No other part of Wales is as instantly recognizable as the Valleys, a generic name for the strings of settlements packed into the narrow gashes in the mountainous terrain to the north of Newport and Cardiff. Each of the Valleys depended almost solely on coal mining which, although nearly defunct as an industry, has left its mark on the staunchly working-class towns: row upon row of brightly painted terraced housing, tipped along the slopes at incredible angles, are broken only by austere chapels, the occasional remaining pithead and the dignified memorials to those who died underground.
This may not be traditional tourist country, but it’s one of the most interesting and distinctive corners of Wales, with a rich social history. Some former mines have reopened as gutsy museums – Big Pit at Blaenafon and the Rhondda Heritage Park at Trehafod are the best – while other excellent civic museums include those at Pontypridd and Aberdare. Meanwhile, there’s a more traditional visitor attraction in the form of Llancaiach Fawr Manor.
North of Abercynon, the Taff Valley contains one sight that’s hard to forget. Two neat lines of distant arches mark the graves of 144 people killed in October 1966 by an unsecured slag heap collapsing on Pantglas primary school in the village of Aberfan. Thousands of people still make the pilgrimage to the village graveyard, to stand silent and bemused by the enormity of the disaster. Among the dead were 116 children, who died huddled in panic at the beginning of their school day. A humbling and beautiful valediction can be seen on one of the gravestones, that of a 10-year-old boy, who, it simply records, “loved light, freedom and animals”. Official enquiries all told the sorry tale that this disaster was almost inevitable, given the cavalier approach to safety so often displayed by the coal bosses. Gwynfor Evans, then newly elected as the first Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) MP in Westminster, spoke with well-founded bitterness when he said: “Let us suppose that such a monstrous mountain had been built above Hampstead or Eton, where the children of the men of power and wealth are at school”. But that, of course, would never have happened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The land beneath the inhospitable South Wales Valleys had some of the most abundant and accessible natural seams of coal and iron ore to be found, and were readily milked in the boom years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wealthy, predominantly English capitalists came to Wales and ruthlessly stripped the land of its natural assets, while simultaneously exploiting those who risked life and limb underground. The mine owners were in a formidably strong position as thousands flocked to the Valleys in search of work and some sort of sustainable life. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Valleys became packed with pits, chapels and immigrant workers from Ireland, Scotland, Italy and all over Wales.
In 1920, there were 256,000 men working in the 620 mines of the South Wales coalfields, providing a third of the world’s coal. Vast Miners’ Institutes jostled for position with the Nonconformist chapels, whose muscular brand of Christianity was matched by the zeal of the region’s politics – trade-union-led and avowedly left-wing. Great socialist orators rose to national prominence, cementing the Valleys’ reputation as a world apart from the rest of Britain, let alone Wales. Even Britain’s pioneering National Health Service, founded by a radical Labour government in the years following World War II, was based on a Valleys’ community scheme devised by local politician Aneurin Bevan. More than half of the original pits closed in the harsh economic climate of the 1930s, as coal seams became exhausted and the political climate changed. In the 1980s, further closures threatened to bring the number of men employed in the South Wales coalfields down to four figures, and the miners went on strike from 1984–85. The last of the deep pits closed in 2008.