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.

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.