obvious church in the High Victorian manner. We headed towards it, but first we came across an enormous school. In fact, it dominates the northern part of the village. I’ve mentioned previously that the Valleys school buildings are very distinctive, and this is a striking example of what I had in mind:
A short stroll through the side streets brought us to the United Reformed Church. In The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan, John Newman describes it as ‘Quite a serious performance. Perp, of rock-faced Pennant sandstone with Bath stone dressings, these facing materials used not only for the façade but also for the downhill side elevation, where the two storeys of windows are linked by moulded vertical panels.’ It is a superb building, one of several chapels in a small area. It’s a great shame, therefore, that it’s been allowed to fall into such a sorry state of disrepair.
As I was photographing it some teenagers were walking past, and I heard one of them tell his mates that it was ‘some beat-up old church.’ What was I saying earlier on about trying to engage youngsters with their heritage? I rest my case.
In the same street was another chapel, Tabernacle, built in the austere style we’re more accustomed to from Victorian non-conformism. This one is still in use, and is in considerably better condition.
Further along, we saw something that looked like yet another chapel, but it turned out to be something else entirely:
There was some work going on inside the main building, and it’ll be intriguing to know what the end result will be. I need to make a return visit to cover Blaengarw itself, so I’ll check it out next time I’m passing.
We climbed the steep hill opposite the Institute, heading for the cemetery above the village. Near the top we found the primary school. It isn’t as big as the other one, but it gives an indication of how large families must have been during the Valleys’ heyday:
From here, there was a fine view downhill to the Institute, and across the narrow valley to the mountainside opposite. The sun had come out, and it had turned into a very pleasant day. I was really grateful to Kath for giving us such an early start; if we’d set off from Aberdare by public transport, we’d still have been some distance away.
We found our way into the cemetery and explored the gravestones for a while. The dates on the inscriptions meant that we were able to work out roughly when the villages below first blossomed into existence. The Garw Valley was a relative latecomer to the coal industry, and it’s interesting to try and imagine what it would have looked like if the collieries hadn’t come into existence. It’s quite likely that it would still be an area of scattered farm buildings, stretching northwards into the Brecon Beacons. Even now, remarkably, there are only a few signs of recent development. It made for a pleasant contrast from Rhondda Cynon Taf, where it seems that every vacant patch of land is being given over to new houses.
We walked back downhill and found this interesting building, which turned out to be the village’s clinic. It was interesting to see the original inscription on the frontage.
We emerged at the only pub on that side of the village, The Squirrel. It was after midday, but the place seemed to be as bereft of life as the café. From the hillside we’d been able to see the other pub, The Royal Hotel, on the opposite side of the railway line, but it was boarded up. We walked along the main road, and about a third of the shops seemed to be empty as well. Because it was a bank holiday, most of the surviving businesses were closed, so it was difficult to gauge how busy the village is normally. There’s a large Cooperative supermarket just outside the village centre (on the site of the old station, in fact), and that must have had an impact on the local traders. Even if the railway scheme does succeed in bringing visitors to the area, it may be too late to save the high street, unfortunately.
We were on our way south, and trying to guess how long we’d take to walk to the pub we’d spotted on our journey in. As we were talking, a bus drew up on the other side of the road, heading into Bridgend. That reassured us that we wouldn’t be stuck, and we pressed on with a bit more confidence.
We found another huge chapel, Bethel, in the main street, which has been converted into flats. Gaz spotted the back of what appeared to be yet another chapel, but now that I’ve consulted the map I think it must have been the rear of the Institute.
We passed Pontycymer Rugby Club, and a sports bar which didn’t appeal to either of us. We decided to walk as far as the pub we’d seen on the inward journey, and have a breather there. A couple of hundred yards later, we left Pontycymer and entered Pant-y-Gog.
At least, that’s what the road signs told us. Pant-y-Gog seems to be little more than a terraced main street, with a couple of small streets at either side. There wasn’t much of interest there, except this curious building:
There’s a place of worship marked on the street map at this point, so I assume this is it. There was no indication on the building or in the grounds to give me any more information.
From here, there is a great view across the valley. The railway line can be seen clearly alongside the River Garw and the Community Path which runs the length of the valley.
We walked along Cuckoo Street for a couple of minutes. The houses ended abruptly and gave way to a fast road with no pavements. Shortly afterwards, we came across a monument to the miners of the Garw Valley, opposite an impressive stone structure which might have been part of a railway bridge.
Not feeling very safe in the face of oncoming traffic, we took a steep path downhill to a small cluster of houses beside the river. This, according to another signpost, was Pont-yr-Hyl. Or, as the street map has it, Pont-y-rhyl. (You Welsh speakers can fight it out amongst yourselves!) There was a very attractive stone bridge here, just above the point where the Nant Cwm Du flows into the Garw itself.
Even though it’s been nearly two decades since trains ran past this point, the old warning signs are still in place. I imagine that the level crossing gates, and elsewhere on the route, will have to be replaced as part of the restoration scheme. There’s an interesting feature built into the stone walls here, too. Embossed letters on long strips of iron tell a story about the Garw Valley – although it was hard to tell where you were meant to start reading, and how the text was meant to flow from piece to piece.
There’s a row of cottages on the hillside just below the level crossing, with the curious name of ‘West Rhondda.’ We couldn’t understand how the name had come about. Maybe the People’s Republic of Rhondda Cynon Taf is eyeing up the territory on its western boundary, with a view to annexation in the near future. Who knows?
More by accident than design, we’d found our way to the nice quiet country pub we’d spotted earlier on, and we decided to stop there for a while.
This was the point where the plan fell apart.
The ‘nice quiet country pub’ turned out to be hosting a kids’ party, with a karaoke set up in one corner, and music blasting from speakers throughout the room. It was hardly surprising that the older customers were sitting outside. We bought drinks and retreated to an outside table, trying to work out exactly where we were. Considering that Gaz and I both love maps, neither of us had thought to bring one with us. Consequently, we were working from vague memories and dead reckoning to pinpoint our position.
In spite of the booming music from inside the pub, it was nice to rest up for a little while and work out our next stage. The Community Path would take us to Brynmenyn, where we could pick up a bus into Bridgend (or, possibly, a bus straight back to Aberdare.) That seemed like a reasonable course of action. We’d be hugging the railway line for most of the way, which should offer us scope to see the industrial architecture at close quarters. We drank up and headed back to the Path.
We hadn’t been walking very long when we found another bridge over the river, which must have been a branch line from the coal mines. I decided to risk my neck and try to get fairly close to it. I’m glad I did.
A little way downstream from here, we were able to follow the path on to the bridge, and I took a photo looking the other way.
The path meets a minor road, which climbs up into the conifer plantations, but the map is frustratingly vague on the topic. We retraced our steps and continued along the Community Path for a few minutes. I was still looking for interesting artefacts, and I spotted a brick arch through the trees. I left the path and made my way to the river bank to take a photo. It turned out to be a skewed arch, similar in design (but considerably smaller) than the one I saw in Coleford last summer.
Wildlife enthusiasts should probably look away now.
While I was taking photos of the bridge, Gaz spotted a duck and a large group of ducklings trying to make their way upstream. He called me over, and I adjusted my camera to get some nice pictures of them.
We counted ten ducklings in total, but they were clearly having difficulty swimming against the current. Some of them were clambering over their siblings to get to the calm water ahead, and eventually there was only one straggler left. Exhausted by its efforts, it drifted downstream before coming to shore a few feet away from us.
Gaz and I both knew that the cardinal rule of dealing with young birds is ‘leave well alone.’ On the other hand, it was clear that this duckling wouldn’t be able to rejoin the rest. It was making plaintive little squeaks, but the mother and the others were out of earshot. It would have been easy pickings for a fox, a rat, or even a passing pet cat. I decided to try and give it a helping hand. On my second attempt, I was able to scoop it out of the water, and carried it upstream to a point where it could swim back to its mother.
Needless to say, things didn’t go quite according to plan. As soon as I let it go, it swam furiously upstream; at the same time, its mother and siblings decided that going upstream was too much like hard work. They drifted back down past us, and the lost duckling was stranded in another calm patch. Eventually it swam back to shore and scrambled on to dry land, where we lost sight of it.
Now it was Gaz’s turn to have a go. He rummaged in the undergrowth and eventually managed to get hold of it. By now, mother and siblings were further downstream again, so he decided to wade through the stream and make his way along the opposite bank. He somehow managed not to lose his balance, released the duckling into a fast section of the river, and crossed back to my side again. His boots and the bottom half of his jeans were soaked, but he was as excited as I was by our unexpected intervention. A couple of minutes later we were level with them once more, and a quick headcount confirmed that all the ducklings were back in the fold. I’m putting that down as my Good Deed for the Year.
The Community Path continued to shadow the railway line, and a few minutes later I spotted another stone bridge. It was impossible to get a decent shot of it, though, as the northern side is in someone’s garden and the southern side is overgrown. We’d had enough adventures for one day.
I checked the time, and figured that we’d probably be in time for the next bus. We were still looking for a way to climb back to the main road when the bus sped past us, high above the path. We were obviously destined to do the next section on foot.
A little while later we came to another disused level crossing.
We’d emerged in the village of Llangeinor, so we decided to have a look around. There wasn’t a great deal to see, to be honest: a playing field alongside a kids’ recreation area; a small chapel; something called the Richard Price Centre; and an aerospace factory planted incongruously behind a wall of conifers, complete with a fighter place in the forecourt.
As we got to the main road, another bus appeared at the junction, with ‘Bridgend’ on its destination indicator. That had us completely confused – was it the same bus which we’d seen a few minutes earlier, or a different one entirely?
A little further along, we passed Tynyrheol School, which is threatened with closure at the moment, and the former Post Office, which is on the market.
We walked along the main road for about ten minutes, with fast traffic passing us in both directions. It was still a refreshing surprise to see how little new building has taken place in the area. Apart from a fairly large council estate at Llangeinor itself, there’s hardly any sign that property developers are carving up the Garw Valley.
Fed up of the traffic noise, we found a steep slope which took us back onto the Community Path, quite a way below the main road.
The terrain was changing slowly, from a well-made path to a rougher track weaving along the river’s edge. The trees were closing in on us as well, and we encountered more walkers and some cyclists before emerging at a completely unexpected clearing.
We followed the path along the river bank and were greeted by a surprising wooden sculpture a minute’s walk away.
I don’t know whether this is an isolated piece, or whether there are more to be discovered in the forest. The path led us around and up, and we emerged on a road near a pair of large gates. There was an information sign nearby, and Gaz realised that we’d emerged at the entrance to Bryngarw Country Park. It was anyone’s guess where we’d end up next, so we followed the road downhill and around a bend. In the distance I could see a large pub called The Fox and Hounds. Finally I knew exactly where we were.
A long, long time ago, when I was on the periphery of the South Wales anarcho-punk scene, a chap named Ivor ran a recording studio at his home in Brynmenyn. Leigh knew him through his involvement with the scene, and we dropped in on him for a cuppa one Sunday afternoon. One of the big issues of the political scene was animal liberation, and hunt sabotage was usually fairly high on the agenda. I always found it rather ironic, therefore, that Ivor’s local pub was called The Fox and Hounds. I haven’t seen him for many years, but the pub gave me a dead fix on our location, in a convenient way that a GPS app on a smartphone wouldn’t have.
(Incidentally, the name Brynmenyn comes from two Welsh elements, bryn meaning ‘hill’ and menyn meaning ‘butter.’ I remember teasing Ivor that he knew the true location of the infamous ‘European Butter Mountain’ of the 1980s.)
Gaz and I called in and had a pint. The place was quiet, with a couple of elderly chaps watching the cricket on the TV, a few younger guys sitting at the bar, and a friendly barmaid who seemed quite surprised to see two random guys strolling in. By now Gaz’s trousers were starting to dry out a bit, and we wondered about making our way home. Not for the first time, I regretted leaving the Netbook at home. Usually I take it everywhere with me, and it would have come in handy to look up bus timetables.
We knew that we could walk to Tondu, and (possibly) pick up a train there. Then again, we weren’t sure whether the service to Maesteg operated on a bank holiday. After all, it isn’t that long since Aberdare was isolated on bank holidays, and we’ve had trains for twenty-five years. Trains started running to Maesteg again about five years after that. That’s no time at all in railway terms. I wasn’t sure whether it was worth the risk.
On the other hand, we were in a good position to catch a bus. As well as the First Cymru 14 service, which runs between Blaengarw and Bridgend (and which we’d missed at least twice already!), the 172 Stagecoach bus between Aberdare and Bridgend passes through the village. If we hung around long enough, in theory we could get the direct bus home. Gaz rummaged through his wallet for current timetables, but to no avail. We decided we’d better play it safe and head into Bridgend, where we could get a through train to Aberdare. We drank up, said goodbye to the locals, and headed for the door.
It was just starting to rain as we got outside, and we knew we’d made the right decision. We walked to the bus stop on the 172 route, only a hundred yards away, and looked in vain for a timetable. We found a rubbish bin, but no timetable. The stop didn’t even display the service numbers that passed through it. RCTCBC aren’t famous for displaying comprehensive public transport information, but it seems that Bridgend CBC are less than useless.
On the other side of the road, there was another bus stop with an information board. I crossed over to have a look at it. Then I had a bright idea. For all of its shortcomings, the Traveline Cymru service does offer one useful service. Each bus stop in Wales has been assigned a unique seven-character code. If you text that code to 84268, within a few seconds you get a free text with details of the next four buses due at that particular point. I’ve never used it before, but I decided to give it a try on Monday afternoon. (Before you ask, we couldn’t use the same procedure to begin with, because there was no way of finding out the code for the Bridgend-bound side. Luckily, it was displayed on the stop opposite. It was better than nothing.)
Within a few seconds of sending the text, I knew that we’d get a bus to Bridgend in about another hour. I crossed the road again and showed the results to Gaz. As we debated returning to the pub to kill time, a 14 bus with ‘Bridgend’ as its destination appeared. It certainly hadn’t been listed in the information I’d just received. We flagged it down, and then watched as it turned down the side street and pulled into the bus stop there. This was getting very confusing!
We jumped aboard, apologised to the driver and explained that we weren’t familiar with the area. A minute later we were on the next stage of our magical mystery tour.
I won’t go into the details, because I can’t remember them, and I don’t know Bridgend well enough to sketch it out. I do know that we went through Betws; we passed Archbishop McGrath RC High School; we skirted the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet; we idled for a minute outside the Princess of Wales Hospital; we passed a depressing shopping precinct patrolled by skulking teenagers in hoodies; we saw a smattering of Goths and Emos wandering around aimlessly; and we finally arrived at Bridgend in good time to catch the train home.
Monday’s visit has certainly whetted my appetite to explore the area in more detail when I get the chance. I’ve studied the timetables, and it’s quite accessible by a combination of bus and/or train. I might even give up the occasional Saturday to help get a really worthwhile project on track, so to speak.
In which The Author releases the safety-catch of his Browning
Yes, boys and girls, I even went to the trouble of looking up the correct quotation, in an actual printed book, no less. In his 1933 play Schlageter, the German dramatist Hanns Johst wrote the famous (and often misquoted) line, ‘Whenever I hear the word culture I release the safety-catch of my Browning!’
In a footnote, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999) points out that it’s ‘often attributed to Hermann Goering, and quoted as “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol!”’
That’s why I got the ODQ off the shelf in the Cosmic Tigger Reference Library last night and checked the attribution for myself. Call me old-fashioned, but there are probably a million incorrect citations online, whereas the compilers of reference books actually go to the trouble of checking their sources.
Regular readers will already know that Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council have proposed a series of closures or downgrades across the borough. I’ve already told you that the plans involve the closure of the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery in Aberdare (see Lost Heritage – What Future?) The Muni cinema/theatre in Pontypridd is also threatened with closure. The borough’s other two theatres, the Coliseum in Aberdare and Treorchy’s Parc and Dare, are earmarked to operate a ‘reduced programme’ – although it almost beggars belief that they can be reduced any further!
The meeting to discuss the future (or otherwise) of these amenities will take place in Clydach Vale tonight. Look up Clydach Vale on a map – if you can find it at all – and you’ll see that it’s in a side valley branching off the Rhondda Fawr near Tonypandy. The council headquarters itself is in a little industrial park; it’s (sort of) on a bus route, but only during the daytime. You can walk there from Tonypandy, but it takes about twenty minutes or so.
Call me cynical if you like, but the council’s headquarters could hardly be less accessible if they’d built them on top of the Maerdy Mountain. In fact, sticking local authority offices in out-of-the-way places seems to be a good way to keep ordinary people away from the centres of power. When I was living in Uxbridge in 1984-5, I noticed that Hillingdon civic centre was in the middle of a busy traffic intersection, and was a bugger to get to on foot. I was in Bridgend last autumn (see A Tale of Two Castles) and found that the civic centre there is on a similar site.
In fact, the parallel between medieval and modern Wales could hardly be clearer. The rich men (and women) still sequester themselves in their secure fortresses patrolled by private security guards. Meanwhile, the latter-day peasants are kept at bay, not by a moat, but by two or three lanes of constant traffic or a lack of public transport. After all, we know our place.
RCTCBC isn’t the only local authority faced with swingeing budget cuts, of course. Last month, the South Wales Echo reported that St David’s Hall and the New Theatre in Cardiff could face closure (Shipton, 2014). It’s hard to believe that the capital city of our country could lose two of its four theatres (the others are the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, and Chapter, attached to the students’ union.) Mind you, it’s even harder to believe that they’re losing money to begin with. Consider that both venues accommodate a thousand people or more, and that ticket prices for most events start in the region of twenty quid apiece. You have to wonder where that money’s going, don’t you?
The Valleys of South Wales have a rich cultural heritage dating back to their economic height in the Victorian era. Wales is renowned as ‘the Land of Song’; our tradition of choral and instrumental music, our stars of stage and screen, our poetry and drama, have all put our little corner of the world on the global cultural map. However, it’s been slowly eroded over the last three decades as a number of factors came into play. Older people retired from the scene, and the membership of the old societies dwindled as a result. On the other hand, young people often left to study or work outside the area, and took their talents with them. Venues closed as the cost of upkeep became prohibitive. The old miners’ institutes fell into disrepair, often vanishing in ‘accidental’ but suspiciously convenient fires.
I once had a pint in The Market Tavern with a chap who was staying there while he was in pantomime at The Coliseum. His name was Graham Aitken, and he’d gone to school in a wealthy part of England, where money was readily available for subjects such as drama and music. From there he’d gone to drama school and become a professional actor. Graham and I chatted for a long time about the paucity of provision within schools for that sort of non-academic, non-vocational subject. He’d been lucky, in that his school had actively encouraged him to pursue his interests and he’d made a career out of it.
At that time I was involved with the Youth Entertainment Society, a voluntary group run by a couple of music teachers and a gang of enthusiastic amateurs (see Connecting People.) The kids who joined YES didn’t have access in school to the sort of skills they were developing in our evening sessions. We got some funding from the National Lottery, but on the whole we just about managed to break even.
Stuart H., the group’s musical director, was a peripatetic music teacher who spent more time driving between schools then he actually did in the classroom. However, budget cuts meant that his work was starting to dry up, so he upped sticks and moved to England. As soon as the kids finished their A Levels, they buggered off as well. After Stuart left, that was the end of YES.
In microcosm, what happened to YES was a perfect model of what’s happening across Wales (and the wider UK) at the moment. Upcoming talent is being driven from the area because funding isn’t available to support it. Small and medium-sized venues, where people could showcase their abilities, have disappeared or are threatened with closure.
But this is about a lot more than money. It’s about a vital link with our past, a continuous thread that’s in danger of being severed. My old friend Gwyn Morgan spoke eloquently at the public meeting to save the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery a couple of weeks ago. He quoted a passage from the First Book of Kings:
Naboth of Jezreel had a vineyard near the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. One day Ahab made a proposal to Naboth: ‘Your vineyard is close to my palace; let me have it for a garden; I will give you a better vineyard in exchange for it, or, if you prefer, its value in silver. But Naboth answered, ‘The Lord forbid that I should let you have land which has always been in my family.’
Gwyn’s point was that Naboth’s birthright was also his children’s inheritance; if he gave it away, then his descendents would have nothing. That’s the danger we face in South Wales at the moment. Youngsters are already being driven away from the area because there’s nowhere for them to develop their creative talents. In another decade or so, the only source of ‘entertainment’ left to us will be the bloody television. An entire generation, a whole society, will be as dumbed down as America is currently. It’s not a pleasant prospect, is it?
While I was looking for the ‘culture’ quotation in the ODQ last night, I came across another one with ‘culture’ as a keyword. It’s by a Scotsman named Alan Bold, and comes from his poem ‘June 1967 at Buchenwald’; however, it could equally well refer to the meeting this evening:
This happened near the core
Of a world’s culture. This
Occurred among higher things.
This was a philosophical conclusion.
Everybody gets what he deserves.
The bare drab rubble of the place.
The dull damp stone. The rain.
The emptiness. The human lack.
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