Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Twmbarlwm

In the mornings the watching Twmp of Twmbarlwm was silhouetted against the bright sky, dominant and proud. It gazed watchfully towards the River Severn; it gazed affectionately towards the waking valley. But it commanded minds as much as landscape. In his autobiography Far Off Things (1922) the writer Arthur Machen, who came from Caerleon, wrote: 
Twym Barlwm, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of peoples that dwelt in that region before the Celts left the Land of Summer.
It was our mountain, Twmbarlwm, that was part of the landscape that reached out and inspired Machen’s work. Dylan Thomas read those words, which is why in Under Milk Wood Reverend Eli Jenkins writes a poem describing Llareggub Hill and its "mystic tumulus". 
The view from Twmbarlwm appears in the poetry of the poet William Henry Davies, the well-known Newport writer and ‘supertramp’.
Can I forget the sweet days that have gone
When poetry first began to stir my blood
And from the hills of Gwent I saw
The earth torn in two by Severn’s silver flood. 
His were the well-known words:
What is this life if, full of care, 
We have no time to stand and stare?
and I could imagine him, carefree, drinking in the view up on the windy hill.
For Myfanwy Haycock, winner of the 1924 Pontypool National Eisteddfod, Twmbarlwm was the ‘Hill of Dreams.’ It was that for many, including my father, who always spoke of it with affection, as if the memory brought back the days before he left the Land of Summer, and I loved him for it.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Sea Coal

In addition to the annual pilgrimage up Mynyddislwyn for the sheep dog trials, rare events included train trips to Newport for ‘big shopping’. Undoubtedly the best part of the day was rushing through the dark railway tunnel near Rogerstone – the carriage lights never worked and we were carried through darkness from the familiar valley into another, strange world. 
Entering Newport the railway line crosses the River Usk. This river, which rises in the Black Mountain, Mynydd Du, flows reluctantly into the sea at Newport, which as the name implies was once a considerable trading centre.
Like avon, usk is a very old proto-Celtic word. It also appears as esk, ex, ax and uisg and is thought to have meant water. So it seems that the River Usk had its name and thus some cultural significance a very long time ago. 
At Newport the stream ran strongly between steep banks and ferries were hazardous. The solution was a tall transporter bridge, built in 1906 so that ships could pass beneath. Its cantilever stood some 240 above the River Usk to provide headroom for the tall masts of sailing ships. But within a decade such vessels were largely replaced by steamships. 
Once I was led through the rain to see the famous bridge, It took an age to get there, walking down the endless rain-mirrored flagstones of Commercial Road. An icy wind came from the Bristol Channel. We solemnly stood as the gondola swayed gently under its cat’s-cradle of cables and we slowly traversed the murky waters of the River Usk. It seemed to belong to another age. Both river and sky were a diluted coal-grey, same as the town. Then we walked back in the rain. I was utterly mystified by this ritual, but something told me to keep quiet and nod when asked if it was fun. I imagine it was a favourite treat for my father in the bright years before the war.
Once a year we would go to Barry Island for the day. Occasionally we went to the fun fair. For us it was never really successful, as we never had much money to go on any of the rides. One year I was castigated as grossly indulgent for having two goes on the big dipper at two shillings a time. “Ach y fi!” 

On the beach we would eat our sandwiches, always mysteriously, if appropriately, full of sand.  Then my mother would use the sandwich bag to hold any pieces of sea coal we found. Coals to Cwmcarn, a land surrounded by coal. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

Gower

One year, instead of travelling on the Great Western Railway, my father hired a small, half-timbered Morris Minor estate car to visit his family home. The little car was just fine for two adults, two small children and the family's bags, and gave us unprecedented freedom.
One day the inevitable rain stopped at Beech Terrace. In response my father announced a trip to take his wife and children to the beautiful Gower Peninsula, a world away from our valley. But then he was dismayed to find that everyone else wanted to come too: Grandma, Grandpa, and my young uncle and aunt Gerald and Geraldine, who then still lived at home. They all presented themselves on the doorstep, grinning in anticipation.

But the Morris was tiny; quite unequal to carrying such a load. Of course father had to declare that he could only safely and legally take one other outside his immediate family. Yet when the moment of departure came both grandparents appeared in their Sunday best. There was an impass, then they sternly retreated to the kitchen. After a short while Grandma was left weeping on the doorstep. I don’t suppose my grandparents ever had a holiday away from Cwmcarn, before or after.

The drive seemed interminable but the Gower was a welcome oasis of green after the coal-stained and iron-clad world of the valleys and Swansea. The sands were bright, warm and endless. But on the south side of Rhossili Bay the rampant rocks of Worms Head gazed grimly to seaward. It was easy to see that to storm-bound sailors they would look like a giant sea monster, its head raised, sternly watching the approaches to Llanelli, eternally displeased with the crowded terraces, the mines and the heavy industry, ready to take revenge on any sailor foolish enough to pass close by.
But the sea sparkled and the sands of Gower were warm and endless, much as my grandmother’s tears.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Spiteful Row

Beech Terrace, bright and airy, lay above the top line and parallel to it. To us the line was just part of the landscape. But it was originally a tram way, known as Benjamin Hall’s Tram Road. Carved into the hillside in about 1805, it was a winding narrow-gauge, horse-drawn line following the contours of the land, carrying coal from Argoed down to Risca.
Benjamin Hall (1778-1817) was an industrialist and MP who owned the Abercarn Estate.
But at the north end of Beech Terrace, dark and dank, almost hidden by trees, was a row of six tiny cottages built straight up the side of the very steep hill. This was the Spiteful Row.
The story is that, about 80 years before Beech Terrace was made, the Row was built on the hillside by one Thomas Protheroe, a local mine owner and a rival of Hall’s. This was a deliberate act of spite to prevent the building of the tram road.  However, the tale goes that Hall installed one of his men in cottage number five. He enlarged the front and back doors and the trams ran straight through the house!

What happened next can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map of 1875 which shows the tram road going through a gap between the cottages. Cottage number five had been part demolished, leaving a tiny ‘one-up one-down’ latterly occupied by a lone widow, Elizabeth Edwards from Machen.
A couple of years later the Great Western Railway bought the tram road. By 1899 an embankment was made across the Nant y Crochan, a bridge had been built over the lane, and the two lower Spiteful cottages had been demolished. Now a full-sized railway track ran past the lowest remaining cottage. The slow-moving horses were gone and steam engines were on the line.

The remaining four cottages were still inhabited in the 1920s. But when I was a boy they were sad, roofless ruins with collapsing walls and glassless windows, almost completely lost among the trees. They had been lived in for two lifetimes. I wonder what hopes and dreams were born and died in Spiteful Row? It seemed sacrilegious to play there. Along with the cruel name, the echoes of childrens’ laughter among the ruins persisted long after we had gone.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Top Line

The top line, the higher railway on our side of the valley, passed right below the garden of 1 Beech Terrace. Twice a day the longest coal trains in the world trundled slowly past.
We used to illicitly walk along the top line, over the viaduct at Pont-y-Waun, into Risca to go to the swimming pool. The railway was easily the most direct route and avoided troublesome gradients. The trains were infrequent and slow, but if we were lucky we could jump up on the guard’s van and hitch a lift home.
We wondered where the trains came from; where they went to. Perhaps they never stopped, like the Flying Dutchman. Other kids had great ships or silver planes to carry their dreams beyond the horizon. We had black coal trains that steamed on for ever.
Below the top line a foot-bridge led over the main line from Newport. Slag heaps bordered the River Ebbw, dark as the Styx. A good afternoon would begin on the bridge, to be blasted by the steam and smoke of the train heading up towards Newbridge and Crumlin. It would then continue with hours glissading down the slag heaps, as if they were Stygian alps.  There was always the chance of a misjudged slide ending up in the river. I don’t think that ever happened, but I do remember desperately grabbing at saplings and branches to avoid a soaking.

I’m sure that somewhere there on the black river lived Charon Reese the boatman, waiting to ferry the souls of Welsh miners to the green hills of heaven, or to carry sinners down to Newport.