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.