Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Valleys- the Heart and Soul of Wales

Barbara and I are back in Cornwall after a few interesting days in South Wales, once one of the great coal mining areas of the world, prior to the mass closure of UK coal mines in the mid 1980s. At its peak in 1913, 57 million tons of coal were dug out of the hills by 232,000 men and boys working in 620 mines. 
Blaenavon main street
We based ourselves in Blaenavon, a World Heritage Site, and almost certainly the best preserved example of a traditional South Wales iron-making town. Although part of the town dates from the late 1780s, most of the buildings are representative of an early mid-Victorian Welsh industrial community with much of it built before 1870.
 Blaenavon lies on the very edge of the South Wales coalfield, above the valleys of Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil, where seams of coal and bands of iron ore are shallow and outcrop on a hill overlooking Abergavenny.

There were many coal mines around Blaenavon, and Big Pit was one of them. Sunk sometime between the late 1830s and 1860, by 1870 the Blaenavon Iron & Steel Coal Company was the second largest coal producer in South Wales, employing 1300 workers in its heyday. It closed in 1980 and three years later was opened as the excellent Big Pit National Coal Museum, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Big Pit National Coal Museum

The underground tour, with guides who were former miners, is an eye-opener to life underground in a working coal mine, and the visual displays are magnificent.

 

 
Nearby is the Blaenavon Ironworks museum, equally impressive. The ironworks was built in 1788 and in 1812 the furnaces were claimed to be among the most productive in the world. The site became a highly integrated ironworking operation where the mining of coal and iron ore took place alongside the smelting and forging processes.


It was here that Sydney Gilchrist Thomas made one of the last major breakthroughs in steel making in the 19th century. In 1878 he and his cousin Percy discovered how to remove phosphorus from steel, which revolutionised steel making in Europe and America.


By one of the huge iron furnaces
Aberfan
Coal mining is a hazardous business and many lives have been lost in South Wales collieries, but no mine disaster has been so tragic as the one that occurred in the tiny village of Aberfan in October 1966, when an avalanche of colliery waste buried part of the village. Torrential rain brought the waste down onto several buildings, engulfing the Pantglas Junior School, where morning lessons had just begun. 144 people were killed, including 116 children. Today the school site is a garden of remembrance to this disaster which perversely brought the valleys worldwide attention.

Although Wales is renowned for its mining, it is also famous for its many castles, 641 of them, some built to keep the English out, others built by the Normans and Plantagenets to keep the Welsh out. We visited the 13th century castle at Caerphilly, the largest castle in Wales, and second largest in the UK after Windsor, and only 25 miles from Blaenavon. Its most dramatic feature has to be the tower that 'out leans' Pisa! 

Caerphilly Castle
Returning to Cornwall we spent a few hours in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, and visited its castle, with its 13th century Norman motte and keep.


Cardiff Castle
 

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