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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘history’

The Paper Archives (part three)

The title of this series is maybe not quite as suitable as it was

The previous post in this series is here.

Sometimes, sorting through the accumulated junk that fills my mother’s house, I come across things that I remember from my childhood. For example: alongside the stack of modern radio transceivers that my dad used to speak to random strangers over the airwaves, is the radio I remember being my Nanna’s kitchen radio, sitting on top of the fridge.

The old kitchen radio

It’s a big, clunky thing for a portable, its frame made of leather-covered plywood. I know it has valves (or tubes) inside, not transistors, because I remember my dad having to source spare valves for it and plug them in back when my Nanna still used it daily—he was the only person in the family who knew how to work out which of the valves had popped when it stopped working.

With only a vague idea how old it might be, I looked at the tuning dial to see if it would give me any clues.

The tuning dial

Clearly from before the Big BBC Renaming of the late 1960s. I’m not sure how much it can be trusted for dating, though, as Radio Athlone officially changed to Radio Éireann in the 1930s, but I was fairly sure the radio probably wasn’t quite that old. Of course, I should really have beeen looking at the bottom.

The makers' plate

And of course the internet can tell you exactly when a Murphy BU183M was first sold: 1956, a revision of the 1952 BU183, which had the same case. The rather more stylish B283 model came out the following year, so I suspect not that many of the BU183M were made.

I’m intrigued by the wide range of voltages it can run off: nowadays that sort of input voltage range is handled simply and automatically by power electronics, but in the 1950s you had to open your radio up and make sure the transformer was set correctly before you tried to plug it in, just in case you were about to blow yourself up otherwise. I suppose this is what radio shops were for, to do that for you, and potentially to hire out the large, chunky high-voltage batteries you might need if you didn’t have mains electricity. This radio is from the last years of the valve radio: low-voltage transistor sets were about to enter the marketplace and completely change how we listened to music. This beast—or the B283, which at least looks like an early transistor radio—needed a 90-volt battery to heat up the valves if you wanted to run them without mains power, not the sort of battery you can easily carry around in your handbag. The world has changed a lot in seventy years.

A walk in the park

Some South Wales railway history that is still around, but not for long

Back on to my complex and fragmentary sequence of posts about the history of the complex and fragmentary South Wales railway network. It was prompted by news that Network Rail are working on upgrading the Ebbw Vale line to allow a better train frequency than once per hour, by widening the line from one track to two for a few miles around Aberbeeg. Changing the track, though, involves changing the signalling, and changing the signalling will involve getting rid of a little island of 19th-century mechanical signalling that still exists in Casnewydd/Newport. It’s the signalbox at Park Junction, in the Gaer area of the city.

Park Junction signalbox

And there it is, with the signals pulled off for an Ebbw Vale train. This picture is from April 2021. It might not look like much from this angle, but if I swing round a bit, you can see that the box is really quite a grand affair for something that only handles a few trains per hour.

Park Junction signalbox

You’d be right to assume that, given the size of the building, it was built to control a much bigger junction than the handful of tracks in front of it today.

I’ve written before about the Monmouthshire Canal Company building a railway all the way back in 1805, to carry coal and iron down the Sirhowy Valley. This is, indeed, on that 1805 route. When, a few decades later, the South Wales Railway was built from Abertawe/Swansea to Casgwent/Chepstow, it burrowed under the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway at right-angles, and a complex mesh of interconnecting routes slowly developed. This is a map from around the time of the First World War, after the MCC and SWR had both been bought out by the Great Western, so confusingly both railways are in the same colour.

Railway Clearing House map of the area

The Monmouthshire Canal’s railway runs from left to right, the South Wales Railway from bottom to top, and Park Junction is there on the left. Nowadays, most of the tangle of lines heading towards the docks has gone, and Park Junction is at one corner of a triangle, trains to Cardiff joining the main line at Ebbw Junction and those into Newport joining it at Gaer Junction.

I’ve written previously about that purple line running parallel to the yellow one. That belonged to the company which had extended Newport Docks, the Alexandra (Newport) Dock & Railway Company; and they had built a line from Bassaleg, right alongside the Great Western, so that coal trains coming down the Brecon & Merthyr Railway from Bargoed, Rhymney or Bedwas could reach Newport Docks without paying tolls to the GWR. When they were built, the lines ran around the back of the signalbox, which had nothing at all to do with them. You can see this on a more detailed map from around the same time.

Ordnance Survey 25in map of 1916

Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland, as was the one below.

I’ve made that one a clickthrough because it’s quite detailed; apologies for the horizontal line, but the original is split across two sheets which I’ve roughly stitched together. Three pairs of tracks in front of the box, belonging to the Great Western; and the pair behind it, separate, spreading out into a bank of sidings. About five years after this was surveyed, the Railways Act 1921 merged Newport Docks into the GWR, and within a few years they had put in additional connections at Park Junction, between the lines in front of the box and those that ran behind it.

Ordnance Survey 25in map from the 1930s

Look how much suburbia has grown up in those twenty years, too.

The route through Park Junction lost its passenger services in the early 1960s. Ostensibly this was because British Railways wanted to rearrange the platforms at Newport Station in such a way that there was no space for the Ebbw and Sirhowy Valleys services to turn around; of course, if they had really cared about keeping them, they would have been able to find a way to do it. Back then, there was still heavy freight traffic up and down the valley, from the steel works and the mines; and a large marshalling yard at Rogerstone. Over the following years that traffic dwindled away and shrank, but Park Junction signalbox nevertheless survived, opening a bit less maybe, but still there to signal freight trains up the valley when needed. In the 2000s when the line to Ebbw Vale reopened to passengers, a modern signalling panel was put into one corner of the box to control most of the Ebbw Vale line; but the box still kept its mechanical levers and the tracks past it kept their mechanical semaphore signals, as you can see on the photos above.

Now, in 2022, Park Junction is something of an isolated island given that the main line through Newport is all controlled from the Wales Rail Operating Centre, in Cardiff. When passenger services returned to Ebbw Vale, only one track was kept north of Crosskeys, meaning that the maximum service frequency on the branch is the hour that it takes a train to get from Crosskeys to Ebbw Vale and back down to Crosskeys again. To increase the service means more track; more track means more points and signals; and if you’re putting in more points and signals, it makes sense to move on with the plan to put all of Wales’s signalling into the ROC. So, Park Junction will close, some time over the course of the next few months. It’s a shame, but that’s modernisation for you. I must try to get there again to take more photographs before it goes.

The Paper Archives (part two)

More relics from the past

The previous post in this series is here.

Spending some more time going through the things The Parents should arguably have thrown out decades ago, I came across a leather bag, which seemed to have belonged to my father. Specifically, he seemed to have used it for going to college, in the 1970s. Him being him, he’d never properly cleaned it out, so it had accumulated all manner of things from all across the decade. There were “please explain your non-attendance” slips from 1972; an unread railway society magazine from 1977; and the most recent thing with a date on was an Open University exam paper from 1983. It was about relational database design, and to be honest some of the questions wouldn’t be out of place in a modern exam paper if you asked for the answers in SQL DDL rather than in CODASYL DDL, so I might come back to that and give it its own post. What he scored on the exam, I don’t know. There were coloured pencils, and an unopened packet of gum.

Juicy Fruit gum

It seems to be from before the invention of the Best Before date, but the RRP printed on the side is £0.04.

Slightly more expensive: a rather nice slide rule. Look, it has a Standard Deviation scale and all. Naturally, my dad being my dad, it was still in its case and with the original instruction book, which will be useful if I ever try to work out how to use it.

Slide rule

And finally (for today) I spotted what appeared to be a slip of paper at the bottom of the bag with “NEWTON’S METHOD” written on it in small capitals, in fountain-pen ink. Had he been cheating in his exams? Had he written a crib to the Newton-Raphson method down and slipped it into the bottom of the bag? I pulled it out and…I was wrong.

Paper tape

It was a rolled-up 8-bit paper tape! Presumably with his attempt at a program to numerically solve a particular class of equation using Newton’s method.

I don’t know what type of machine it would have been written for, but I could see that it was likely binary data or text in some unfamiliar encoding, as whichever way around you look at it a good proportion of the high bits would be set so it was unlikely to be ASCII. Assuming I’m holding the tape the right way round, this is a transcription of the first thirty-two bytes…

0A 8D 44 4E C5 A0 35 B8 0A 8D 22 30 A0 59 42 A0 47 4E C9 44 C9 56 C9 44 22 A0 D4 4E C9 D2 50 A0

That’s clearly not ASCII. In fact, I think I know what it might: an 8080/Z80 binary. I recognise those repeated C9 bytes: that’s the opcode for the ret instruction, which has survived all the way through to the modern-day x64 instruction set. If I try to hand-disassemble those few bytes assuming it’s Z80 code we get:

ld a,(bc)
adc a,l
ld b,h
ld c,(hl)
push bc
and b
dec (hl)
cp b
ld a,(bc)
adc a,l

This isn’t the place to go into Z80 assembler syntax—that might be a topic for the future—other than to say that it reads left-to-right and brackets are a pointer dereference, so ld c,(hl) means “put the value in register c into the memory location whose address is in register hl. As valid code it doesn’t look too promising to my eyes—I didn’t even realise dec (hl) was something you could do—but I’ve never been any sort of assembly language expert. The “code” clearly does start off making assumptions about the state of the registers, but on some operating systems that would make sense. This disassembly only takes us as far as the repeated 0A8D, though: maybe that’s some sort of marker separating segments of the file, and the actual code is yet to come. The disassembly continues…

ld (&a030),hl
ld e,c
ld b,d
and b
ld b,a
ld c,(hl)
ld b,h
ld d,(hl)
ld b,h
ld (&a0d4),hl
ld c,(hl)
jp nc,(&a050)

Well, that sort of makes some sort of sense. The instructions that reference fixed addresses all appear to point to a consistent place in the address space. It also implies code and data is in the same address space, in the block starting around &a000 which means you’d expect that some of the binary wouldn’t make sense when decompiled. If this was some other arbitrary data, I’d expect references like that to be scattered around at random locations. As the label says this is an implementation of Newton’s method, we can probably assume that this is a college program that includes an implementation of some mathematical function, an implementation of its first derivative, and the Newton’s method code that calls the first two repeatedly to find a solution for the first. I wouldn’t expect it to be so sophisticated as to be able to operate on any arbitrary function, or to work out the derivative function itself.

If I could find jumps or calls pointing to the instructions after those ret opcodes, I’d be happier. Maybe, if I ever have too much time on my hands, I’ll try to decompile the whole thing.

The next post in this series is here

The paper archives (part one)

Or, evidence worth keeping

Back before Christmas I mentioned that I had finally persuaded The Mother to let me start clearing out some of her accumulated junk. Well, there’s a long way to go yet on that of course, but I’m slowly making progress. Slowly working through piles of things that really should never have been kept, sifting through them just in case there is anything important in there, like family photos in the middle of a stack of 40-year-old bank statements to give one real example. And then, there was one thing I came across, that potentially does have genuine historical interest. Well, there were two (one for each of my parents), but this is one.

A poll tax bill

It’s a poll tax bill! Even though I was only small, I remember these arriving in the post and being a little excited that something controversial and newsworthy was now in our house.

A historical note for anyone reading: the poll tax was a controversial flat tax pushed by the right wing of the Tory Party as a way to fund local government. It replaced “the rates”, a system whose origins dated back to the final years of the Tudor period* based on nominal property values, with an almost-flat system. One single amount for every adult in the same town, unless you were seeking work, in which case there was a discount. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland, 1990 in England and Wales, it was seen as extremely unfair. In early 1990 poltiical demonstrations against in turned into fierce riots; by mid 1990 it was clear there were massive problems with collection and non-payment, and by the end of the year the Prime Minister had resigned over the issue.

This—as you can see from the date—is from the first year the poll tax was introduced in England. It ran for four years altogether, from 1989 to 1993, whilst the Major government hastily thought up a replacement for it. And I am definitely tempted to keep it, as a historical artefact. I’ve destroyed all the ancient bank statements, thrown away the gas bills, but I might keep this as a tiny little artefact of the history of the 1990s. Of course, the most quaint thing now about that period in history is that we had a Prime Minister resign honourably over a disasterous policy, rather than cling on to office with every muscle of their fingers.

There will be a few more things to come from the archives, in future weeks, once most of it has been consigned to the shredder. I do feel like I’ve turned a point, though, where some of the rooms of junk no longer look quite so overwhelmed with junk as they once were. I’m not entirely sure The Mother will appreciate it, though.

The next post in this series is here

* Specifically, the 1601 Poor Law introduced the Poor Rate to pay for social security at the parish level.

The Huntsman's Pillar

FInding a landmark

In search of more historical things to write about on here, I remembered something I had once randomly happened across when I was a teenager. A memorial, in the next village, to a man who had randomly died there. So yesterday I went out, bent over against the January wind, to search for it, find it, photograph it and write about it. Having only a vague memory from years ago, I was fully prepared to have to spend hours searching for the thing. In the event, though, I couldn’t miss it.

The Huntsman's Obelisk

This is the Huntsman’s Obelisk, a mid-19th-century granite memorial at the side of a quiet country lane. It commemorates the death of William Smith, a huntsman thrown from his horse in the 1840s.

In memory of the late William Smith

In memory of

the late

William Smith

of Brocklesby


If you’re a cynic like me, you’re probably also looking at that plaque and thinking that typeface looks rather too modern for an 1860s plaque. Indeed, I think it is modern, definitely postdating the monument being listed in 1986. Around the other side, there’s another plaque, explaining the story of why the monument is here.

The wordy bit

THIS MONUMENT was erected by his many friends, as a token of their regard, and to mark the spot where WILLIAM SMITH, huntsman to the Earl of Yarborough, fell on the 11th of April 1845.

His gallant horsemanship, and his management of hounds, in the kennel and in the field, were unsurpassed.

His horse, falling over a small leap, whilst Smith was cheering on his favourite hounds, he was thrown on his head, and from the injuries, he then received he died on the 16th of April 1845 at the house of his friend, Richd Nainby of this village esquire, by whom the site for this memorial was given on the 6th day of April 1861.

Whatever your views on this font here, the wording, not to mention abbreviations like “Richd“, seems authentically Victorian. The reason I’m so sure that the first plaque is a modern one is that the listing entry of the monument doesn’t, at the time of writing, mention it at all. It does, though, say that one of the two plaques “contains an impressive 22-line ode to Smith by CHJA”. There’s no sign of anything like that on the monument today, and there are only two plaques mentioned in the listing. The first one above, therefore, must be later than 1986.

It’s a shame a 22-line Victorian ode in memory of a dead huntsman can disappear to be replaced with modern typography, not that I have any particular affection for hunters. Quite the reverse, in fact; I just don’t like to see history eroded. Without interpretation, most people who pass by and look at the obelisk will no doubt not even notice one of its plaques has been replaced. I wonder, too, what the ode originally was, and quite how awfully sentimental it was.

The other thing that occurs to me—and I think has always occurred to me about this memorial—is the length of time between the death and the erection. Sixteen years, and a lot had happened in those sixteen years. The Earl of Yarborough died the year after Smith, quietly on his yacht rather than out hunting. He had been chairman of the Great Grimsby and Sheffield Junction Railway, which opened to traffic* in 1848 and began the process of changing Grimsby from a medieval village into a modern industrial-scale fishing port. Moreover, nationally, Britain was changing radically. I wonder, when the obelisk was erected by a small crowd of men, sadly remembering their friend from a few years before, how much they thought about the world around them changing; how much they no doubt hated it.

Opposite the obelisk is St Helen’s Church, a lovely little building in your stereotypical overgrown churchyard. Even when I was growing up St Helen’s no longer had its own priest; the Rector of Waltham would hold an early service in their own church each Sunday, dash over to Barnoldby to hold one there and then back to Waltham for the main Eucharist. I’ve never been in, but its churchyard certainly looks like it would be worth exploring.

Graves of William and Maria Marris, Barnoldby

The Marrises would have been in their 30s when Smith died. I wonder if they remembered the event, or if it had passed them by.

I turned away and walked up the snowdrop-fringed lane, and out into the open fields to be blasted by the wind again.

* No train nerd would forgive me if I didn’t footnote that, by the time the railway opened, the company had become part of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, its lines becoming part of the famous Manchester-Grimsby “Woodhead Route”

Sailing away

A visit to an iconic place

A trip away last weekend, to what is arguably one of the most iconic sites in British, or at least Anglo-Saxon, archaeology. It’s been famous since the 1930s, there have been TV series made about it, and it has shaped the way we see Anglo-Saxon Britain ever since. The site I’m talking about is: Sutton Hoo.

Sutton Hoo

Given that Sutton Hoo is only a few miles outside Ipswich, I met up with regular correspondant Sarah from Ipswich and her husband and dog. Sarah is almost as fascinated by archaeology as I am, which is probably a good thing because at first sight there isn’t much to see at Sutton Hoo itself. The “royal burial ground”, the field where all the famous archaeology was found, is a particularly lumpy and humpy fallow field, covered in long grass with a scattering of gorse and broom bushes, and with a stark, narrow viewing tower watching over it. The famous ship burial, Mound 1, is marked by steel rods where the prow and stern of the ship originally were.

Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

If you’re interested in history, there’s always an awful lot to be gained from visiting a site in person, not just reading about it. Archaeological literature, particularly the older sort, tends to focus very much on the confines of sites themselves without considering their wider perspective in the landscape. I hadn’t realised, for example, just how high up the burial site is above the river. When you think of a ship burial, you tend to assume it would be close to a riverbank. Sutton Hoo does overlook a river, but it’s quite a long way from it: about half a mile away and, more importantly, about a hundred feet up. In modern times a wood has grown up, but when it was built the burial mounds would have been a commanding sight from a ship on the river. One of the mounds has been reconstructed to roughly its original height, to give visitors some idea of how it might have looked within a decade or two of construction.

View of Woodbridge and the River Deben from Sutton Hoo

Mound 2 sits in the long grass

In the nearby National Trust museum, they are unequivocal that the king buried in the ship burial was Raedwald of East Anglia. This is something we will never know for certain, whatever techniques of analysis we manage to develop in the future. The chances are it was likely Raedwald, or his son Eorpwald, or with an outside chance his other son Sigebehrt. We’ll never really know, but we do know that, whoever it was, he was left-handed.

Watching from the viewing tower

The new viewing tower, built from galvanised steel, gives an excellent bird’s eye view of the site. I couldn’t resist spending a few minutes taking photos of the scene so I could stitch it together into a panorama-collage, to give you some idea of what the whole place looks like. The view a seagull would have got, maybe, the day that Raedwald-or-whoever was interred in his warship under a great mound of bare earth.

The cemetery

No person would have seen it that way at the time, of course; very few until this year, in fact. And now we can.

Do we get a better idea of Sutton Hoo by visiting these mounds, instead of going to London and seeing the artefacts in the British Museum? I think we do. This was an important place, one which has to some degree survived when many other similar important places have been lost to us forever. It might have changed significantly in the last 1,500 years, but nevertheless, you can’t understand the site, you can’t feel its relationship with the sea, with the river, with the surrounding landscape, unless you have actually been there and seen it. It might be a field of grassy lumps, but it is definitely worth the trip.

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.

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.


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.


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”.

Wales is not a principality

But what is it?

As it’s St David’s Day, and the shops are all full of daffodils and Welsh cakes, I thought it might be worthwhile writing something about the history of Wales, possibly even a chain of posts. And the obvious starting point for that is: well, what is Wales?

Back when I was at primary school, we had a few very traditionalist lessons about the history and geography of Britain, and one of the things stated as fact, without meaning or explanation, was that Wales is a principality. Lots of people think this, and lots of people take it for granted, and you still hear “the Principality” used to refer to the country now and again. As you might have noticed, Wales won a rugby match at the Principality Stadium the other day, but that’s named through a straightforward business deal rather than anything more ancient or romantic. But, is Wales a principality? No, not really, not in any meaningful sense. Has it ever been? No, not unless you take “Wales” to mean something rather different to what it does today. But what are the reasons for this misunderstanding? Simply put, this all comes out of the fact that the nature of the Welsh state when it existed does not fit comfortably with what you might call the English pattern of history, the pattern which takes the 19th-century nation state as the ultimate ideal form of political division and judges all historical change against it.

What is a principality, then? Essentially, a monarchy ruled by a prince. There is, of course, a Prince of Wales; but he doesn’t really have very much to do with Wales itself. His vast personal income isn’t from Wales, it’s from the tenants and the business of the enormous Cornwall estate, spread across a huge chunk of south-west England and not really a Cornish affair at all. Much as he sends interfering letters to government ministers behind the scenes, he doesn’t have any formal role to play in government, certainly not any role specific to Wales. The UK is a monarchy in that its monarch signs all its laws (and makes sure any she disapproves of don’t even reach Parliament to be debated), and appoints its government, but the Prince of Wales doesn’t have any say in the matter. Laws passed by the Senedd are signed off by the Queen in the same way that laws passed by the Westminster Parliament are signed off by the Queen. The Prince of Wales? Sits around, running his business empire, slowly curdling with frustration knowing that he has reached retirement age with the whole world seeing him as a sort of semi-comic understudy. Wales is clearly not a principality in any functional or meaningful sense.

Was Wales ever a principality, in reality? Well, parts of it were. Only, though, if you go back a rather long time. Even then, as I said, Wales does not fit very well into the English pattern of history, because it followed a very different history to England.

Everyone in England thinks of England as a unitary, unified, single state that has been around for a literal eternity. That has, indeed, been the truth for a very long time. England came together as a single unified state well over a thousand years ago, but it did so largely for one very specific reason: to define itself in order to save itself. England became a unified single country in response to “the Danelaw”, the control of most of the country by Danish and Norwegian settlers who almost wiped out the English kingdoms that resisted them. The surviving anti-Dane English aristocracy rallied and unified, producing a single kingdom of England with its centre of gravity forever fixed firmly in the South. France to some extent has a similar history: the power of the early Frankish kings around Paris rose significantly just as they had to defend themselves from Danish incursions up the Seine. In Ireland, the Norwegians ended up founding a new capital city, and in Scotland the Norwegians ruled a huge (if marginal) chunk of the modern country for about four hundred years or so. I’m aware, by the way, that I am simplifying swathes of historical argument here, thousands and thousands of pages of academic debate into one paragraph for a surface-skimming blog post. Real historians: please don’t write in. Wales simply didn’t face the same Scandinavian pressure as the rest of Western Europe. The Danes and Norwegians sailed round the coast, and gave names to many of the important coastal bits (step forward Swansea, Anglesey and Fishguard), but don’t seem to have settled in the concentrated, forceful, focused strength-in-numbers way that they did around the mouths of the Seine, the Liffey or the Humber.

There’s also the economic determinism argument about Welsh history. Put simply: it is that the geography of Wales is distinctly different to that of England in a way that, in the pre-modern period, made it hard to unify. There are still constant complaints in Welsh politics that North-South travel is too hard and that Cardiff is too distant from Holyhead to rule it effectively or to understand its needs. There is often a call that the fact there is no North-South rail link entirely within Wales is somehow a failure of Welsh politics or of English centralism, skipping over the fact that it is a fundamental problem with Welsh geography, and that the only entirely-within-Wales links from South to North were for their whole existence extremely marginal links.* Similarly, the A470 links Cardiff with Llandudno but it is in no sense a coherent and sensible route, just a mixture of cross-country links all coloured in with the same pencil on a map so that somebody could indeed claim that there is a single South-to-North road.** The point here is that, in an age when everyone depended on food grown pretty close-by for their regular staples, and when local kings depended on a personal warband of big burly followers as an army, it was just too difficult in a country like Wales to gather together sufficient force from your own core estates and project that force into a different part of the country, to do that in any sort of way that stuck. Each of the small medieval Welsh kingdoms has this core area which could act as the motor of a pastoral economy: Ynys Môn for Gwynedd, for example, or the upper Severn valley (as pictured here a few weeks back) for Powys. Each also has a belt of less hospitable land protecting it from the others. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the history of medieval Wales is a history in which for a short time one of these kingdoms was able to assert itself over some or all of the others, but such assertions barely lasted more than a single reign. Or so the theory goes, at any rate; we should always be suspicious of such straightforward determinism, if you ask me. Note, too, that these were kingdoms, with kings. Not principalities.

When all those Danes who had settled at the mouth of the Seine invaded England very successfully in the eleventh century, they stopped short of invading Wales. Or, rather, their kings stopped short of invading Wales in a controlled and centralised way. However, rich and important landholders were allowed to invade Wales on their own account; and as long as they still recognised the English king as their overlord, they were effectively sovereign in their Welsh estates. This means that later medieval Wales was much more like medieval Germany in its political structure than anywhere in England or Scotland: a patchwork of relatively small states, each independent, quite martial, at each other’s throats from time to time, but most generally recognising a kind of “imperial” overlordship. It’s in this period that the Welsh leaders’ titles start to slip downwards, from king to prince. Over the course of this “marcher” period—and again I am enormously oversimplifying here—the tendency was for both types of state, both Welsh-ruled and English-ruled, to both coalesce and grow more accepting of the King of England’s overlordship. By the thirteenth century the family of the kings of Gwynedd had reached the point of taking over all of the other Welsh-ruled microstates—about two-thirds of the land area but only half the population, because the invading English lords had naturally headed for the economically best bits—and at this point they started to use the title “Prince of Wales”. Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was promptly rubbed out very thoroughly by the English, with most of his family aside from one brother who Anglicised his name,*** moved East, and settled down as a quiet provincial landowner on the border of Kent and Surrey. His territory became something in-between, not part of England, but not as independent of England as the Marcher lords, with strict rules to prevent the Welsh from holding any sort of political power unless they could very definitely be trusted.

So that was the Principality of Wales: most of the Welsh-speaking people didn’t live there, and it wasn’t really ever ruled by a Welsh prince. It lasted until Tudor times, when Henry VIII shut down the last of the Marcher lordships and integrated all of Wales into his kingdom, with the aim of removing almost all Welsh political distinctiveness. It then disappeared, except in name. Wales is not a principality, and huge chunks of the modern country were never part of the principality that arguably did exist.

Will Wales ever be a principality? Well, never say never. The UK today is clearly on a path towards fragmentation; there is a tremendous energy in the UK’s extremities towards fission of the country into multiple separate parts. You don’t have to travel far in Wales right now before you see a pro-independence banner, sticker or graffito.

Independence sticker in Newport

Although the breakup of the UK is probably now inevitable, the exact form that it will take is still impossible to predict. It’s a fair bet, though, that when Wales does become independent, it will be the first time in history that a single unified and unitary state of Wales has existed; and secondly, that it will not be a monarchy of any form. Republican sentiment is already much higher in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, and this is likely to increase as support for Welsh independence increases. Wales is not a principality, and Wales is not going to be. Cymru am byth!

* Firstly, the Manchester and Milford Railway. As its name suggests it was originally meant to be a lucrative main line linking the ever-churning Satanic mills of Manchester with the Atlantic harbours of West Wales. It ended up as a sleepy rural byway linking Carmarthen with Aberystwyth. Secondly, there was also the Mid-Wales Railway which linked Brecon to Newtown via Rhyader; from Brecon you could get to either Swansea via Neath, or to Newport or Cardiff via the vertiginous Brecon and Merthyr Railway. With either of these routes, to truly get North you had to either reverse once or twice and head up the coast to Caernarfon and Bangor, or give up on the whole avoiding-England lark and go the other way via Oswestry.

** It must be a South-to-North road because of its number. If it was a North-to-South road its number would start with a 5, because Llandudno is north of the A5 and west of the A6.

*** From Rhodri ap Gruffudd to Roderick Fitzgriffin.