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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Cymru’

Mynyddoedd Cymreig

On the mountains of Wales

Back in May, the latest post in the Books I Haven’t Read series was about The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin, a book which I felt had a somewhat exclusive and elitist approach to said hills. At the time I read it, or at least part of it, I was staying in a cottage under Moel y Gest, within sight of the Moelwynion, so the hills of Wales were very real and very much on the doorstep. For that matter, the hills of Wales are on the doorstep of my home, too, and the issue of why hills such as Yr Wyddfa, the Moelwynion and all the others of the Eryri massif are seen as valid and special in a way that the worn-out, lived-on hills of the south such as Mynydd Machen, Twmbarlwm and the Blorenge are not, is a whole ‘nother topic in itself. The hills of the North, after all, are almost as industrialised as the hills of the South, particularly in the case of places like Parys Mountain or Penmaenmawr which have been industrial sites for thousands of years. Putting that aside, my plan was always to come home and write about my own responses to the hills of North Wales and what they mean to me; but since May it has stayed on the to-do pile.

Last week, however, I was away again, this time to the area around Aberteifi/Cardigan in West Wales. Driving along the main road north from Aberteifi towards Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, I glanced to my left and saw the sparkling, shining seas of Cardigan Bay. The air was so clear I could see the mountains on the far side of the bay in the distance. I could only glance briefly—I was driving, after all—but there unmistakably in the distance was the lonely outline of Moel y Gest, and alongside it the double-peaked ridge of the Moelwynion. It filled me with a sudden thrill, spotting a skyline I recognised from the far side of the bay. As soon as I got out of the car, I was messaging one of the regular correspondants to tell them about it, to their undoubted bemusement. Later, when I was back home and back at a proper computer, I checked the distance: about sixty miles, pretty good seeing really. Even the sparkling sea was deceptive: although it looked close enough to touch, the shore must have been some five or six miles away. I was over 200 metres above it, not far off the altitude of Moel y Gest itself.

Why does spotting the Moelwynion give me a thrill like that? I don’t know, other than that I have been going back to that corner of the country on and off since I was a teenager. But spotting them like that did remind me to write this post, and it took me back to a day back in May when I was driving around almost in their shadow, hunting down some bottles of limited-edition beer (it’s a long story). The drive took me across the Traeth Mawr, then over the hill road from Garreg to Maentwrog, but it is the first part, from Prenteg to Garreg, that sticks in my mind. I really don’t expect you to know where these places are, by the way, but please do stop to look them up on a map. The Traeth Mawr is an ancient drowned valley, once a broad sandy silvery estuary, for the past two hundred years usually farmland.

The Romantics, Shelley in particular, thought it one of the finest sights in the world before it was reclaimed. Nowadays you can hike, drive, or catch the train across it. And even though the sea is no longer there to reflect them, the surrounding mountains are a mighty encounter. Driving across the Traeth in search of beer, I felt safe, warm and secure, cupped in a bowl, the grand bones of Eryri wrapping themselves around me and protecting me with their power. If you were to reach for your copy of the Mabinogion you might realise that Pryderi was buried just over the other side of the mountain ridge, with Lleu Llaw Gyffes living with his wife made of flowers just a short walk away too.

That, maybe, gives you some sense of the reaction that I have to the hills of Wales, or at least a small fraction of them. There are many more, of course, and I have much more to say. I have had half a post drafted about Mynydd Machen for a while, although I might need to go up there again in a better mood. I have complex feelings about the Rhinogydd even though I’ve never explored their dark, quiet and lurking shapes. I’ve promised to take one regular correspondant to Bryn Cader Faner to see its curious crown of thorns, and I will always remember a teenage walk up to Llandecwyn chapel at dusk, looking down on Harlech Bay as if it was in the palm of my hand. No doubt I will write more about Welsh hills over the coming months and years. The important thing, the thing to always remember, is that they belong to everyone. The people who live on them, the people who live around them, the people who walk up them and the people who work on them. They are too old and too powerful to ever be the property of just one.

What rhymes with...?

Or, a trip up a mountain

What do you do on a random Saturday with zero plans? Walk up a mountain? What an excellent suggestion, thank you! So yesterday morning I headed off for a gentle amble up to the summit of the Blorenge, the mountain that stands over the valley of the River Usk opposite the Sugar Loaf, and separates the urban environs of Blaenafon from the rural tranquility of Abergavenny and Crickhowell.

I say “a gentle amble” because it’s not a particularly strenous walk. It’s not like the sort of mountain where you park your car at the bottom and hike up a path so steep you’re almost too scared to come down again. The road over the mountains north from Blaenafon isn’t that much lower than the summit, only about eighty metres or so. The walk, therefore, is essentially a cross-moorland ramble more than anything else. Still, it’s definitely a good way to spend a morning.

When I thought of posting this, I was intending to turn it into something hugely informative: a long story full of history, geology, packed with information about the mountain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite work out how to get into it. It turned into something dry and meaningless, without flavour, when I wanted to write something evocative, something that would make you really feel you were on the mountain alongside me. What I do have, though, are pictures.

Keepers Pond

I started here at Keepers Pond; at least, that’s what it’s called on the signs. The Ordnance Survey map calls it Pen-ffordd-goch Pond—the head of the red path. Older, Victorian-era maps call it Forge Pond. The whole area around the Blorenge is filled with ancient industry: pits, hollows, old quarries and old mining tips, joined up by tracks that were once horse-drawn railways. Nowadays Keepers Pond is busy with wild swimmers, canoers and paddleboarders. The only ancient industry I found was one length of Victorian railway rail.

Bridge rail

Keepers Pond

Despite all its ancient industry, the Blorenge now is a quiet place, a place where the loudest sounds are of songbirds. There are many hikers, but they walk silently, conversations blown away by the wind. In the distance you can see all the way to the Severn Sea, in the far distance the coast of Somerset, but on Saturday the skies were grey, the clouds low, and sea, sky and distant land all merged into one continuous blue-grey palette.

The view to the sea

At the summit, naturally, there’s a trig point. On the ground, though, unmarked, a second benchmark was carved. An old one, by the look of its shape. Possibly, it is the benchmark labelled on an 1880s map as 1,832 feet.

Bench mark

1880s map

To the north, at first, the view was lost in cloud, leaving just impressions of a valley. Then, slowly, as I returned back to the car, it started to open up again. The valley of the Usk, the Black Mountains and the Sugar Loaf. The grand vista stretched before me, before the cloud came back down again once more.

The view

On emotional lines

Or, a special locomotive

In the last post I mentioned I’d been up to North West Wales recently, for the first time since January 2020. The first place we headed to, naturally, was the Ffestiniog Railway, and it was bustling with activity: five engines in steam, I think (plus one diesel), several trains shuttling up and down the line. I couldn’t stop taking photos, either on the phone or on the Proper Camera, of every train I saw. And one in particular was special.

Welsh Pony

This is Welsh Pony, or Merlen Cymraeg, the one engine I was really hoping to see. “It’s Welsh Pony!” I said excitedly, snapping away, sending out photos and so on.

“What’s … so exciting about another train?” came back the replies.

“It’s Welsh Pony!”

Which obviously didn’t exactly cut it as an explanation. “I’ll try to explain more,” I said, “when I’m back at my computer and have time to put it into words. This is a very special engine for my generation of nerds.”

Welsh Pony was built back in the mid-1860s, one of a pair of very similar locomotives built for the Ffestiniog Railway by George England & Co of New Cross, following on from four slightly smaller side tank engines. Three of the earlier engines—Princess, Prince and Palmerston—were rebuilt to be rather more like Welsh Pony and its sister Little Giant, and those five together shared many decades of service.

Welsh Pony

The Ffestiniog’s fortunes started to decline from the First World War onwards. Little Giant was dismantled for spares in 1929, but as the 1930s progressed the railway struggled to fund necessary repairs on the ancient locos. Prince was out of use from 1936, and Palmerston from 1937. Welsh Pony was probably last used in 1940. When the railway closed to traffic in 1946, Princess was the only George England loco still running on the railway.

Welsh Pony

When the railway closed to traffic, the company didn’t shut down. It became the empire of one depressed, gloomy old man, who had worked for the line since he was a boy and had slowly seen it decay and rot away. He didn’t make any effort to save the locos, or the rolling stock, to cover them over or wrap them up or shut them away securely. They stayed where they had been left, many of them outdoors, some like Welsh Pony indoors, all close by the salt-spray of Harlech Bay. They rusted quickly, as the grass grew up around them. When a group of enthusiasts gained control of the railway after about eight years of closure, nothing was close to serviceable, and the enthusiasts had to carefully piece things back together on the tiny amount of cash they had to spare, repairing the most repairable locos and carriages one-by-one until they had the minimum they needed to offer a service. Welsh Pony, abandoned for about fifteen years when the railway reopened, was not one of them.

Welsh Pony

Welsh Pony hung around the railway, parked on various sidings, stored in various sheds. In the mid-1980s it was painted up and put up on a plinth, as Porthmadog Harbour Station’s “gate guardian” loco. It stayed on the plinth, rusting away in the sea air, until the early 21st century when it went back into storage once more. In 2014, restoration work on Welsh Pony finally started. A careful survey discovered that a huge proportion of the surviving fabric was just too rusted, and would have to be replaced. A new boiler was needed, new frames, new cylinders, new rods, but the wheels and valve gear are still original.

Welsh Pony in December 2019, with Prince and Palmerston on the left

The new Welsh Pony’s fire was lit for the first time in June 2020, with the ceremonial event livestreamed to an audience of thousands. Before restoration the boiler had been lagged with wood, and some of the rotting lagging had survived all those years the engine was out of use. When the loco was dismantled some of it was set aside, and was used to light the first fire, another little piece of continuity.

But why is Welsh Pony so special? Why, when I saw it in steam for the first time was I quite so overwhelmed? Well, I guess, for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Welsh Pony was a fixture, the engine standing mute and silent at the entrance to the car park, a symbol of the railway and yet at the same time something cold, dead and filled with the past. There are many people of my generation who can remember climbing up the plinth and onto the engine, even though you probably weren’t supposed to. It seemed impossible to imagine the rusting machine would ever run again. Even when it was taken down from the plinth and cosmetically restored, tucked back away in a storage shed, it seemed impossible to imagine it would ever run again. To watch it being warmed up, from afar, on a cold morning about a year ago, was a sight we thought might never happen. To see it running, hauling a train again, to be able to see it warm, moving and alive, for personally the first time, felt like an impossible moment.

Welsh Pony

I’m not sure setting out the bald facts like this will help you understand what made me so emotional about it, to be honest. Maybe, along with everything else, it’s a bit of an insight into how my mind works. Hopefully, though, it makes some sort of sense even if you’re never going to have that feeling about the engine—about any railway engine—yourself. All I can try to do, after all, is explain.

Books I Haven't Read (part twelve)

A journey of discovering a book didn't need to be read

It’s always nice, when you go away and rent a cottage for a few days, to see if it’s been furnished with any interesting books. Sometimes you’re unlucky, and there’s nothing at all, or something worse than useless that charity shops would turn away. Sometimes, though, there’s something good: a book that makes you think “oh, I’d have read that if I knew it existed,” or something relevant to the local area. When visiting Calderdale a couple of years ago I found a fascinating book about the in-depth history of the parish we were staying in, right down to the surviving evidence for its medieval boundaries. Well, I thought it was fascinating, at any rate. Naturally, as you can’t take the books home with you, there’s a pressure to at least finish enough of a potentially-interesting one to see if you might want a copy yourself, or read the whole thing before you go.

For the past few days we’ve been staying in North West Wales, riding on trains, rambling about a bit, sending photos off to various people among the cast of characters that occasionally pop up in this blog. In the cottage we’re staying in there’s only a handful of books: some vintage ones clearly bought purely as ornament for an awkward corner, and a basket of a few local interest books, mostly fairly dull: technical climbing route guides for example. There was one, though, that looked like it might be an interesting read. If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed that I didn’t finish it. The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin.

Perrin has been an outdoor writer for many many years. He pops up fairly regularly in the Guardian‘s “Country Diary” column. I’ve never been able to read any newspaper’s “Country Diary” without thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Scoop!, in which the hapless diarist is accidentally packed off to become a war correspondent, but Perrin is as far from the pale, inexperienced and incompetent journalist in that novel that you could imagine. He’s an elderly man, and has been walking the hills and landscapes of Wales for many, many years. Myself, I’m very interested in the hills and landscapes of Wales, so I thought it would be a natural fit.

The biggest structural problem I have with the book is that it’s collated from various short pieces of work written at scattered times over the last thirty years, rearranged and grouped together geographically, so that a certain block of landscape (Meirionydd, for example) is kept together in one place. This leads, though, to a lot of repetition. The same descriptive lines about each hill reoccur, the same anecdotes. Picking it up to read half a chapter at a time, without a bookmark, I found myself flicking back and forth unsure if a particular line was one I had read previously or not.

More than that though, I started to find the content of the book, on some level, distasteful. It’s something that I find in quite a lot of nature writing, unfairly or not. It is focused very much on a particular way of enjoying the countryside, one that is focused very much on personal remoteness and on a particular rural aesthetic. On the countryside being used in the right kind of way. Traditional farming: good. Authors and artists moving out to the country to get in touch with their underlying roots: good. Archaeology: good. Wind turbines: bad. Industry: bad. I don’t want to call this classist, I think that would be wrong, especially given the history of class involvement in the countryside right-to-access movement over the 20th century. It’s certainly, though, a very elitist view of the countryside, of the right reasons to be there. There’s no space in it for a lot of the people who use it, or a lot of the people who actually live there day-to-day.

So, I’ve given up on The Hills Of Wales before reaching the end. It’s a personal book, sure, but it feels such a one-sided book that I feel I could never be friends with it. I closed it, after another anecdote about a great countryside-loving man the author once knew, with the feeling in the end that all the hills of Wales were one and the same, with the same cast of artists and poets and romantic lone shepherds populating them. That, surely, must be the opposite of the author’s intention.

Pretentiousness?

Or, the etiquette of language

It’s been quiet on here over the past week. Other things have been keeping me busy: work, trying to sort things out for The Mother, and various other aspects of life. With all of those things to deal with, I didn’t really have time to write any well-written and properly-researched blog posts. Or, indeed, any regular ones.

I started to draft a “Readers Letters” blogpost, but was slightly wary the answers would go out of date before the post was written. When I restarted this blog last year, I went spent a few weeks of evenings going through posts from 2006 and 2007 editing out some of the things that were just a bit too in-joke and just a bit too personal and painful.* I don’t want to have to write something one week and then edit it the following week because things have changed once more.

Something has been on my mind, though, when writing the recent posts about Welsh railway history. What’s the best way to refer to Welsh place-names?

Back when I was a student, I had to write essays about the Outer Hebrides, and standard practice even then was that you would refer to place names with the current official native-language form, even if that caused confusion with the earlier literature. So, in archaeological texts,** the Callanish stone circle is now Calanais; Dun Carloway is Dun Charlabhaigh. In North West Wales, too, things are nice and straightforward. You don’t see people nowadays referring to Portmadoc or Dolgelly when they are talking about Porthmadog and Dolgellau. The main exception, to be frank, is where railway histories take the line of “we’re going to use the HISTORICALLY APPROPRIATE NAME because that’s what the railways did,” as a thin cover for being unhappy about the idea of historical change.

With South Wales, though, it’s a different matter. There are really two issues here. Firstly, in the north-west we’re mostly talking about differences in spelling. In the south, there’s a much bigger number of radical differences in name: Casnewydd/Newport, Abertawe/Swansea, Casgwent/Chepstow to give just a handful of examples. Secondly, although the proportion of Welsh-speakers in the area is slowly increasing, the majority language of the south-east is still definitely English.

Because of this, it feels a little bit, well, pretentious to use phrases like “Casnewydd/Newport” as I have been trying to do in the recent history posts. Moreover it can be difficult to find Welsh names to use for some locations: Rogerstone is known in Welsh as Tŷ Du, but Pye Corner doesn’t seem to have a Welsh name that I’ve been able to discover.*** It’s easily for me to accidentally omit things, too: strictly speaking “Bassaleg” should be “Basaleg” but I tend to forget the latter and it’s hardly used locally other than at the sign as you enter the village. “Risca” should be “Rhisga”.

Switching solely to Welsh would make my posts harder to understand, if you’re not already aware of the Welsh names of places, given that they’re virtually completely in English. However, although combined forms like “Caerffili/Caerphilly” might be clunky to write and clunky to read, they do act as a constant reminder that Wales does have its own language and that English is a relatively modern incomer to most of the country. Would it be best, in the long run, to stick to them? Should I use them only the first time I mention a place? Or how about one in brackets after the other, like “Casnewydd (Newport)” or vice-versa?

In short, I’m not really sure the best way to go on this, editorially. Does anyone have any opinions or suggestions to add? If nothing else, I can include it in my Readers’ Letters.

* Although for some reason I kept some of the most personal and painful ones.

** It’s been so long since I graduated I don’t think I need to specify “modern archaeological texts” any more.

*** I did however find some 19th century journalism calling it “Pie Corner”.

Pye in the sky (part two)

Some more local railway history

Last week, I posted a little bit about the history of the railway junction at Pye Corner, just outside Casnewydd/Newport. There, the original route of the horse-drawn tramway opened around 1805 is now a quiet, grassy back alleyway, with the railway that replaced it a few yards away. That railway line, now just a single-track branch, strides over the road into Bassaleg with a complex series of three parallel railway bridges, imposing and monolithic.

Pye Corner bridges

Looking through the tunnel of bridges, you can just about in this picture make out three different ones. In the middle, a stone arch. Beyond it a steel girder bridge and this side of it an arch in blue engineering brick. Three separate phases.

The stone arch is, I presume, the mid-19th-century bridge built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company when the railway line was rerouted from the back alleyway route it formerly took. On the far side: where the bridge was widened by the Great Western Railway, circa 1910 or so, to broaden the line up to Rhisga from two to four tracks. The blue engineering bricks on the nearside? Ostensibly that’s straightforward too—but not as straightforward as I first thought.

I mentioned in the previous post that Pye Corner was a railway junction as early as 1825, when the Rumney Railway was built from Pye Corner up to Rhymney. Now, I’ve said before that the railways of South Wales are complex and confusing, and the Rumney Railway is a case in point. Back in, say, 1860, there were two railways with very similar names, both linking Rhymney to the coast.

The Rumney Railway was the first, built around 1825, and like the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway it was horse-drawn, for its first few years. As you might expect from the name, it served Cwm Rhymni, running down from New Tredegar* along the east bank of Afon Rhymni. Unlike most of the valleys of South Wales, Cwm Rhymni doesn’t take a particularly straight line from mountains to sea, and the Rumney Railway followed the river where it takes a sharp eastwards turn at Bedwas and flows through Machen. From there, the river takes a rambling, meandering route through rolling countryside, past Ruperra Castle and down to the sea just east of Caerdydd/Cardiff. The railway, on the other hand, cut across the narrow neck of land separating Afon Rhymni from Afon Ebwy, to reach the latter at Rhiwderin, and ending by joining the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway about a mile further on. How it crossed the Afon Ebwy to get there will be the subject of a later installment.

The confusion arises from the Rhymney Railway, which came along in the 1850s partly because the Rumney Railway (also sometimes known as the “Old Rumney”) was by the time it turned 30 already something of a wheezing, antiquated and outdated little line, upgraded to steam but still using horse-era track. The Rhymney Railway was built to give Cwm Rhymni a proper, modern railway, and it doesn’t really concern us here save to say that it didn’t stick with the river as the Rumney Railway did: it headed into Caerffili town centre, then burrowed southwards through the hills into Caerdydd with a tunnel over a mile long. The Rumney Railway’s owners were worried they were getting left behind but didn’t have the money to upgrade their line; within five years of the Rhymney Railway opening, they had sold the older line to the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, so that the latter railway could use it as a stepping-stone to reach the sea. They did have the money in the bank to rebuild the Rumney Railway in a modern fashion, and did so, building further connections from Machen to Caerffili.

This doesn’t explain where that brick-built bridge comes from, though. Here’s a map of the railway connections around Pye Corner circa 1914. This is from the Railway Clearing House junction diagrams, which were made to give definitive plans of where railways interconnected and what the distances between junctions were, in order to be able to work out per-mile traffic rates.

Junction diagram

Yellow is the Great Western Railway (the former canal company line), blue is the Brecon & Merthyr, and you can see both companies have their Bassaleg stations. What’s the purple line though? That belonged to the company which owned the local docks, the grandly-named Alexandra (Newport & South Wales) Docks & Railway, or AND&R to its friends. They had wanted the collieries of Cwm Rhymni to be able to get their coal to the docks of Casnewydd, without having to pay any additional charges to the Great Western Railway; so they built a line parallel to the Great Western’s tracks between Pye Corner and Mendalgief, enabling coal trains to come straight off the Brecon & Merthyr and onto the dock company’s own line of route without touching the Great Western.

So that’s who built that imposing blue-brick bridge? Well, maybe. There’s certainly a boundary post still in the ground nearby, marking this off as AND&R land.

Boundary post

That answers the question, surely? Well, maybe not. We haven’t really looked at all of the evidence yet. However, as this post is already getting rather long, the conclusion (insofar as there is one) is sadly going to have to wait for another day.

* I’m not entirely sure where its original top terminus is. The Rumney Railway is particularly poorly-documented, so I’m not sure anyone is entirely sure quite where its original top terminus was.

Casting the runes

And exercising my rights

The line was certainly longer than usual. More spaced out. Not that I knew what “usual” meant, of course. Yesterday was the first time I’d been to this polling station—the first time anybody had, I think, because the city council has reviewed and rebalanced and rejigged where they all are.

Oriau Agor

You could say I was lucky, really, moving house just a few months before a Senedd election. Getting to vote for my national representatives straight away, rather than having to wait a few years. It was all very well organised, to be honest. In general in my experience people in this part of Wales have been doing social distancing and similar much better than people in Bristol; here, for example, people will cross the street or walk into the middle of the road to avoid passing someone on the pavement, whereas I don’t think I’ve never seen that happen in Bristol. The queue was nicely spaced out, with most people wearing facemasks well before they reached the chapel door. A woman on the door was carefully regulating admission, making sure there were never more than three voters inside the station at once, one collecting their ballot papers and two actually voting.

So who to vote for? As I said a few months ago, British politics is in a fairly terrible state right now; a dangerous state, you could say, in which populist reactionary Kulturkampf seems to be winning out over any sort of belief in honesty or integrity. It’s a depressing sight, in a situation where however awfully the Prime Minister behaves, however angry he gets at the thought of being held to account, any attempts to try to hold him even slightly to account seem to fail to make any impact on the voting public.

However, the awful state of British politics is very much the awful state of English politics. In Scotland and Wales the situation is somewhat different. In the former reactionaries are desperately trying to stop the country following its natural path to independence; here in Cymru, the Labour government is in the strange position of dealing with one opposition whose main selling point seems to be pride in their own inability. “We want to be leaders,” they seem to be saying, “who know we’re no good at leading, who want to give all our power away.” It’s embarrassing, every time the Welsh Tory leader speaks, to hear just how much he shows off his own anxieties of inadequacy and incompetence. On the other front, support for independence is understandably growing but it doesn’t seem to translate into support for Plaid Cymru.*

At the time of publishing this post, only a handful of the Senedd results have been declared and it’s far too early to say what the final numbers for this Senedd will be once the regional papers have all been counted and seats allotted. Hopefully, though, we’ll continue to have a sensible and compassionate centre-left government, ruling for the benefit of everyone in the country. If only England was so lucky.

* As an aside, one thing that annoys me slightly is the habit the press have of abbreviating PC’s name to “Plaid”, because that just means “Party”.

Pye in the sky (part one)

Or, some pieces of railway history

For a few months now, I’ve been threatening to start writing a long series of blog posts about the railway history of South Wales, starting in Newport and slowly radiating outwards. The question, of course, is how to actually do that in a format that will be interesting and engaging to read in small chunks; and, indeed, for me to write. The “standard” type of railway history comes in a number of forms, but none of them are particularly attractive to the casual reader. Few go to the point of setting out, to a random passing non-specialist reader, just why a specific place or line is fascinating; just what about its history makes it worth knowing about. Moreover, not only do they tend on the heavy side, they are normally based either on large amounts of archival research, large amounts of vintage photographs, or both. Putting that sort of thing together isn’t really an option for me at present, especially not for a blog post.

So why would I want to write about the railways of the South Wales valleys in any case? In general, if you’re a British railway enthusiast, you probably think of the South Wales valleys as a place where GWR tank engines shuffled back and forth with short trains of passengers or long trains of coal. If you’re a specialist, and like industrial railways, you might remember it as one of the last areas where the National Coal Board still operated steam trains, at places such as Aberpennar/Mountain Ash. There are two things, though, that you probably only realise if you’re a specialist. Firstly, if you include horse-drawn railways and tramways, the South Wales railway system was the earliest and densest complex railway network in the world. Horse-drawn railways are often completely overlooked by enthusiasts, for whom railways started with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Partly, I suspect, because unlike later periods there aren’t many good maps or any photographs of most of the horse-drawn railways of this country. Although horse-drawn railways do appear on tithe maps, in most cases they are not very clearly marked and resemble a road more than anything else.

Secondly, the 19th century history of the growth of the South Wales railway network was intensely complex and entangled, and the later domination of the area by the GWR was by no means a foregone conclusion. Through the 1850s and 1860s there were a number of factions at work: on the local level, horse-drawn lines trying to modernise and make their railways part of the national network; newer steam-operated lines each serving a single valley and without any scope for a broader outlook; and nationally, the large London-based companies trying to gain “territory” and a share of the South Wales industrial traffic. In 1852 two directors of the London & North Western Railway, Richard Moon and Edward Tootal, said:

[A]ll the Narrow Gauge Lines [standard gauge] of South Wales are at present detached: & divided into separate & small Interests:- Again they are at present at War with the Broad Gauge.

(memo to LNWR board quoted in The Origins of the LMS in South Wales by Jones & Dunstone)

I’ll come to the reason why Moon and Tootal were investigating the railways of South Wales in a later post; but that, hopefully, sets the scene a little. South Wales didn’t become a GWR monoculture until, paradoxically, after the GWR itself ceased to exist. Through all of the 19th century, South Wales was a maze of twisty little railways, all different, many of them with very long histories.

All of which, if you’ve read this far, brings us on to a fairly ordinary-looking back lane behind some houses, in a fairly ordinary suburb of Casnewydd/Newport.

An ordinary back lane

You’ve probably guessed this is actually some sort of disused railway. It is; but it’s a disused railway that, paradoxically, is actually still in use. This is the trackbed of the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s tramway; its exact date of building is a little unclear but it was started around 1801 and open for traffic in 1805.

I’ve written about the Monmouthshire Canal Company before, as a good chunk of the Crumlin Arm of its canal has been semi-restored, albeit not in a navigable state. The canal was built in the 1790s, following the valley of the Afon Ebwy/River Ebbw down as far as Tŷ Du/Rogerstone where it cut across north of Newport to reach the Wsyg/Usk.

The canal’s enabling Act of Parliament permitted anyone who wanted to use the canal (within a few miles radius) to build their own horse-drawn feeder railway linking them to the canal. This included the Tredegar Ironworks, in the Sirhowy Valley; the only sensible way they could reach the canal, however, was to build their railway all the way down along the Sirhywi until reaching the confluence of the Ebwy and Sirhiwy in Risca. The canal company built a matching line, roughly parallel to their canal for much of its length but running around the south side of Newport. The picture above is part of this line, near the modern day Pye Corner station.

Above I said that paradoxically, this is a disused railway that is still in use. The reason for that is: a line built for horses to draw trains at walking pace is not exactly suitable for use by powered trains at much higher speeds. A secondary reason is that in many cases the new “rail roads” were the best road in the area, became heavily used by pedestrians, and started to have ribbons of houses built along them in the same way that public roads do.

Tithe map

This is the tithe map for the photo shown above, from around 1840. As you can see it’s hard to see the difference, in this map, between the railways and the roads; but a “public road” has already been built around the other side of the buildings that have grown up along the railway, so that people don’t have to walk on the railway to get to them.

When this map was made, the railway had already been using steam engines for around fifteen years or so. Not long after, the company decided its trains needed a better line of route here, so a new line was built, parallel, only a few tens of metres to the west. That line is still in use today as Trafnidiaeth Cymru’s Ebbw Vale Line, although it’s seen many changes over the years.

I was going to segue into the later railway history of the Pye Corner area at this point, because there’s plenty to discuss. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1820s there was already a railway junction there, and on the tithe map above you can see the second line striding off to the left of the map. It’s technically no longer a railway junction. There are still two routes here, but they come together and run parallel rather than actually joining. As this is already turning into something of an essay, though, that will wait for a later day.

Buildings in the landscape

Or, a trip to a museum

Only the other day, I wrote about heading out to visit a castle now that outdoor tourist attractions in Wales are starting to open up again. And now, along comes another post about it! This isn’t going to become a blog purely about days out I’ve taken, honest.

For the past few years, we’ve gone every spring to the museum at St Fagans, just west of Cardiff. If you’re from South Wales you will undoubtedly know of it, but I was always surprised, when we lived only just over the water in Bristol, how many English people don’t. Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, or St Fagans National Museum of History,* is a museum of Welsh buildings and Welsh life on a grand scale. It was founded back in the 1940s, modelled on the Skansen museum in Stockholm: the grounds of an aristocratic stately home, St Fagans Castle, were slowly filled with exemplars of vernacular Welsh architecture, dismantled and re-erected.

The museum also has indoor galleries, in a huge 1960s-era brutalist building which—after a full refurbishment a few years ago—is a gorgeous example of the period with a wonderfully light and airy atrium space. Naturally, none of that is open at the moment. Nor are the interiors of the historic (or replica) buildings themselves. However, given that visitor numbers are being carefully limited, this does mean that we had a great opportunity to explore the grounds in detail. I should have brought my Proper Camera, because normally you don’t get to take photos with nobody else about quite as easily.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

This is Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace, one of the museum’s highlights, showing the changes in a typical urban terrace over two hundred years. If nothing else, when you can go inside, it gives parents the opportunity to say “look, this is what houses looked like when I was small,” as their children gaze at a 1970s microwave, an early VCR and a model of a plate of fish fingers. The buildings themselves came from Merthyr Tydfil; railway nerds might remember that Rhyd-Y-Car Junction was the point where the Brecon & Merthyr Railway met the Great Western Railway just outside Merthyr station.

The gardens outside the terrace are similarly reconstructed and appropriate to the period of each cottage, with vegetable plots and outside toilets gaining sheds, pigeon lofts and air raid shelters, before being replaced with grass and a greenhouse.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

You might remember, back in the mists of time a few paragraphs ago, I said that we always tend to go to St Fagans every spring. The reason for that is: being a museum of Welsh life, it has its own sheep farm—with added geese, ducks, cows and porkers too—and every year lambing season turns into a bit of an event, complete nowadays with the lambing sheds being broadcast online on the museum’s “LambCam”. By April though lambing season is pretty much over: we could see the lambs in the fields, but not many were left indoors. Still, this one seemed happy to see us.

Sheep

Other signs of spring were everywhere too: the ground carpeted with primroses and celandines, bluebells starting to appear in the woods, and the daffodils still in strong flower. I watched this bee flying round, scratching under grass and leaves apparently trying to dig a hole, before giving up and trying another spot.

Bee

I think she’s a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), possibly looking for somewhere to start her nest.

* Translation note: the Welsh name doesn’t mean “Museum of History”, but it could mean “Welsh Folk Museum” or “Welsh People’s Museum”. The Welsh name has stayed the same over the years whilst the English one has changed a few times: road signs off the motorway direct you to the “Museum of Welsh Life”.

We now resume your regular programming

I'll explain the pun later

With travel now allowed within Wales, and places starting to open up, we can now go out and visit castles and suchlike again. Cadw, the Welsh historic monuments service, are starting to open up a number of their sites to carefully-controlled numbers of prebooked visitors at sites where it’s feasible. You can’t see the fantastic Victorian Gothic interiors of Castell Coch, but you can go and visit many of the famous castle ruins of Wales, the most famous being the “Edwardian subjugation” castles of the North. Caernarfon or Conwy are a bit far for a day trip from here, though. Instead, we set out for somewhere a bit more local, and walked through the complex arched gateways of Castell Rhaglan, Raglan Castle.

Castle Gateway

Raglan covers a large area but is rather unusual in that its keep is a moated hexagonal tower outside the main castle bailey, with a high-level bridge linking the two—in fact, in the Tudor period, it might even have been a bi-level bridge. The various levels and arches give you fantasically complex views that are almost like the works of Piranesi.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan was still a sumptuous residence all through the Tudor period, right up until the Civil War. In the Stuart period, it even had a fountain powered by some form of steam engine, which must have predated the machines of Papin or of Savery. The upshot of this today is that, compared to the castles of North Wales I mentioned earlier, it has parts of rather more modern construction. There are substantial chunks rebuilt in brick, for example; finely-detailed stone carvings; and rooms with large rectangular windows. Nevertheless, it is still a ruin: in the Civil War its aristocratic owners naturally supported the King’s side, and as a result the castle surrendered to General Fairfax in the summer of 1646. The castle was made uninhabitable, and sadly, its library destroyed. It still today has no roof to speak of, few floors, and many stone stairs leading nowhere.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

In the Tudor and Stuart periods the castle was surrounded by several terraces of formal gardens, which also no longer survive. Indeed, even if the castle had survived the Civil War, the gardens would no doubt have been lost to changes in aristocratic taste in any case; very few Tudor houses have had their original gardens survive continuously. The castle today is surrounded by the rough, rounded-off and grassed-over remains of the terraces, scattered with picnic benches, and with a shed and a Nissen hut tucked away in a discreet corner. Nevertheless, you can still look out from the castle across the rolling farmland that surrounds it, over to the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf on the horizon.

Every castle needs a shed

Looking towards the Sugar Loaf

I must go back again some time with the Proper Camera, to take a photo which shows the Sugar Loaf as clearly as it stands out to the naked eye. Moreover, if the Sugar Loaf disappeared from sight, as it did when we were there, you know it’s time to seek shelter before the weather reaches you.

Incidentally, if you read the subtitle at the top of this post, you might still be wondering where the pun is. It’s not a very good one, but it is a bilingual one. My Welsh vocabulary is slowly improving; and all day, I had the same thought going around in my head, that if I was commissioning shows at a Welsh TV station I’d have one every day called “The Raglan Programme”, just because its title would be Y Rhaglen Rhaglan. I’ve done better, I have to admit.