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.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Twmbarlwm

The great hill of Twmbarlwm dominates the valleys of the Ebbw and the Usk and the flood plain of the River Severn. On the summit is an iron age fort, and a very distinctive ‘Twmp’ some 150 feet high. Its slopes are steep, so it was incorporated into the hilltop’s defences. This great mound is visible for many miles; it watches over the valleys below.
Like all the peaks in the area it was inevitably referred to as ‘the mountain’, not in any sense of aggrandisement, it was just the local use of the word. Yet it was and is a mountain, not by virtue of its size, but because it has the personality, the history, the stories of a mountain.
In years gone by people from the valley would go ‘up the Tump’ on Good Friday - Sunday schools, chapels, youth clubs, families and even whole streets would organize themselves and walk to the top of Twmbarlwm - some church groups would carry a cross to the top and sing hymns, a tradition probably going back to medieval times.
As a boy my father climbed Twmbarlwm. Years later so did I.
Many years ago there was a great battle between wasps and bees on the top of Twmbarlwm. To this day people sometimes see unusual clouds there, and then on the summit they find the bodies of thousands of wasps and bees.
The bees are good and the wasps are evil, and up on Twmbarlwm they fight each other and so they control what happens to the poor people down in the valley.
Maybe it’s true. No one knows who made the Twmp, but some say it’s the burial mound of a chieftain called Bran, Raven in English.
The bees are Bran’s messengers. Should anyone disturb the mound they suffer the curse of Bran. People digging into the mound have been attacked by swarms of bees. Sometimes the green ghost of Bran is seen in Nant Carn, and woe betide anyone who sees the ghost, for that person will be dead within a year.
The view from the Twmp is magnificent. There, inevitably buffeted by the Western wind, you can see all South Wales spread out below you, and beyond the Severn is the misty promise, or threat, of England.
Years later I learned of the great bard William Thomas of nearby Ynys Ddu. He took Islwyn as his bardic name. I’m sure he was thinking of his Arthurian namesake when he wrote:
It is better to die on the slope of Twmbarlwm, than live under the yoke of the Saxon!

But what of Bran of Twmbarlwm? Did he somehow know Mynyddislwn, Nant y Crochan, Cylfynydd Farm, Beech Terrace? Did he die rather than yield, a freeman on the green hills?

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Entombed in Flood and Flame

Looking North East from Beech Terrace on the valley of the Ebbw was like gazing down on the black landscape of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, somehow shoe-horned into the valley, in-between the green and pleasant hills . Below the tree-line, fringed by the endless rows of identical terrace houses, there were the gas works, the tin-plate works, the chemical works, the smelting works and, dominating the valley, the infamous Prince of Wales Colliery, opened in about 1836 and for many decades the principle place of employment.
In 1878, a huge explosion devastated the mine. There were at least 325 men and boys underground. The explosion, underground fires and oxygen deprivation killed about 268 workers, but the true total will never be known.
Two very brave rescue teams risked danger of more explosions and other hazards and saved about 90 men. The rescuers were quite rightly awarded Albert Medals. Nonetheless the disaster made 131 women widows and 360 children lost relatives. It was one of the greatest disasters of the South Wales Coalfield.
The explosions had ignited the coal seams themselves, giving a continuous risk of further explosions, so to extinguish the fires the mine was flooded with water diverted from the canal. In two months about 35 million gallons were poured in. The mine reopened four years later and in time became prosperous, but they were still finding skeletons 25 years later. 
Sadly, in the 19th century there were also accidents at the nearby collieries in Cwmcarn and Risca that claimed over 300 more lives. Together the tragedies directly affected about half of the population. The impact on the community of the valley must have been profound, and I can’t help thinking the disasters still coloured community life many generations later.
On days when the grey rain swept endlessly down the valley, it was as if the cobbles were washed with the tears of the terraces.
When I was a lad those terraces seemed unchanged, but the Prince of Wales colliery was almost derelict and in 1959 the shafts were filled and the site was cleared. Now all the heavy industry has gone and green fields again cover the valley floor. A stone memorial up on the hill in Abercarn Cemetery looks down on the changing landscape. 

But are we certain is it the feasting of Islwyn that we hear far below the ground? We may forget, but the land remembers.