Saturday, 26 November 2016

Two Worlds

The world was divided. 
Below the terrace were two railway lines: the top line and the main line. Then across the River Ebbw, black as night with coal dust, lay tinplate works, iron works, chemical works, the Prince of Wales colliery- scene of one of the nation’s worst mine disasters in 1878. Then came the derelict canal and yet another railway. The language of the valley was English. There Welsh natives mingled with English, Irish and Scots immigrants, working in mines or heavy industry. Little grew and shadows were long. 
Yet above the top line, once an old tramway, the grass was green, the hillside was swathed in trees and sheep grazed on the tops.  The language was Welsh, and the land was fiercely its own. I was sure that there lived the Tylwyth Teg, the ‘fair family’ of small, beautiful, fairy folk, blessing those that left them gifts of milk or food, and tricking those who were not kind or not generous.
To visit the shops we would cross the railways and river and venture into a hobbled, cobbled landscape, painted with coal dust and chapel frowns, and speaking English. But behind the terrace was ‘the mountain’: Mynyddislwyn. Once a year we would take our picnic and the whole family would climb up to Sychpant Farm for the sheep dog trials. There, in the clean air and the bright fields the language was Welsh.
Even the sheep only understood Welsh sheep dogs.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Pont y Mynachlawg

Cwmcarn had a handful of small shops that we would visit twice a week. We would walk down the lane almost as far as the station, then turn left over the River Ebbw at Chapel Bridge. The bridge was once called Pont y Mynachlawg (Monastery Bridge) and it was thought that a monastery lay to the north, on the site of Chapel Farm. There could once be seen the remains of a chapel: an echo of the quiet days before the revolutions of church, state and industry tore the old world apart.

The paper shop was near the top of Chapel Farm Terrace, a long, cobbled street. When it was raining the cobbled gleamed, the street seemed endless and you were always soaked before you got to the end. Then it was up over the black, unmoving canal and another short terrace to the corner shop on the main street. There I could get a copy of ‘The Eagle’ which met with parental approval, or ‘The Beano’ which did not. 
The main road stretched down towards Risca and Newport one way, and up towards Newbridge and Crumlin the other. It was flanked by seemingly endless rows of identical terrace houses, only occasionally breached by the dark, secret doors of a billiard hall or a public house. The most common sound was the wild shriek of a steam engine’s whistle on one of the three lines up the valley, just occasionally challenged by the irreverent hooting of a Western Welsh bus. Somehow it felt safer on the other side of the valley, protected by the coal-black river and the ghosts of the monks.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Cream Horns

Nanna’s teas were a major event, whenever her family gathered at the end of the week, all crammed round the dining table. Bread and fish paste were followed by bread and home-made jam. Toast was made at the open fire and was as thick as the walls of Troy and dripping with butter. Home-made sponge cake sandwiched yet more jam.
But the highlight was the home-made cream horns. These huge puff pastry constructions were magnificent! They were of such a size, shape and fragility that consumption could not be achieved without near-immersion in pints of tasteless white filling. Everyone else seemed to love them. I would try to look full and have another jam sandwich.
The cream-horns seemed to be Nanna’s pride and joy, but I suspect the real pleasure was the gathering of her bright family under the grey, slate roof.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Pwll Tra

On the other side of the valley from Number One were the terraced cottages of Cwmcarn.  Behind them the valley of Nant Carn reached into the hills. The mountain rampart stretched from Twmbarlwm in the south to Mynydd Maen – the hill of stone in the north.
Near the head of the Nant Carn valley there is a pool that no stream enters or leaves. It is called Pwll Tra or the Pool of Avarice[1]. Shepherds tell that on stormy nights strange sounds are heard from its reedy waters.
There was once a great house in which a rich family lived in luxury and dined magnificently. But on the far side of the hill they had poor relations. For them every day was a struggle and they lived close to starvation. One stormy night the great house was visited by a poor relative.
In desperation he had crossed the ridge to beg for help. He crawled down towards the house. He knocked on the door. He waited. The clouds grew black above the hill.  He knocked again. Slowly the door opened.
From the door came light, warmth and the aroma of fine foods. The lady of the house looked outside, tall and haughty. Her eyes told that she guessed why her relative had called.
The poor man begged: “Please, just bread. A crust or two from last week’s loaf, my wife and children are starving.”
The lady laughed and called inside “Look what's dragged itself from the sin where it belongs. I know his people. They come, curse me with my just deserts, spit on my head, go back to their world.”
Then she spoke into the night: “Nothing, nothing for the likes of you. Be gone before I loose the dogs!” 
The poor man retreated into the gathering storm. But there was no solace there. Instead there was a flash of lightning, a crash of thunder. Then the ground beneath his feet began to shake. Below him it seemed that the bowels of the earth were split asunder. The hill opened up, crashed down, and buried the house. It completely swallowed the great building and those inside. It left only a bare, hollow place beside a pool which no stream enters or leaves.
Local shepherds tell that on stormy nights strange sounds are heard from the reedy waters. They are the cries of those buried below, forever doomed by their greed. The pool is called Pwll Tra, the Pool of Avarice.

[1] Tra’ is thought to be short for ‘Trachwant’ which means ‘Avarice’ or ‘greed’.

Friday, 24 June 2016


My father’s parent’s families, the Buckleys and O’Connors, came to South Wales from County Cork. In Ireland the men had been quarrymen at Benduff Slate Quarry, North West of Rosscarbery.
The Buckleys emigrated to Wales first, perhaps between 1881 and 1884. John Buckley probably worked as a quarryman on the West side of Mynyddislwyn, living in a quarry cottage half a mile below St Tudur’s church and looking down over the wooded Sirhowy valley. But the quarry closed so he became a coal miner, eventually moving over the hill to Abercarn.
The O’Connor family’s fortunes were drastically changed by the Benduff quarry disaster of 20 July 1892. My great grandfather Daniel O’Connor was buried under a rock fall and his body was never recovered. His brother Jorum (Jeremiah) was buried alive. He was dug out after some hours, had his wounds bound with cobwebs, and had a shard of slate in his leg for the rest of his life. The family was left destitute. The widowed Catherine O’Connor had five children to support including a newborn baby, so the kindly wife of a local landowner gave her a sewing machine with which to earn a living. Catherine later ran a little shop in Connonagh.
Some thirty years later in County Cork Pot and his sister Nora were still running the shop in Connonagh. At the time of the War of Independence and the Civil War, when threatened by one or other faction they abandoned the shop and fled the area. Some said it was because they were still friendly with the lady who had given their mother the sewing machine; others said it was because Pot was friendly with a local constable. Whatever the reason the local priest would not speak to them, bullets were fired at the shop and Pot came to Wales. I think he must have loved the clean air and the West wind. His job above ground, and the position of the cottage above the dark satanic mills, both spoke of a man of the country and perhaps a little apart from others following his exile.

How many miners does it take to move a mountain? One, if his children are hungry. But Pot would rather be on the mountain than beneath it.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Number One

Number One was an end-of-terrace cottage on the East side of Mynyddislwyn, looking down on an industrial valley. The cottage probably dated about 1880. Nanna lived there all her life. By the front door, which was never used, there was the front room. The room was only used to mark birth, marriage or death, the curtains were always pulled, it was holy, dark and cold. Later I remembered the words of Dylan Thomas’ Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard: “Before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes.”
The living room had a large central table, two small windows looking down the valley, and a coal fire. At the back was the kitchen with a great black range and a door to the yard outside. There Pot nobly slept on a camp bed when the whole family visited.
There was a tap over a stone trough in the high-walled yard, which sufficed for daily washing. No one complained about the cold water. That was just the way it was for everybody. For the weekly bath water was heated in kettles and pans on the great black range and then poured into a shared tin bath. Pot went first, then Nanna, then the rest in a ranking determined by age and gender.
Overlooking the valley, on the most unpromising ground, Pot nurtured a fine array of fruit bushes and Nanna kept chickens. By then I had a little sister, Christine, and we would help feed the chickens and creep into Pot’s beloved garden to eat the blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries.
The toilet was ‘up the mountain’! We would scuttle through the yard, skirt the coal shed and climb steep stone steps. There we would sit on a wooden seat in a small sentry box. A large gap under the door ensured that the wind always whistled around your ankles. In the door a quatrefoil opening allowed you to gaze almost all the way to Newport. On a length of string were threaded ripped-up pages of the Daily Mirror. When visitors came, Nanna would quickly put some ‘proper’ toilet paper there instead.
In this tiny cottage, originally the property of my grandmother’s family, lived Pot, Nellie, and their seven children: my father Daniel, the eldest and called John by all but his family, Eileen, Christine, Sheila, Clive, Gerald and Geraldine.
One night as I lay in bed it dawned on me. Pot had come from Ireland, just like Twrch Trwyth. He had seven children, just like Twrch Trwyth. The coincidence was too much. Perhaps, on dark nights he was Twrch Trwyth. I clutched my bedclothes around me and gazed through the starlit pane to see any sign of him coming or going.

There was a wild shriek, and a black engine pulled black coal into the black night.

Friday, 1 April 2016


My grandparents’ cottage was in Cwmcarn, in a mining valley north of Newport. There we visited every year, a steam-powered pilgrimage on the Great Western Railway, for motor cars were the preserve of the wealthy. Sometimes I spent all Summer there.

Nanna and Grandpa would meet us at Cwmcarn station, and we would struggle on foot the half mile to the end of the lane, a ragged convoy laden with suitcases and bags and inappropriate headgear. The lane crossed the railway line, and then ran beside an old tramway to York Terrace. Then the narrow road dived through a bridge under the tramway and curved across the little valley of the Nant y Crochan. Then a tall bank appeared. We climbed up the final yards of unmade path to 1 Beech Terrace.

My grandparents were Irish immigrants. Nellie was ample, warm and welcoming. She was born in about 1900. Pot was tall and silent. He was known to all as ‘Black’ Pot. He worked as a ganger on the Great Western Railway. When he strode up from the line at the end of the day his face was indeed black with soot and sweat.

Pot’s given name, Edward, was reserved by his wife for moments of high drama. The clarion call “Edwaard!” was not to be ignored, it had both pitch and volume that could compete with the whistle of a steam engine on the line outside, warning the gangers of approaching danger.