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.