On Friday morning I failed to connect to the wifi in Aberdare Library (as usual for a Friday), so I buried myself in some beautiful old maps for a couple of hours instead.
I’m sure I’ve told you before about the Aberdare Local Board of Health maps. They were adapted from the Ordnance Survey maps by the forerunner of our district council, set up in 1854. Aberdare Library has a chest of drawers full of them, together with later maps and even more detailed maps from the same era.
The ALBH maps are printed on huge sheets of linen, encapsulated in plastic to protect them. They were hand-coloured to show the buildings, topographical features and sewer system (the lack of which, after all, was one of the reasons why the Board of Health was established in the first place). They show a wealth of detail which Geoff and I have been drawing on to research our Street Names Project. Here’s part of Aberdare town centre, c. 1870.
I’ve been working on the Street Names Project at home, trying to arrange each section into a logical order, as I explained in A New Approach. If we can take the reader on a virtual tour through the various communities in the Cynon Valley, it’ll be far more interesting than just presenting them with an alphabetical list and filling it with cross-references.
I haven’t had any problems doing that with Trecynon and Gadlys, and Aberdare town centre has been relatively easy too. I did the northern part of Aberaman quite quickly, using the street map as a guide. Once I got as far as the Aberaman Hotel, though, I had to concede that I didn’t know the area well enough.
I spent an hour or two studying the maps of Aberaman and Cwmaman on Friday morning. I was armed with a magnifying glass, an up-to-date street atlas, and our alphabetical list of streets which forms the working outline of our book. I was able to pinpoint a few of our ‘lost streets’, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Even so, just poring over the maps didn’t enable me to construct a mental model of the area.
There was only one thing to do. The weather forecast seemed settled for the rest of the day. There’s a disused railway line (the Dare-Aman line) at the top of Monk Street, which runs across high ground above Aberaman and into the heart of Cwmaman. I had my camera, the scans of the maps, and an afternoon to kill. I clearly wasn’t going to get online any time soon, so I packed up my stuff and headed for the hills.
I hadn’t gone very far when I spotted a chap walking some distance ahead. He was walking no fewer than seven dogs. I had to feel slightly sorry for him – I used to have my work cut out with just one. It didn’t take me long to find my first mystery, either.
Just above King George’s Field I passed a short row of cottages, sitting some distance from the western edge of the line, but there was no sign of a name plate. There’s nothing marked on the street map, either. I should have asked the people who were sunbathing in their garden what the row is called, but it seems like a daft question, doesn’t it?
Every so often I looked to my left, trying to get a fix on my position from the street layout just below. I knew I’d entered Godreaman when I recognised one of the huge chapels that punctuate the streets of our Valleys.
[A digression: Godreaman is another area which poses the question I tackled in Where Do We Draw The Line?. On Thursday I resorted to comparing notes on several internet sites. I keyed in each street name, and made a note of whether the sites said the street was in Aberaman, Godreaman or Cwmaman. Then I restructured the section on the Aman Valley on that basis. (I decided not to start a separate block for Glynhafod, though. There’s only so far you can take this sort of hair-splitting.)]
I was able to pinpoint my location when I arrived at the overbridge dividing the rest of the village from Woodland Terrace. If you’re travelling to the Globe Inn by taxi from Aberdare, your driver will take you under the bridge towards Woodland Terrace and then turn down Fforchneol Row. I don’t think I’d ever been into Woodland Terrace before, but on Friday I had a good reason to. There’s a cast iron ALBH nameplate on the end house, and I wanted to add it to my collection of photos. I clambered down the slope from the line and walked under the bridge into Woodland Terrace.
I decided to press on towards Cwmaman and see if I could turn up any more of the old nameplates. I headed along Fforchneol Row, most of which is made up of very large modern detached houses, and eventually found the old part of the street. The Globe Inn is at the southern end, and its location is marked on the old maps as ‘Globe Row’. There’s a large gap separating Woodland Terrace and Globe Row, with a couple of little blocks between them. It’s the sort of mystery which Geoff and I keep coming up against when we’re trying to reconstruct the shape of the Victorian Cynon Valley.
I wasn’t especially surprised to see the door of the Globe firmly closed. The Aman Valley is rather short of pubs these days: the Mount Pleasant closed after a serious fire about twenty years ago; the Ivy Bush is now a private house; the Shepherds Arms is currently up for auction; the Fforchneol (Bonki) seems to change hands every other month. That leaves just the Globe, Glynhafod Workmens’ (the Top Club) and Cwmaman Institute (the Bottom Club) to cater for the entire population of the lower Aman Valley. Martin obviously doesn’t get enough trade to merit opening in the early weekday afternoons. Now that he can legally open all day, he doesn’t bother. How ironic is that?
I walked along Station Terrace and emerged onto Fforchaman Road. I was a lot further from the centre of the village that I’d thought, so I headed for what used to be the square. I was thinking that I could do with a glass of Coke and a sit down to study my maps. I was making for the post office when I spotted a street sign for ‘Pit Row’, pointing down a narrow lane between two blocks of terraced houses. Pit Row is one of the names on my list, so I decided to investigate.
I followed the line behind the houses and down a slope, where I found two semi-detached houses facing onto the hillside opposite, with nothing else nearby. I assume that they were once a series of cottages which have been knocked through to make two large dwellings. I need to do some more work on the census returns and electoral registers to prove my theory, but at least I can transfer Pit Row from my list of ‘lost streets’ and back to the land of the living once more.
The approach to the square is dominated by the Institute and the Shepherds. The post office, supermarket and takeaway are all below the square now. There’s an old red telephone box near the Shepherds, and a slope leads down into Pwllfa Road, where I found another cast iron nameplate. There’s a Pwllfa Place on my list of streets, too, but that’s nowhere near the square. It’s beyond the church, which would have taken me well out of my way on Friday afternoon. It’s marked on the recent street map, but that’s no guarantee of its existence, as I’ve discovered recently.
I walked past the Institute, which has never been my favourite place to have a drink, and around onto what used to be the heart of the village. There was a small library there, and a betting shop, and a couple of other shops, but they’ve all closed in recent years. The only place still open is one of the wonders of our modern age: Queen Ti’s Tearooms.
Kristy M. introduced me to this eccentric little watering hole a few years ago, when we’d been exploring the Cwmaman Sculpture Trail one afternoon. It’s owned by an English lady named Lucy Mumford, who settled in Wales and decided to open a café-cum-internet hangout-cum-rehearsal space in the village. I’m still not sure why she chose to settle in Cwmaman, but it was a good decision. Cwmaman was a ‘hot’ name at the time, with Stereophonics all over the media, and a thriving creative scene operating out of the Institute. A lot of the steam has run out of that scene now, of course, but Lucy’s business continues to tick over. It’s good to see a place like that weathering the storm which has almost flattened the rest of the village. There’s a good selection of reasonably-priced snacks, including a decent range of vegetarian food – which is quite unusual in the Valleys, to be honest – and (of course) a dizzying choice of teas and coffees.
Queen Ti’s has since been a regular stopping place on my rare excursions to the village, as Lucy’s always up for a chat about local history. She became interested in Cwmaman’s past when she started renovating the premises, and found an old sign behind the frontage. About a hundred years ago it was owned by Samuel Badham, a tailor and outfitter. That sparked her curiosity, and she decided to find out more about the building and its surroundings.
I drank a can of ginger beer while Lucy showed me a huge file of research she’s accumulated about the former owners of the building, and general information about the village itself. I know Terry C., another regular in the library, who’s very active in the Cwmaman local history group. I wasn’t surprised to find some of his work in the file.
There was a large section about Alun Lewis, the tragic poet from Cwmaman whose centenary is currently being marked with events across Wales. There’s a section about a one-legged swimmer from the village, too (who, as I suggested, must have just gone round in circles). There were maps and photos of old Cwmaman, and lots of genealogical data about notable inhabitants.
One of the other business in the area was a printing firm run by a gentleman named Wilcox. When he retired, he sold his business to Stephens and George, who are now one of the biggest employers in Merthyr Tydfil. The walls of the shop are decorated with old photos, memorabilia of the previous occupants, and even some century-old wallpaper which was underneath several layers when Lucy started stripping it all back. The café is slowly turning into a museum of curios from bygone days.
There’s another reminder of old Aberdare in the café. Lucy has somehow unearthed an old harmonium, sold by the Harmston’s shop in Pontypool. They had another branch in Cardiff Street in Aberdare, and there’s a photograph of the interior in one of the Aberdare: Pictures from the Past books. The instrument itself needs some work to repair the bellows mechanism, but it’s in surprisingly good condition otherwise.
Queen Ti’s itself is named after one of queens of Ancient Egypt, which is why I was first intrigued by the place. Lucy’s gradually fitting it out with Egyptian themed décor, so I told her about my little collection of deities who wish me goodnight as I go to bed and greet me every morning. It’s always nice to find someone who’s as fascinated by the whole culture as I am.
Lucy gave me a leaflet about walks in the Aman Valley before I said goodbye, promising to call in again when I was next in the area. I wanted to get all the way to the end of Glynhafod in case the rain started. There are three things you should bear in mind when visiting Cwmaman:
it’s almost impossible to get a pint in the afternoon
it’s almost impossible to get a mobile phone signal
the Aman Valley has its own microclimate
I walked all the way to the end of Glynhafod without finding a single ALBH street sign. I was halfway along Kingsbury Place on the way back when I felt the first drops of rain. Luckily the buses run every ten minutes throughout the day (presumably so that people who fancy a pint can travel to Aberdare), so I wouldn’t have got too wet waiting around.
The rain didn’t come to anything, though, so I carried on walking. I bumped into my friend Justine, and she asked me why I was so far off the beaten track. I showed her my camera, and said I’d been searching for lost streets before heading back into Aberdare.
‘There’s only one road in and one road out,’ she laughed.
‘You’re not the first person to say that,’ I told her. It’s a famous line, attributed to Kelly Jones when he was asked by a journalist to describe his home town.
I walked back through the village until I got to the line again. I decided to see if there was any sign of life in the Globe, and was pleased to find the door open. There were only two customers in there, so I bought a can of Coke and sat down to look at my maps in the light of my grassroots research. I found Pit Row on the 1868 map, marked as three separate buildings. I don’t know whether it was extended before being knocked through into its present shape, though. I definitely need to look into that. I found some of the old railway lines I’d explored, but I still hadn’t solved the mystery of whether Pwllfa Place still exists. If it does, it’s across the river from Glynhafod Club. I think I’ll have to take a second trip to the far end of the valley soon, just to tie up some loose ends. This time, I’ll treat myself to lunch in Queen Ti’s as well. Watch this space…
As my regular readers will know, nearly thirty years ago I worked on a research project called the Cynon Valley Profile. We took countless photographs, archived no end of documents and news cuttings, and conducted interviews and vox pops covering most aspects of life in our little part of South Wales. We were picking up (after an interval of several years) where two notable individuals had broken off.
W. W. Price (1873-1967) was a schoolteacher who spent all his spare time and his long retirement in documenting the history of the local area. He amassed some 40,000 cards of genealogical data, boxes and boxes of transcripts and documents, and was published on many occasions. The research room at Aberdare Library is named after him.
Rev R. Ivor Parry (1908-75) was the minister of Siloa Chapel, although he trained as a historian. He wrote a regular column in the Aberdare Leader and also gathered a large archive of cuttings and other documents.
That was pretty much where we came in. During the two years of the Cynon Valley Profile we collected anything we could get our hands on: theatre programmes, posters for local shows, gig flyers… you name it! In fact, Noel Rencontre’s election leaflet, which I showed you in Underground, Overground, Wombling Free, was almost certainly part of our collection.
I’m writing this today because after September 1987, when the Cynon Valley Profile ended, History came to a virtual standstill. I’m not talking about Francis Fukuyama’s famous (and largely discredited) thesis about the triumph of liberal democracy. I’m talking about the history of the Cynon Valley. Let me explain…
The Aberdare Leader on microfilm is only indexed as far as the 1930s; that occupies a deep drawer of 5″ x 3″ cards in the Reference Library. The last ten years or so are indexed on the computer. Between the 1930s and the present millennium falls the shadow.
There are numerous hardback exercise books in the W. W. Price Room, with relevant cuttings from the regional papers, as well as the rare occasions when the Cynon Valley came to the attention of the wider world. They’re catalogued as well, but how much of the life of our communities actually makes the papers?
Here’s one example of a news story which is of great importance to the cultural life of our country. I’ve mentioned it a few times already in this blog. On 11 July 1984 the leading anarcho-punk band Crass played at the Coliseum in Trecynon. It turned out to be their last ever gig. It was only the second ‘proper’ gig I’d been to – and it changed my life, as well as the lives of many people I know now. I don’t think it’s documented anywhere, apart from this brief flurry of activity in our local paper:
If you want to know anything about Crass’s final gig, this is pretty much the extent of what you’ll find. You won’t find this article or these photos online anywhere else, as far as I know. In spite of what you may have seen in US crime thrillers, you can’t just type the relevant words into a search engine and see newspaper stories from the 1980s on your computer screen in the blink of an eye. In the 1980s, there were no websites. You’re stuck with ploughing through the microfilms, or nothing.
Take a dispassionate look at your local paper in the present century. (Actually, I’ve saved you the trouble. Have a look at A Pressing Problem, in which I dissect a representative issue of our local rag and lay the specimen out for your delectation and reading pleasure.) Is your paper any different, in this age of electronic news-gathering and centralised churnalism? Does it really allow you to take the pulse of your community, to feel the lifeblood coursing through its veins? Where are the reports about the OAP committes, the PTA meetings, the am-dram musical performances, the community council notes, and all the other ephemera which go to make up the full, rounded picture of the town where you live?
The answer is simple: they’re nowhere.
They don’t get a mention at all, unless (as with our local rag) they appear in the Local Correspondents’ columns. Even when they do merit the odd couple of column-centimetres, they don’t get indexed. We’ve built ourselves a Memory Hole of gigantic proportions, down which an entire culture is disappearing as we speak.
At the moment, I’m surrounded by century-old Building Club minute books, and old maps showing Aberdare before half of the town centre was even built. It’s all good background to the Street Names Project, saved by the people who archived them decades ago. They didn’t know I’d be here, today, in this particular place, doing the research – but they saved these valuable items, just in case…
Now picture someone a century and a half down the line, trying to reconstruct (say) the cultural scene in Aberdare in the first decade of the millennium. He or she could quite reasonably conclude that it consisted solely of Stereophonics and countless Frank Vickery plays, interspersed with the occasional Shirley Bassey tribute act and the occasional young rock band who released their own music online. My other embryonic project will try and redress the balance in due course, but as far as the local archives are concerned, there’ll be nothing else for future historians to draw on.
That applies to every other aspect of modern life, too. The Internet will be around forever, but individual web pages come and go. There is a list of the old pubs of Aberdare and District in a book just around the corner from where I’m sitting at the moment, but it doesn’t appear anywhere online. A few years ago, apparently, it did. Then the money ran out or the server crashed, and that was the end of that. Fun while it lasted, like my old MySpace page.
That’s why I’m making this appeal today. If you’re a member of a band, a society, a musical group, a PTA, a sports team – in fact, if you’re involved with a local club or association of any kind – we need your help to profile the present.
(Quite by coincidence, Denise and Paula are currently trying to find some information about St Margaret’s RC School in Aberdare. Not the new school off Ty Fry, mind you – the old school, where a block of new houses have been built. I’ve made a mental note to ask my friend Kayleigh L., who’s the school secretary, if they’ve got any archive material of their own. If Denis had still been with us, we’d probably have been sorted, as he was on the board of governors. This is exactly the sort of thing that family history researchers and local historians are after. The librarians deal with enquiries like this all the time, every day, week in and week out. At the moment, Paula’s just blindly searching through the microfilms to see if something turns up. It’s a rather scattershot approach to what should be a fairly easy enquiry, isn’t it?)
As you can see, Aberdare Library would appreciate any contributions to their archives. Pretty much anything is grist to the mill here. You never know who’s going to walk in through the doors in fifty years’ time and ask to see a programme for Fiddler on the Roof, as performed by the Colstars in the Coliseum in 200x (insert date here – Ed.) Denise Price in the Reference Library would be grateful for anything they can add to the local collection. If you don’t want to donate it, a photocopy will be fine. Just please let them have a copy.
I daresay you’ve got a library in your neck of the woods which is in a similar situation (always assuming it hasn’t closed entirely, of course!) I’m sure your librarian would appreciate any donations to their archives, for exactly the reasons I’ve outlined.
Please spread the word about this, as it’s a really worthwhile project, and I’m sure we can count on your support. You can share this entry by several means, just by using the buttons at the foot of the page. If you don’t want to share it, then good old Word Of Mouth will do just fine.
On behalf of researchers everywhere, may I thank you in advance for your help.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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