In which The Author should have packed a spare pair
On Thursday, my friend Anna emailed me with some exciting news. She had it on ‘very good authority’ that Peter Capaldi and Jenna-Louise Coleman would be filming Doctor Who at Barry Island on Friday. It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, so I got up bright and early and headed for Aberdare Station. I’d already decided to buy a Valley Lines Day Explorer ticket; at nearly eight quid return to Barry Island, or eleven quid for the freedom to travel the whole of the local network, I decided to splash the cash and make a day of it.
At the ticket office, I encountered the small print hurdle which I discussed in my other blog (see Left Hand, Right Hand). As a result, I set off a full hour after I’d originally intended. On the journey down, we got stuck behind a late-running train from Treherbert; on arrival at Cardiff the conductor announced that we’d be running ‘fast’ to Barry. Things weren’t going to plan. I picked up a copy of Metro which had been left on a nearby seat, and realised that it was Friday the thirteenth. I ain’t superstitious, but…
I flicked through the paper and got to my horoscope:
Though you and another may not see eye-to-eye, the willingness to discuss important matters can encourage a compromise. However, should your problem be linked to too much bureaucracy, you might have to toe the line.
That explained a lot!
On arrival at Barry Island, I headed off in search of the BBC. I was working in Waterstone’s in Cardiff when they filmed the Doctor Who Xmas special ‘The Runaway Bride’ outside (see Location, Location, Location.) I remembered from that day that BBC location crews don’t exactly travel light.
(Incidentally, Barry Island isn’t really an island. It’s a little peninsula separated from Barry proper by a narrow isthmus over which the trains and road traffic run. I last visited it in 2006, or maybe early 2007, after the Vale of Glamorgan line reopened to passenger traffic. Cath P. came with me and we went exploring for the day. It was then that I discovered that the Ninth Circle of Hell is where they keep the waltzers and dodgems.)
I walked past the amusement park, but there was no sign of life. I headed for the beach, where some elderly people were catching rays on the seats and young families were making the most of a sunny day. I walked the length of the sea front, past countless fish and chip shops, stalls selling beach accessories, fast food places, cafés and amusement arcades, and found no sign of any filming.
By then it was nearly lunchtime, so I supposed the BBC might have packed up already. Alternatively, they might have been in the amusement park itself, which was closed to the public. Either way, I was beginning to feel as if I’d had a wasted journey.
On the other hand, it had turned into a glorious summer’s day, and I was at the beach. In my mind’s ear I could hear the strains of ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’ (Reginald Dixon’s Mighty Wurlitzer version, of course!), and I decided to explore a bit further. I walked to the end of the beach and up to Friars Point, where I took some photos across the sea front and out into the Bristol Channel. There are spectacular cliffs all along this stretch of coastline, and there’s a beauty at the western end of Watch House bay.
It was still rather hazy out to sea, unfortunately. I wasn’t able to get a clear shot of Flat Holm island (which was featured in the Torchwood episode ‘Adrift’) – and which, trivia fans may be interested to learn, is home to the most southerly pub in Wales! However, when I turned around I spotted some stone arches in the distance.
That gave me an idea, so I walked back along the little headland and along a breakwater. Here, lying abandoned in a stretch of brackish water, were the sad remains of a couple of small boats.
I was making my way through a car park when I heard a train approaching. It was crossing the bridge which links Barry to Barry Island. I’d lost my bearings by this stage, so it was nice to have something to fix on again.
I found a little path which led up to the road. I followed my nose to a traffic roundabout with a pub on one corner. Appropriately enough, it’s called The Ship. (There’s another pub called The Ship at Efail Isaf, just outside Church Village. Presumably the tide must have been very high on the day that it was named!)
Even though the sun was well over the yardarm by now, I decided to press on. At a busy traffic junction at the top of a steep hill, I found this impressive church overlooking the sea. It’s one of a dozen or so equally eye-catching places of worship which I encountered that day. Get ready for some staggering statistics.
In the census of 1871, the little fishing village of Barry contained 21 buildings, housing a population of just over a hundred. In 1881, Barry itself had a population of 85, and 403 people lived at nearby Cadoxton. By the 1920s this figure had exploded to around 40,000, as the port and railway network mushroomed.
The late Victorian and Edwardian building boom left a legacy of noteworthy buildings. This is just one of them.
From here, I descended Romilly Park Road, stopping to catch a quick photo of a train on its journey from Bridgend to Aberdare. Then I followed my nose again, skirted Romilly Park, and passed under the railway line into a neat cluster of residential streets overlooking the sea. I passed a coffee shop and an ice cream parlour, not really sure where I was heading, and after a few minutes I found a waymarker for the Wales Coastal Path.
Gaz has been exploring this long distance walk for himself, splitting it into handy bite-sized chunks. When we were returning from Bridgend (see Pleasant Valley Monday) he mentioned that he’d passed through Porthkerry Country Park on one expedition. That was the destination I had in mind, although so far I hadn’t seen any signposts for it. I was starting to wonder whether I’d be able to get to it – that cliff had looked rather forbidding! I needn’t have worried, as the path led steeply uphill and onto a large newly-mown field. There were some beautiful houses here, with glorious views over the Bristol Channel. I’d accidentally found my way to Millionaires’ Row.
I followed the waymarkers to the summit, and then started to descend gently into thick woodland. The path was clear and well-trodden, and I stopped for a minute to watch a pair of squirrels scampering around in a tree a few feet away, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
At the bottom of the path I emerged into a large expanse of grassland. To the east, I could see the imposing cliff face which the path had skirted. I looked around and realised that I’d arrived without any warning at Porthkerry Country Park. A couple of minutes’ walk to the north was the target I’d been aiming for: Porthkerry Viaduct.
I think I actually said ‘Wow!’ out loud at my first sight of this astonishing feat of civil engineering. Built in the 1890s by the Barry Railway Company, it stands 110 feet high, and its thirteen arches span the narrow valley. It’s a breathtaking sight when you’re up close and personal, as I was on Friday afternoon.
Here I encountered another problem. I’d forgotten to bring my tripod, which meant that photographing myself beside the viaduct was going to be rather difficult. I only had my miniature tripod, which is ideal if there’s something convenient nearby for it to stand on. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could use. I found a fence post, but it was quite a distance away. Even with the maximum delay time of twelve seconds, my camera was still too far away for me to get into the picture. My recurring back problem means that my sprinting days are long behind me.
I persevered for a few minutes, and eventually managed to get a shot of me standing beside one of the massive stone uprights. You can just about see me, if you look hard enough.
There’s a little shop not far from the viaduct, so I called in for a bottle of lemonade and a bar of chocolate. I sat on a bench overlooking the beach and wondered how long it would be before a train came along. I worked out that it must have been nearly an hour since I spotted the one approaching Barry Station. Sure enough, a few minutes later I heard a mechanical rushing noise that presaged the arrival of a train. I managed to get the camera ready just in time to capture it passing high above the country park.
An elderly couple and their young granddaughter were standing nearby, and I heard the man tell her, ‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for.’
I turned to them and said, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’
They told me that the first time they’d brought her to the country park, an aeroplane had flown right overhead. We were only a couple of miles from Cardiff Airport, near Rhoose, and I was surprised that there hadn’t been more aerial action that day.
Then the ‘battery empty’ indicator appeared on the camera screen and it shut itself down.
Every time I’m out with the camera, the same thing happens. Every time, I tell myself, ‘Bring a spare pair of batteries with you next time!’ Every time, I forget to do it! I was cursing myself for not planning ahead, when I remembered that sometimes my camera manages to squeeze a bit more juice out of the batteries once it’s been switched off for a while. Maybe all was not lost after all.
I’d been trying to work how long I’d have to wait for the coal train from Tower Washery to reach the viaduct on its way to Aberthaw Power Station. I knew that freight trains rely on ‘windows’ in the operating timetable to squeeze in between the passenger services. This is why we have the infamous ‘Ghost Trains’ on the Aberdare line – the gaps in the timetable allow the freight trains to pass along the single track. I knew that the train left Aberdare around lunchtime, but it was anyone’s guess how long it would take to complete its journey. It seemed like a bit of a gamble to just sit around and wait for something to happen.
I decided to head back into Barry, and gathered my stuff together. As I stood up, I heard an aeroplane approaching. Fortunately my camera had got its second wind by now, and I managed to get one shot before the plane vanished behind the trees.
I’d suddenly been handed a title for this entry. Things were looking up for once (both literally and metaphorically). I had a look at the little map of the country park beside the path, and decided to try and head back into Barry via the road network, rather than retrace my steps. I walked past the car park, struck out along a narrow track, and a few minutes later I heard another mechanical rushing noise in the distance. It was the unmistakeable sound of a Class 66 locomotive at full power. I know that I swore loudly this time, but I still managed to have the camera ready before the train passed over a small stone bridge across the path.
It was better than nothing, I suppose – but I’d much rather have had a photo of it spanning the whole length of the viaduct instead. Maybe next time…
I walked on for another couple of minutes until my way was blocked by a gate. A metal sign told me that I’d be crossing a ‘Public footpath over private land.’ This was a new one on me; I had visions of an angry farmer waving a shotgun and shouting, ‘Get orf moi larnd!’ Fortunately, I was able to carry on unchallenged. I passed a couple of isolated cottages, strolled along a quiet country lane between fields of crops, and after a few more minutes I emerged at a busy main road. There was a Travelodge and a Toby Carvery at the junction, and heavy lorries were thundering past. It was a remarkable contrast in a very short distance. I was on Port Road. I recalled that my old boss from Blackwell’s, Jim E., had lived near here back in the day. I had a vague idea where I was again.
A roadside banner informed me that I was at Weycock Cross, where Port Road meets Pontypridd Road and Weycock Road. The banner had been put there by the Friends of Weycock Cross, who were trying to prevent a new development being built on the land nearby. I don’t blame them – it’s easy to shout ‘Nimbies’ when you hear of campaigns like this, but it’s a beautiful area. I don’t think I’d want a lot of new identikit houses springing up on a greenfield site near me, either.
On the other side of the junction was a filling station and a small Co-operative supermarket. There were also bus stops on Port Road West and Pontypridd Road. I checked the timetable and fare information, and found that it cost £1.70 to get back into Barry itself. It seemed better than walking, so I bought a paper in the shop to make sure I had the exact money – I knew from past experience that Cardiff buses don’t give change!
Then I remembered that I had an iff card in my wallet. It’s rather like an Oyster Card, but works on Cardiff buses. I applied for it when they first came out, about six years or so ago. At the time, I was visiting Llandough Hospital as an outpatient fairly regularly, so I figured that it would come in handy if I needed to go there on a rainy day.
As I was one of the early adopters, Cardiff Bus preloaded it with £3.00 of credit as a ‘thank you’ for supporting the new scheme. Soon after that, Mr Graham’s team discharged me and the card has sat, unused, in my wallet ever since. I wasn’t even sure whether the initial credit would be valid, but it was worth a try.
A few minutes later, the 98 bus arrived and I asked for a single to King Square. (I didn’t know where King Square was, mind – I’d seen it on the timetable and thought it sounded fairly central!) With my iff card in one hand and the correct fare in the other, I explained about my iff card dilemma. The driver was a friendly and cheerful chap, and didn’t quibble at all. He simply scanned it on his machine, and told me that the credit was still valid. Job done!
The journey into Barry itself took me through suburban streets and past some of the other remarkable churches I mentioned earlier. I wished I’d had a bit more idea of my whereabouts, but I was in terra incognita once again. We passed some superb civic buildings, a couple of pubs (including the ubiquitous Wetherspoon, of course), and finally came to a stop at King Square. We’d arrived right outside the public library.
By now my camera had built up enough of a head of steam to allow me to capture just some of the extraordinary architecture of this rather overlooked town centre.
Sadly, the ground floor level of Barry doesn’t fulfil its architectural promise. It’s a real Clone Town of chain stores, charity shops and bargain shops punctuated by training agencies, beauty salons and card shops – Aberdare-on-Sea, if you like. The charity shops did turn up a few bargain books, mind you: The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry, X-Ray by Ray Davies, and a replacement copy of Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Not a bad little haul for four quid. I could have carried on, but I was getting loaded down by that stage.
In the middle of the main street I found a pub called The Buccaneer, and called in for a pint. It was a big old place with a lively mixed crowd. There was a chap of about my age sitting with a girl considerably younger than him, and I took up a nearby table. When the chap went for a smoke, the girl carried on talking to herself. It was nice to know that I haven’t lost the knack of finding loopy females. I logged onto Facebook, told Anna that I’d drawn a blank at Barry Island earlier on, and drank up before the crazy girl decided to home in on me.
Back in the high street, I walked towards where I assumed the railway station would be. I didn’t find it, but I did find this imposing war memorial outside the civic offices.
I arrived at a bridge which led to the Waterfront (their capital W, by the way!), and halfway across I looked down at the railway line. Here was a mystery which I still haven’t solved, even with the aid of my Pre-Grouping Atlas of the British railway network. Have a close look at the way the railway lines and the platform lie in relation to one another.
Now, I could be wrong (and I’m sure that one of my rail enthusiast readers will clarify the position), but to me this looks like two passenger lines side by side, and a freight line next to the platform. Certainly there’s no sign on the platform to indicate that it’s still in use. It isn’t Barry Station, and it isn’t Barry Docks Station either – I ended up rejoining the train there, and it’s quite some distance up the line. It’s a mystery at the moment.
With my battery indicator flashing red again, I decided to head back into Cardiff, and the next stage of my adventure. I retraced my steps into the town centre and found a signpost for Barry Docks Station. A few minutes later I found myself on the approach to the station, and took this photo of the Custom House which dominates the view from the railway line as you pass through. Sadly I wasn’t able to get as close as I’d hoped, but it’s still a magnificent building.
The train arrived a few minutes later, and was running through to Aberdare, but I wasn’t heading home just yet. I boarded, found a seat by the window, and started the crossword. A couple of stops later, the shockwave against the window of a passing train jolted me back to reality. It turned out to be another coal train heading for Aberthaw. That baffled me for ages, as I knew the next window in the Aberdare route wasn’t until the evening. It dawned on me later that coal trains run from the opencast workings east of Merthyr Tydfil, via the Bedlinog to Ystrad Mynach branch. I presume it had originated there and made its way down in time to surprise me.
At Cardiff Central I had twenty minutes to kill, so I walked as far as Greggs and bought a snack. I had a look at the three charity shops side by side in Central Square, but none of had anything which caught my eye. Then I headed back to the station in time for the next stage of my adventure.
This didn’t go according to plan either, you’ll be amazed to learn. I’d been looking to catching my first train from the famous Platform Zero (see A Letter From the Editor 8), but it wasn’t to be. A last-minute platform alteration meant that I was departing from Platform 2 – but it didn’t matter. I was on my way into a section of Mr Baker’s book which said ‘Here be dragons’: the line to Ebbw Vale Parkway.
Even though the line was reopened to passenger traffic early in 2008, I’d never made the journey there myself. Gaz did it a couple of years ago. We both knew from experience that ‘Parkway’ stations are usually some way from the towns they claim to represent. Gaz had summed up the end of the line perfectly: ‘It’s as if the trains to Aberdare terminated at Cwmbach.’
In the event, I didn’t have time to check out the terminus for myself. We were delayed for ages at Rogerstone while the conductor tried to get the doors to close. It was early evening by now, and the train was busy with commuters on their way home. It had felt strange to be on a commuter train heading down the main line towards Newport for the first part of the journey, but once we turned into the Ebbw Valley we were in familiar Valley Lines territory again.
I haven’t been into the Eastern Valleys for many years, and I was amazed by how much the landscape has been transformed. The old industrial scars have been landscaped over, and it’s extraordinarily green again. I couldn’t see a great deal from the train window, but it was reassuring to see that the massive Institute at Llanhilleth was still intact. At least one local authority in South Wales still cares about our built heritage.
When we arrived at Ebbw Vale Parkway, we were just in time for the return leg. Consequently I haven’t got any photos to show you. We made good time back into Cardiff, and I parked myself on the platform for the final phase of the day’s roving.
I didn’t have long to wait for the Maesteg train – but never fear, I wasn’t going all the way! Instead, I travelled only as far as the next stop, Pontyclun, and a pub named after one of my heroes: The Brunel Arms.
I’ve been there on two previous occasions, some years apart. The current landlady is named Siân S., and we’ve been friends on Facebook for ages. However, Friday night was the first time we’d met in person. I asked her some weeks ago if she’d be willing to have a collection box for the Anthony Nolan bone marrow/stem cell charity on the bar. She agreed without hesitation, so on Friday morning I’d shoved one into my bag before setting off. I’d messaged her on Facebook while I was in the pub in Barry, and she’d said that she’d be around by about nine o’clock.
It takes about fifteen minutes to travel from Cardiff to Pontyclun on the train. I’m always surprised by how compact the city of Cardiff really is – you don’t have to sit on the train for very long before the houses peter out and you’re passing through countryside. It was still a glorious day, and I was looking forward to a pint. I left the train and made my way to the pub, which overlooks the main line from Cardiff to Swansea. At the entrance to the pub car park, I spotted a little iron disc set into the ground, and decided to photograph it.
It was great to find a remnant of the Great Western Railway so close to a pub named after its guiding light. A couple of girls sitting outside were highly amused when I stopped to take the photo; I suppose you either appreciate industrial history or you don’t. When I mentioned it to Siân, she told me that she always dreaded knocking it with her car. I teased her that she needed to be careful, as it was probably a listed structure. Then again, if it was, Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC would have ripped it out of the ground years ago.
I chatted to some youngsters who were waiting for the football to start, all the while checking out the new arrivals in case one of them was Siân. It was almost like being on a blind date (as far as I can remember, anyway – that hasn’t happened for about thirty years!) Eventually I spotted her emerging from the ‘Private’ door, and went up to say hello. She spotted me as I approached, and we both said exactly the same thing at the same time. Great minds think alike, see.
We chatted for a while, and Siân bought me a pint for making the effort to call in. Unfortunately, the constraints of public transport meant that I had to leave in time for the 2150 train back to Cardiff. I’ve promised to call in again when I get the chance – it’s a really nice pub, with lots going on and a good crowd. It’s a shame it’s so bloody far away! It may look like no distance on the map, but in the world of public transport it’s virtually a two hour journey.
Now here’s a thing: the train I was catching ran to Cardiff Central only; the next one ran through to Gloucester, of all places! If I lived in that fair city, I’d have been able to stay in The Brunel for another hour and still get home! Living barely twenty miles away, I had to travel back into Cardiff and kick my heels for nearly forty minutes before the Aberdare train left. As Terry Wogan would say, Is it me…?
The sun was just setting as I stood on the footbridge at Pontyclun Station and took the last photo of the day.
And that, boys and girls, was how I spent Friday the Thirteenth. Between pettifogging bureaucracy, trains which kept their own schedules, a no-show by the gorgeous Impossible Girl, a narrow escape from yet another crazy bint, and a lack of battery power, the odds had been stacked against me from the outset.
For all that, though, it had all turned out nicely in the end. I’ve got some more books, a new pub to visit when I’m travelling, and a couple of places to revisit with my tripod in tow. I caught a few rays, covered another section of Mr Baker’s Rail Atlas, and got out of Aberdare for the day.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was just what the Doctor ordered.
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.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.