Pointing northwest from Pontypridd, the Rhondda Fawr – sixteen miles long and never as much as a mile wide – is undoubtedly the most famous of all the Welsh Valleys, as well as being the heart of the massive South Wales coal industry. For many it immediately conjures up Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 book – and subsequent Oscar-winning weepie – How Green Was My Valley, although this was, strictly speaking, based on the author’s early life in nearby Gilfach Goch, outside the valley. Between 1841 and 1924 the Rhondda’s population grew from under a thousand to 167,000, squeezed into ranks of houses grouped around sixty or so pitheads. The Rhondda, more than any other of the Valleys, became a self-reliant, hard-living, chapel-going, poor and terrifically spirited breeding ground for radical religion and firebrand politics – for decades, the Communist Party ran the town of Maerdy (nicknamed “Little Moscow” by Fleet Street in the 1930s). The last pit in the Rhondda closed in 1990, but what was left behind was not some dispiriting ragbag of depressing towns, but a range of new attractions, cleaned-up hillsides and some of the friendliest pubs and communities to be found anywhere in Britain.
Rhondda Heritage Park
The best attraction hereabouts is the Rhondda Heritage Park at TREHAFOD. The site was opened in 1880 by William Lewis (later Lord Merthyr), and by 1900 some five thousand men were employed here, producing more than a million tons of coal a year. Wandering around the yard, you can see the 140ft-high chimney stack, which fronts two iconic latticed shafts, named Bertie and Trefor after Lewis’s sons. Guided tours take you through the engine-winding houses, lamp room and fan house, and give you a simulated “trip underground”, with stunning visuals and sound effects re-creating 1950s’ life through the eyes of colliers.