Fourteen miles north of Newport, the valley of the Llwyd opens out at the airy iron and coal town of BLAENAFON (sometimes Blaenavon), whose population has shrunk to five thousand, a third of its size in the nineteenth century. It’s a spirited and evocative place, a fact recognized by UNESCO, who granted it World Heritage Site status in 2000.
The town’s boom kicked off at the Blaenafon ironworks, just off the Brynmawr road, founded in 1789. Limestone, coal and iron ore – ingredients for successful iron-smelting – were abundant locally, and the Blaenafon works was one of the largest in Britain until it closed in 1900. This remarkable site contains three of the five original Georgian blast furnaces, one with its cast house still attached, and the immense water-balance lift. Also here are the workers’ cottages, some unchanged and others converted into a museum offering a thorough picture of the process and the lifestyle that went with it.
Big Pit National Mining Museum
Guided tours at the evocative Big Pit National Mining Museum involve being kitted out with lamp, helmet and very heavy battery pack, and then lowered 300ft into the labyrinth of shafts and coalfaces. The guides – mostly ex-miners – lead you through explanations and examples of the different types of coal mining, while all the while streams of rust-coloured water flow by. The dank and chilly atmosphere must have terrified the small children who were once paid twopence – of which one penny was taken out for the cost of their candles – for a six-day week pulling the coal wagons along the tracks. Back on the surface, the old pithead baths – one of the last remaining in the country – now holds a compelling, and very moving, museum documenting the lives and times of the miners and their families.