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All about the Cynon Valley
The eastern sky is lightening behind the Abercynon Ridgeway which is silhouetted with startling clarity against that luminous backdrop. The valley is awakening, traffic is humming and the dawn chorus provides a melodic accompaniment for the new day. We move back in time to another sunrise - a billion years ago.
Earth's crust is buckling under tectonic pressure. The strata of the earth, layered one above the other, are shifted and misaligned so that the tropical forests of the Carboniferous era rise close to the surface at what, in an unimaginable future, will be one of the valleys of South Wales.
Storm and ice-cloud darken the primeval sky and the landscape is being contorted by the weight of ice. The age of wind, ice and snow is shaping the land. Atop an upward fold of rock a glacier is forming. Over the millennia it grows, forcing open, eroding the rocks and over the millennia it retreats as the ice age ends, leaving behind it a river in a broad valley, fertile with glacial deposits.
Trees are growing across this valley floor and coating the mountains' sides; oak, birch and ash. The river's banks are becoming edged with glossy green alder as it widens its bed, meandering through the seventy square miles of valley and out over the south-eastern plains.
Man moves into the valley and clears land for cottages and for crops and animal grazing. The woods are still growing dense and lush. There is plenty of rain, brought in to the valley from the ocean over the summit of the glacial cwm where birds are wheeling high in a wild sky.
monks are treading a path over the mountains in order to bring to the valley knowledge
of Christianity and sheep and beer. In a wood-girdled clearing close to the riverside,
the Church of St John the Baptist is built at the end of the first millennium.|
Little villages are forming and hill farmers are clearing larger areas of woodland for their sheep to graze. The villages extend from Penderyn and Hirwaun in the north west to Ynysybwl and Abercynon in the south east, where the Cynon meets the larger Taff.
Those tropical forests of the Carboniferous Period, forced upwards by earth's contortions, are discovered - as coal. Lives and landscape are beginning to change. Men are sinking primitive shafts or digging into the sides of the mountains to extract this fuel. Many of the valley people are beginning to exist in a half-life, spending long hours beneath the ground in dark and danger, all for warmth in the hearth.
with a grinding clank of machinery and a sky dark again with smoke, is coming
the Industrial Revolution and the landscape of Cynon Valley is undergoing an even
more drastic change. First iron and then coal are becoming the new gold, making
kings of landowners and troglodytes of the workers. There are ships and trains
to be fuelled, cities to be kept warm, the furnaces of industry to be fed: Britannia
and her colonies are looking to the valleys of Wales for their fires.|
The first ironworks in Cynon Valley is built in 1800 in the village of Llwydcoed. The trees that filled the valley are falling in the blink of an eye. They become, first, fuel for the iron furnaces and next, pit props for the mines.
In 1804 the village of Abercynon becomes the end of the line for Richard Trevithick's famous locomotive which brings iron from the foundries at Merthyr Tydfil to be loaded onto barges on the Glamorgan Canal in Abercynon for passage to the port of Cardiff.
At Gadlys, Llwydcoed and Abernant, the iron furnaces are flourishing, as they are all through the valleys. Seen from the village of Hirwaun the north-eastern night sky glows red from the furnaces of Crawshay's giant foundries in Merthyr Tydfil. Railways criss-cross the smoking valley, the air resounds with the clang of metal, of trains against buffers, of sirens summoning men to work: it is the groaning of a vital cog in a great machine.
And the wheels of time grind onwards.
The iron industry is beginning to decline and coal mining is on the upsurge. 1842 - the first ironworks in Hirwaun has closed. A few years later the pits of Cynon Valley are producing well over two million tons of coal a year. Mine shafts drive deep into the earth and people and ponies are dying in droves when fire-damp ignites, roofs fall in and explosions tear through the mines' narrow tunnels . Coal waste is being tipped on adjacent land, obscene black growths smothering any remaining green.
At the coal industry's peak, men are living and dying for this black gold, their bodies tattooed with, their lungs sucking in, the fine, glittering dust. Man and coal become as one. In the valley of the smaller river Dare alone, within Cynon Valley, there are no less than nineteen deep and drift mines.
Only a scattering of woodland remains and the mountain sides are being planted with coniferous trees, quick-growing, straight, intended to provide a steady supply of wood for industry. The mountains' natural seasonal colours are lost within the plantations' uniform green. And beneath the lines of forestry the pit tips dot the landscape, distorted pyramids of slag and dirt.
is as if the land has been turned inside out. Everywhere there is blackness and
the gleam of rails like arteries winding over the valley floor, supported sometimes
by huge wooden viaducts straddling hills, carrying the black life-blood of the
of sorts are going up throughout Cynon Valley for the Irish, Polish and Italian
immigrants who are pouring into this and other valleys, lured by the promise of
work in the mines.|
Some housing is reasonable, some less so: Greenfach, for example, close to the Gadlys pit in Aberdare, where the row of houses fronting the river Dare is a no-go area for anyone except its inhabitants and the rats. The housing in the valley is terraced, the long lines of grey slate roofs reflecting the grey, overcast skies on those unique valley days when the mountain tops are lost in low cloud.
Workmen's Halls are being built. These grand edifices hold books and knowledge and provide a meeting place other than the public houses that are sitting at every twist and turn of the valley's narrow streets.
A blacksmith called Griffith Rhys Jones - Caradog - leads the South Wales Choral Union to victory both in 1872 and 1873 in the Crystal Palace Cup competition.|
At Trecynon, Aberdare Park is created,
its marvellous arboretum, boating lake, bandstand, and eventually paddling pool
and children's playground.
- the fortunes of the coal industry is at its zenith. Steam and anthracite coal
is being exported all around the world.
Coliseum Theatre is built in Trecynon and drama as well as music is brought within
the ken of ordinary people.|
In Abercwmboi, the Phurnacite plant thrusts its spires skywards but these chimneys are belching out black smoke day and night to create the smokeless fuel required in other parts of Britain. The woods around the Plant fall sick and die with poison. People, too, will be affected by the waste from this Dante's Inferno.
are thriving on the Hirwaun Industrial Estate - G E C, Hitachi, Morgan and Brace,
Dunlopillo, for example - and they become one of the main sources of employment
as the mines fall silent one by one, pit wheels are stilled and rails rust. The
slums are demolished or owners given grants to modernise them. Council housing
estates are being built with modern conveniences such as indoor toilets and bathrooms.
The little row at Greenfach is demolished as is the Green Dragon pub in front
of it. A large library of concrete and glass is also built on this site.
October, 1966, in another valley, a coal tip slides down a mountainside and wipes
out a generation of children. The Government now orders all tips to be made safe.
In Cynon Valley, waste tips are being levelled over the mountainsides, spread
with guano and reseeded.
morning sun has risen above the Abercynon Ridgeway, flanking the valley floor
as it leads through Mountain Ash towards Abercynon where the river Cynon meets
the larger Taff. The countryside is greener than it has been for many a long year.
The great woodlands of centuries ago are gone forever but new, smaller woods are
being planted to replace the trees wiped out as man, agriculture and industry
left its mark on the valley.
The stone bases that held the wooden stanchions are all that is left of Brunel's viaduct that carried the Vale of Neath railway through what is now Dare Valley Country Park.
Many of the hillsides that once were covered in trees, then in pit waste, are now covered with new houses that push back the frontiers of the countryside ever further.
The former railway lines are footpaths - the mineral line between Hirwaun and Penderyn is now a walk called the Arcway, the Cwmdare-Cwmaman line is a three and half mile walk between those villages.
Cascading along the contours of the hillsides are Cynon Valley's terraced houses, higgledy-piggledy streets twisting and turning this way and that to follow the contours of the land, seemingly defying gravity as they soar up and down the steepest of hills. Now flamboyant with colour, they epitomise this and all the other valleys of South Wales. Even their back lanes are treasure troves of interest with a hotch-potch of doors, walls and fences, sheds, garages and extensions.
In Mountain Ash, one row of houses that climbs the hillside has backs that face the road. In an amazing array of zig-zagging steps and teetering, single-brick pillars the back porches rise high above their gardens. Archways, doors, cellars, washing lines and a carnival of brickwork seem suspended in nothingness, as if a gust of wind would bring it all down. An old tin bath hangs on a wall, geraniums blaze on balconies and large, sleepy cats sit as comfortably on the edge of the precipitous drop as if on verandahs overlooking the Mediterranean. The style of architecture owes nothing to any School but everything to all things eccentrically Welsh - valleys-Welsh.
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