Monday 26 December 2016

In the Shadow of Islwyn

Above Beech Terrace were the slopes of Mynyddislwyn. Low down they were wooded and shadowed. Farther up there were open, sunny fields. On the summit was a great earth mound called Twyn Tudur, only yards south of St Tudur’s church and the adjacent inn. Inevitably called ‘the twmp’ by locals, the mound was probably a bronze age burial, but in Norman times a small castle was built on its summit.
Nothing is known of Tudur but his name. He may have been a Dark Age chieftain, a holy man or both. In the Church Inn they will tell you about the mound:
The mound is where Tudur lies buried with his long lost treasure.
Listen boyur, it’s Roman soldiers that are in the mound.
Never! A mound that size, it’s a giant that’s buried there.
Once a man tried to dig into the mound in the hope of finding the hidden treasure. But a thunderstorm arrived from nowhere and he was so terrified that he ran away and never returned.
My uncle Clive once took me confidentially on one side. “You know what Mynyddislwyn means, boy?”
I knew the answer: “The mountain of Islwyn.”
“Yes, but who was Islwyn, boy? Who was Islwyn?”
I didn’t know.
“It was King Arthur,” whispered uncle Clive, as if the information was top secret.  “Islwyn was his Welsh name.”
Up on Twmbarlwm you can see the ramparts King Arthur built to defend Wales against the Saxons.
Henllys Ridge up there, Old Court Ridge, it means the court of Islwyn himself and the druids before him. But of course Islwyn is still there. You can still hear the sounds of feasting under Mynddislwyn and a great organ can be heard playing below the slopes of Twmbarlwm.
Years ago a young girl heard the music and she ran away from her friends to find the source. Of course she was never seen again.
I looked across the valley to the fortified hilltop of Twmbarlwm and imagined Arthur, the Boar of Cornwall, King of the Britons, valiantly fighting the invading hordes.
Six miles east of Twmbarlwm is the iron age hill fort of Lodge Hill, known anciently as Belinstocke: Belin’s stronghold. It lies just north of the present town of Caerleon with its Roman and Norman castles. 
In the ninth century the Welsh cleric and historian Nennius wrote of ‘The City of the Legion’ as the site of King Arthur’s ninth battle against the Saxons.
Similarly the twelfth century churchman Geoffrey of Monmouth had ‘The City of the Legion’ by the River Usk as Arthur’s castle and the site of his coronation. The classic medieval Welsh tales of the Mabinogion also have Carleon as Arthur’s castle. So Lodge Hill seems likely to have been the site of Arthur’s battle enthronement and court.
But I knew none of this. My uncle’s words echoed in my mind, for him and me Mynyddislwn was Arthur’s Mountain. I thought of Arthur making his home on the very mountain on which I lived. Perhaps he lived here, right by the Nant y Crochan.

It seemed a good place for a king.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Before the Railway

Before the railways came the valleys were laced with canals. To feed the canals the side-valleys had horse-drawn tramways. If the mines were the black heart of industrial Wales, the canals and tramways were its veins and arteries – the coal-stained water was its blood.
The Monmouthshire canal ran through Abercarn on its way from Crumlin Wharf down to Malpas Junction and Newport Old Town Wharf. The canal opened in about 1799, carrying coal to the sea, and so to the world.
The Nant Carn springs to life on the mystical slopes of Twmbarlam, east of the Ebbw. At Cwmcarn there was a fine aqueduct on an embankment carrying the canal across the Nant Carn valley. Under it a culvert allowed the Nant Carn to flow into the Ebbw. In the late 18th century the embankment would have been the most impressive structure in the valley, standing like the walls of Troy over the meadows by the Ebbw.
To give the thirsty canal extra water, a reservoir was made by building a large earth dam across the lower Nant Carn valley just south east of St John’s church at Abercarn Fach. However, there are tales that the dam was poorly maintained, and there were planted the grim seeds of tragedy.
In the 19th century a flannel factory was built south west of the aqueduct and another was higher up the valley.
On the night of 14 July 1875 torrential rain fell on South Wales. The Nant Carn overflowed and the dam broke. A great flood raced south-westwards down the valley washing away the upper flannel factory and several cottages.
At the bottom of the valley a haystack jammed in the culvert under the canal embankment. The water could not escape, the level rose and then the embankment gave way, taking with it the road and part of the canal. The water from the canal added to the flood, which washed away the lower flannel factory. Beside Twyncarn Road a metal bench on the embankment is a memorial to the twelve people who lost their lives.

When I was a lad the canal still carved a derelict scar on the valley: still, black, lifeless.

Monday 5 December 2016

The Brook

The Nant y Crochan, locally called ‘the brook’, bubbled and splashed down the valley beside the terrace. It was fed by the hill, Craig y Crochan, but also by the adits of long-forgotten mines in the valley: old, black, toothless mouths hidden among young trees, pouting amazingly clear water, in which grew the sweetest watercress. We would scramble up the dripping slopes to pick and eat, caring nothing for the rebuke for soaking socks. We would peer into the black, wet darkness of the adits, never daring to venture into their perilous underworld.

A little way up the valley, hidden among the trees, lay a small, derelict Powder Magazine: roofless, windowless, but still double-walled, a remnant of times long past. I searched it a dozen times in the hope of finding a forgotten stick of dynamite. I’m not certain what I would have done if I had found one!
In my imagination the old Powder House was still used by ghostly brigands and pirates who, every dream-filled night, would creep up the stony track past Beech Terrace, always leading ponies laden with panniers full of treasure or stories.
Beyond the Powder House the stony track zigzagged back up the opposite side of the valley to Cylfynydd Farm, clinging to the steep hillside opposite Beech Terrace. Sometimes we would go there for eggs.
At night I could see the hurricane lamp outside the farm bravely shining down on the valley below. No electric for them! And the moon would reflect on the endless rails and dance in the water of the brook. Above all the stars were bright, for the terrace had no street lights.

So was the world transformed.