I can’t remember the last time I actually walked around Ebbw Vale. It was long before the Vanishing Valleys project was hatched, that’s for sure. I’ve been through it on numerous occasions, usually on the X4 bus, but it’s been many years since I disembarked and went for a wander.
Saturday’s expedition had a dual purpose, though. I really need to start documenting the eastern valleys in some semblance of order; and I had an Anthony Nolan collection box to swap out.
Rebecca C., former goth barbint of this parish, is now a goth barbint at a pub called the Bridge, a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Ebbw Vale. Her boyfriend’s family are from the town, so she’s been based there for a couple of years. The guv’nor kindly agreed to host one of our collection boxes a while ago, and Rebecca’s been keeping an eye on it for me. But it’s one of the old-school boxes, and since the charity relaunched its brand last year, I’ve been meaning to take a trip over to Ebbw Vale and change it for one of the new ones. But between Autumn rugby, Xmas, New Year, named Atlantic storm systems (we’re up to K already), the Six Nations, Easter, and election campaigning, the time has never really arisen.
Consequently, when I saw cloudless blue sky first thing on Saturday morning, I decided that the time was right to make the journey. I didn’t even send Rebecca a message to say I was on my way over – I thought it would make a nice surprise when I strolled in during her shift behind the bar.
I jumped on the bus to Merthyr, had a quick stroll around the shopping centre between connections, and was on my way to Ebbw Vale just before 11.00. On the way we passed through Tredegar, which is another blank space on my map. I noticed a few buildings and interesting pieces of public art which I’ll be recording on a return visit. I was in Ebbw Vale just after 11.00, and decided to take the camera for a walk before making my way to the pub. As usual, I’d forgotten to put new batteries in, so before I started I had to hunt down some replacements.
I called into Boots, which claims to have a ‘photo’ department on the window, but there was no evidence of it in store. I crossed the road and looked in Lloyds pharmacy, and also drew a blank. There’s a shop called Home Bargains, so I had a quick look in there as well. Call me cynical, but six AA batteries for 99p probably wouldn’t have lasted until I got to the top of the high street. My friend Donna J. suggested Argos, and I was heading in that direction when I spotted an old-fashioned hardware shop, just like the place in Open All Hours (or the legendary ‘Fork Handles’ sketch). I called in, and the owner sold me eight Duracell Plus batteries for £3.99. That was more like it!
I crossed the road, headed down a side street, took a little lane which led to a footbridge, and crossed over the main north-south road before emerging in Station Approach, where the Bridge is situated. I’ve yet to look at my Pre-Grouping Rail Atlas of Great Britain, but whatever station it was (presumably Pont-y-Gof) is long gone. The old buildings are still there, mind you, converted into a couple of nice cottages. The pub is a bit further along, in its own grounds, a decent penalty kick from the rugby ground.
I strolled in and was met by a pleasant lad in his twenties, dressed all in black, with fairly long hair and a non-hipster beard. I could see straight away why Rebecca and her pals had made it their second home. It hosts live music and (proper) rock nights, and has a small recording studio attached, too. At least they don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours.
I bought a pint, did the crossword, and then explained the purpose of my visit. He told me Rebecca wasn’t working until the evening (which kinda suits her, I suppose – early starts aren’t usually her strong suit), but we swapped out the boxes and I wrote her a note, which I left at the bar. I half-watched the football while I drank my pint, and then decided to make the most of the weather. I headed back towards the bridge which gives the pub its name, thinking it was a good place to start. Before I’d even got there, I found this quaint old chapel just off the road.
I can’t tell you anything about the history of this bridge, but it’s an impressive feat of engineering.
The inscription on the keystone of the small arch reads 1859, but the keystone of the big arch bears the date 1813. That’s only two years after the famous iron bridge in Trecynon/Robertstown was erected. I’m guessing that it would have carried a railway line, but presumably started off as a tramroad. On my next visit, I’m going to take a map and investigate it in more detail.
I retraced my steps into town, pausing to take a couple of photos of empty shops, and a rather gorgeous chapel sandwiched between them. On the way over, waiting for the bus to leave, I overheard an old guy say to his mate, ‘Duw, Merthyr’s a dump, innit?’ I decided to tweet that comment, and my immediate reaction: ‘You should have stayed on as far as Ebbw Vale, mate!’ I thought Aberdare was run-down, but Ebbw Vale makes it look like a thriving metropolis.
I couldn’t get over the size of the Catholic church at the northern end of town. I suppose large numbers of Irishmen would have come over to work in the steelworks and the coal industry, as they did across the Valleys, but even so, this is a massive building. It’s a shame that it sits cheek by jowl with a pig-ugly multi-storey car park, but you can’t have everything.
The workmen’s hall is tucked away behind the library, and I only found it by accident. (The library itself was closed for a refit, although there’s a temporary set-up somewhere.) Like most of these fine buildings, it’s now a bingo hall. It didn’t seem to be the home of rock bands, as I’d read in the papers. I made my way back down and decided to explore the shops for a short while.
It turned out to be a very short while. Half of them were closed, even though it was a Saturday afternoon, and the main street was almost deserted. Even though the high street seems to be struggling, there’s some fine Victorian architecture – but (as with most towns in South Wales) you have to look up to appreciate it.
The Midland Bank, in particular, seems to have had an eye for distinctive and unusual buildings. Look at this odd little gem, on an island just in front of the ‘shopping mall’ (which is where I’d have found Argos, if Arkwright hadn’t got the drop on them). Between the bank and the Conservative Club, there’s some eye-catching public art, too.
I followed the main street south, and found this lovely Victorian frontage stretching for the whole length of a block. Apart from the probation office, a Polish supermarket and a hair salon, the entire place was empty. There isn’t even a charity shop or a tanning studio to relieve the boredom. Nice buildings, shame about the neglect.
Just at the end of this block I found possibly the best street name in South Wales – and I’m including the wonderful ones in Splott and Adamsdown (Cardiff). I bet this gave the Welsh-speaking locals a headache when it was first adopted.
A little further along, the mystery of the music venue was solved. This is Ebbw Vale Institute.
By day it’s a very civilised little cafe bar, by night it’s a cinema and theatre. It also has spaces for arts groups, clubs and meetings. In the next few weeks they’re hosting a David Bowie tribute act, a Motorhead tribute band, a jazz night, a couple of films, and there’s a big rock festival lined up for the autumn. Not for the first time, I saw a potential business model for the Coliseum in Trecynon (if only we could prise it from the cold, dead hand of RCTCBC, of course).
I logged into Facebook and posted my whereabouts. My old friend Neil R. replied within moments, a bit disappointed that I hadn’t told him I was heading in that direction. I explained that it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and promised to give him plenty of warning next time I’m planning to be in that neck of the woods.
I’d seen the spire of a church in the distance, so I decided to head in that direction. On the way I passed a former chapel which is now the scout hall, and some more interesting but lifeless buildings. I found another place which looked like a chapel, but it turned out to be the home of the male voice choir. Then I came to the church.
Actually, I took several steps back before getting the camera out. There’s a flight of stone steps which leads up a steep hill, and it gave me a great vantage point for these next couple of shots. I’ve already shown you some photos of St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare, which is known as ‘the cathedral of the Valleys’; I really wasn’t prepared for this tremendous red sandstone beauty, though.
You can’t get a decent view of St Elvan’s from ground level, because it’s on a little raised area surrounded by buildings on three sides. As with St Elvan’s, the only way to really appreciate this masterpiece is from above. Luckily for me, the view from the hillside is perfect.
When I was halfway up the hill, I spotted another distinctive chapel outline, so I took a small detour to record that as well. This is (or rather, was) Mount Zion Primitive Methodist chapel, apparently. No windows, only half a roof – yes, that seems fairly primitive to me.
I returned to street level, and was a little disappointed (but not really surprised) to find the church gates locked. I took a few photos of the exterior, but they don’t do it justice by a long way. It’s a wide-angle lens job.
I followed the main road down to the A4054, approaching the site of the former steelworks. The new hospital here is enormous, and must have taken a great deal of the workload from Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr. I wondered about crossing the valley and exploring a bit further, but without a map I was flying blind. I decided to leave it for another day and made my way back towards the town centre.
I wonder how many people walk or drive past this old boundary marker every day, and never even notice it. I’m guessing that L stands for Local, but the BD remains a mystery. I’ll have to ask Geoff E. if he can shed any light on it.
I came across some interesting copper plaques built into a retaining wall. This is the Armoury Hill Project, and illustrates some of the fossils which have been found in the Coal Measures. Blaenau Gwent seems to be a little haven of public art like this, and I think it’s fantastic to see the entire community coming behind it – there’s no hint of graffiti or other vandalism on any of the pieces.
I’m sorry I can’t go into any more detail about the buildings I’ve shown you here, but Gwent is pretty much virgin territory as far as my project is concerned. Over time, though, I’ll be spending a bit more time exploring the eastern valleys. There’s a regular train service to Ebbw Vale now (although exactly where the railway station is remains a mystery), and I’ve got a convivial watering hole in which to spend a couple of hours as well. While the whole area (like the rest of the Valleys) may be struggling to reinvent itself after the departure of heavy industry, it’s a green and pleasant land with some hidden architectural treasures. What’s not to like?
An interesting meme popped up on Facebook yesterday. It was a fact I’d known for many years, but I’d never seen the evidence with my own eyes.
This milestone in US musical history heralded the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of pop (and, later, rock) groups across the pond. Within a few months of the Fab Four’s explosion into American youth culture, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, the Small Faces, and a whole host of popular beat combos started to repay the debt they all owed to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard et al – with substantial interest! Arguably the most productive, inventive, experimental and enduring two decades of popular music started pretty much this week, forty-two years ago.
I say ‘enduring’ for a reason. Radio 2’s long-running Sounds of the Sixties, presented by the avuncular broadcasting veteran Brian Matthew, continues to do exactly what it says on the tin. On a Sunday afternoon, Johnnie Walker (who last week marked his fiftieth anniversary on the air) presents Sounds of the Seventies. I love both shows, but whereas Mr Walker spends a fair bit of time reminiscing between records, Mr Matthew just spins the discs and reads out dedications. (Incidentally, if Dad were still alive, he’d be just about six weeks younger than Mr Matthew. Mr Walker is about two years younger than Mother. You can probably tell why I’ve got such a broad taste in music!)
Anyway, last night in the pub, Gareth S., the usual Friday night DJ, was a no-show. I don’t know where Mark, the guv’nor, was. The upshot was that the DJ booth was unoccupied. Courtney, Mark’s daughter and barbint of this parish, was in notional charge of the jukebox. And thereby hangs a tale.
Courtney is eighteen. Her sister Brooke is a couple of years older. They’re very definitely products of the Heart FM/MTV generation, which I referred to at the tail end of ‘Pick ‘n’ (Re)Mix‘. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. (Incidentally, kids, the M in MTV originally stood for ‘music’, in case you’re wondering.) There’s a TV channel called The Box, which broadcasts an endless stream of advertisements for mobile phone apps, cosmetics and fashion chains, punctuated with the occasional music video. (Or is it the other way round? It’s hard to tell sometimes.) Anyway, on Friday afternoon they broadcast what’s amusingly referred to as the ‘Top 40’. Forty videos, averaging four minutes apiece, plus ad breaks, makes a reasonable three-hour slot on TV. Then, instead of delving into the archives (which, in MTV terms, equates to about 1988 at the earliest), they play the entire three hour show again!
As my young friends would say: I shit you not!
The weirdest aspect of the whole phenomenon is that, once a song drops out of the Hit Parade, it ceases to exist entirely. There was a time, when I was in my second first year at university, when you couldn’t walk into a pub without hearing ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga. It was a breath of fresh air when it first came out. Then it was played to death. The Pickled Pepper in Aberdare (formerly the Bush Inn, and now the Bush Inn) had one of the music channels on all day, and ‘Poker Face’ must have been on at least a dozen times every day. After a while the novelty kinda wore off. But Gareth gave it a spin last weekend, and I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t heard this for ages!’ (It’s still a great song. It ain’t ‘Comfortably Numb’, but it’s a great song nonetheless.) It goes to demonstrate the market saturation we’ve reached, that a song you couldn’t escape from less than seven years ago is now considered to be a Golden Oldie.
A few weeks ago, Chazza invited (challenged?) me to duet with her on the karaoke. She’s half my age, if that. Straight away I said, ‘I know the perfect song: “Shut Up” by the Black Eyed Peas.’ She leapt at it, once she got over her initial amazement. I think she was expecting me to suggest something from Chicago, or a classic sixties/seventies hit. But it’s a great pop song (or rather, it was – until we got our hands on it!)
I can’t say the same for the majority of the stuff in the Top 40 at the moment. Acts don’t even have decent names any more. Gone are the days when you could call yourself the Clash, or the Stranglers, or even So-and-so and the Such-and-such. Now it’s all What’s-his-face featuring Wossnim and Wossnim. When I started doing my regular Xmas special quizzes in the Cambrian, I used to dread the music round. On paper, it’s a nice idea: identify all the No 1 UK hits from the year – a point for the title, and a point for the artist. In practice, it’s a pain in the arse, because half of them sound identical, and there are often as many as five or six credited performers. Teams were scoring forty or fifty points just on the fucking music round! Crazy.
As for the ‘songs’ themselves – well, this meme (again found on Facebook) kinda sums things up:
(Yes, I know the date for the Led Zeppelin song is wrong! I don’t make the memes. And I thought a hoe was something you used in the garden, too …)
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to Gareth E. and Wayne W. about music in general. Wayne and I share the opinion that Morrissey is probably one of the the finest songwriters working in the UK today. He’s disarmingly frank, outspoken, erudite and witty. The aforementioned Ms Minaj could live to be a thousand years old and never come up with anything remotely close to the sheer audacious brilliance of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ or ‘This Charming Man’.
But great lyrics are only half the battle, aren’t they? You also need to have great music behind them. That’s why the Morrissey/Johnny Marr partnership was such a revelation in the face of synthpop (which I also love, by the way). That’s why Pink Floyd’s masterly concept pieces work so well. That’s why Abba’s massive hits have stood the test of time. Look at the superb body of work which resulted from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s collaboration, or Simon and Garfunkel’s back catalogue, or the tremendous output of Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland. (Stock, Aitken and Waterman had the brass neck to call themselves ‘the Hit Factory’! They were a cottage industry in comparison to the Motown guys.)
When songwriting partnerships really come together, it’s a perfect illustration of what R. Buckminster Fuller meant by synergy – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And they didn’t get much greater than John Lennon and Paul McCartney when they were firing on all cylinders.
To illustrate my point even more fully – as I’ve said, last night Courtney was in charge. After pumping several credits into the jukebox, she proceeded to dial up the same music that was on the TV (with the sound down). She could have saved money and just turned the idiot’s lantern up, but that’s not the point. The Lighthouse isn’t a kids’ pub. Yes, youngsters come in, but they rarely stay for the duration – it’s just a stopping-off point on the way around town. Most of the punters are around my age, or a bit older. We don’t want to listen to Justin bloody Bieber or Iggy Azalea (not her real name, apparently), or Jason DeRulo, or even Fetty Wap. (Personally, I thought Fetty Wap was a bondage-themed website optimised for mobile phones.) We were brought up listening to proper music, after all.
So, when Courtney returned to the bar and left the jukebox unattended, I thought I’d mark the momentous anniversary of the British Invasion in fitting style. I couldn’t remember all five songs, but I found four of them on the menu, and threw in ‘She’s Leaving Home’ for good measure.
And the atmosphere was immediately transformed. One couple, around my own age, started dancing. Everyone else started singing along. A few people who were passing came in and stayed for a drink – purely on the strength of the music. It only lasted for a quarter of an hour or so, and then normal service was resumed. I, along with quite a few others, made my excuses and left.
I know it’s early days, and (as I’ve noted several times previously) predictions of the future often land well wide of the target. But I’m fairly confident that people will still be playing the Beatles’ records in a thousand years’ time – and that they’ll continue to influence countless generations of songwriters and musicians to come.
What can Britain offer the world today, by way of comparison. Sam Smith? Fine voice, but largely wasted on piss-poor material. Adele? (Ditto) Ed bloody Sheeran? Some clothes horse from Simon Cowell’s stable? Do me a bloody favour! Most of the current crop of UK performers will be lucky if anyone’s still listening to their music ten years down the line, never mind fifty. In fact (as I observed to my pal Jimmy N. yesterday), I strongly suspect the current charts, filled as they are with interchangeable and indistinguishable garbage, are probably America’s way of getting revenge for showing them exactly how it’s done, forty-two years ago this week.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.