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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : In With The Old : Page 1

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

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.

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.

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.

Onwards and upwards

Or, a trip up a mountain

As I said last week, things are slowly opening up here once more. Last week we could travel locally; from today, in Wales we can travel for leisure anywhere in the country so long as we don’t enter or leave it. I was somewhat tempted to spend the whole day driving to Porthmadog and then back again, just because I could, even though it would be an entirely pointless and childish thing to do.

It dawned bright and sunny, and The Child Who Likes Fairies immediately said: “can we go to the beach?” Naturally, I expected the beach would be packed, as would all of the standard inland tourist honeypots: Cwmcarn Forest, the Sugar Loaf, Pen y Fan, the Blorenge. “The Welsh Government are asking people to avoid flooding beauty spots,” said the news on the radio. I looked at a map, and picked a mountain overlooking Cwmbrân instead.

Mynydd Twyn-Glas is the mountain between Cwmbrân in the Eastern Valley and Crumlin in the Western Valley. It’s really just a slight rise in a broad-shouldered plateau, named Mynydd Maen on its south and Mynydd Llwyd on its north; and the whole, being common land, is also known as Mynydd Maen Common. The southern flank drops off sharply into steep-sided ravines thickly and densely covered with plantation conifers, the southernmost being the aforementioned Cwmcarn Forest. Being traditionally common land it’s now open access land. Despite this, I was surprised just how quiet it was: birds, bees, a handful of off-road bikers and another handful of dog walkers. We wandered across the open moorland, just above the edge of the forest, occasionally shouting into the trees and hearing the echo back from the other side of the ravine.

The ravines dropping away from Mynydd Twyn-Glas

A line of pylons strides across the moor, linking the upper valleys with the power stations of Newport. The wind whistled through them with an eerie note, singing the minor-key chord of a distant angelic choir.

Pylons

We saw a distant, intriguing stone slab, looking for all the world like a gravestone in the middle of the moor. Naturally, we headed straight for it.

Not a gravestone

B H
Boundary of Minerals
Settled by Act of Parliament
1839

Apparently there a few of these stones scattered at intervals through the area: the Act in question is 2 & 3 Vict. c. 38, “Sir Benjamin Hall’s, Capel Leigh’s and others’ estates: exchange of mines and land”. Sir Benjamin Hall MP is the “B H” of the stone: MP for Marylebone for over 20 years, he played a significant role in improving British public infrastructure, and is also possibly the man who Big Ben was named after. However, despite his important role in the history of London, his background was always in South Wales, his maternal grandfather (and source of his wealth) being the Merthyr ironmaster Richard Crawshay. The other side of the stone, incidentally, has “C H L” for Capel H Leigh.

Closer to the summit of the mountain, we found another stone. This, however, is much simpler.

LUP

On top is a simple cross, and on the other side, other letters.

PP

This is a boundary between parishes, rather than mineral owners, hence I suspect rather less money was spent on it. Llanfrechfa Upper Parish, on the one side; Pontypool Parish, on the other.

Finally, we reached the summit. Being a plateau, there wasn’t a dramatic view, just gently shelving moorland. In the distance, the Severn shined silver, down by the wetlands and the mouth of the Usk. England faded away into mist. The big difference—the sign we had reached the summit—was the strength of the unobstructed wind blowing across the mountain.

The Children

“I’m freezing!” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

“Maybe next time we go up a mountain,” I said, “you’ll wear more layers of clothes like I said you should.”

“I’m never going up a mountain ever again,” she replied. “Ever.”

“What if next time we want to go in the mountains,” I offered, “we find a train that goes near some mountains and look at them out of the window?”

“As long as it takes us back down the mountain again once we’re at the top,” she said. And that, I think, is probably a fair bargain.

Legitimacy

Or, who made you king?

There’s been in the lot in the news over the past few days about the British royal family: whether or not they are consciously, deliberately racist or whether they are just racist in passing like some ancient uncle who comes to visit at Christmas. Why this is the case probably isn’t worth going into here; I don’t see the point of me just reciting the latest news headlines. What it’s got me thinking is: why do we have a monarchy at all any more? Why are people still happy to regurgitate the old lies about what they do for us?

You don’t have to go far in discussions about the monarchy before you hear claims like “they bring a lot of money in for us, like tourists.” That doesn’t sound very likely to me. Empirically, it can’t be the case that tourists choose to come specifically to the UK because we have a monarch. If it was, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin would be struggling to attract tourists, who would all flood to London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen instead. There’s no real evidence that tourists come because we have a monarch at all; and as the campaign group Republic has worked out even if some do it has a negligible effect on British tourism as a whole. So why, then, do they exist? Moreover, why is it taken essentially for granted that the right of who should be king or queen is set in stone, frozen and immutable?

This idea, the idea that at any one time there is one person who has the right to be king or queen, and that they will be followed by their closest blood relative as surely as night follows day, is an old idea but it’s not that old. Royal legitimacy is, by any practical measure, an utterly terrible idea. If the monarch has to be the closest blood relative of the previous one, then to have good, successful monarchs, you need to have an excellent run of luck. How many times can you look at a group of brothers and sisters and be sure that, automatically, the oldest one is the best leader or the best manager? Eventually, purely by the mechanical operation of statistics, you’re going to see the job going to somebody who is always going to be a bit of a failure in that sort of role; and that’s without thinking of the sort of health problems that frequently tend to crop up in royal lineages stuffed densely with cousin-to-cousin marriages.

“They don’t really have any power,” though, the monarchist will tell you. “They’re just figureheads.” So, if that is the case, why keep them? Why not replace them with a nicely-carved statue as a figurehead instead? It’s fair to say that in modern British law the Queen has very little freedom to act, in the sense of being able to make meaningful decisions. Sovereignty is in Parliament, and the Queen must always follow whatever convention is appropriate in any given situation: appointing the person who can guarantee the Commons will vote for them as her Prime Minister and suchlike. This doesn’t make her powerless, though; it means her power is all in the soft sphere. The power that comes from having that weekly confessional chat with the person actually in charge of things, for example. The relationship benefits both the monarch and the Prime Minister. Any sort of uncodified situation always tends to reinforce the side with the greatest power to begin with: the biggest winners in the British unwritten constitution are the monarch and the government, and the losers are the opposition and the greater mass of the populace.

Legitimacy wasn’t always the way these things were done. It would probably surprise a lot of people to learn that the rules on succession changed relatively recently. In part, we have forgotten that royal succession isn’t set in stone because very few British people have encountered it or can remember the Queen’s accession. A thousand years ago—when England was only a few hundred years old—the English monarchy was a semi-elective institution. After we experimented with a dictatorial republic for a few years in the seventeenth century, Parliament made clear that the monarch ruled only at Parliament’s pleasure. Within thirty years of the Restoration, politicians had invited a Dutchman to invade and take over as king; a few decades further on, Parliament skipped over a number of potential legitimate members of the royal family to appoint a German head of state as king here. Over time the monarch’s control over government, slippery enough in any case after 1688, faded away further and further. By the 19th century it was all but gone.

An aside at this point: legitimist ideas rarely take into account the fact that different countries have someone different ideas on legitimacy. When William IV, King of Great Britain and Hannover died, his niece Victoria became Queen in Britain but his younger brother and Tory poltician the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale became King of Hannover, because Hanoverian law did not permit queens regnant. His son, King George V, had his kingdom flattened and squished away in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. If Victoria had still been ruler of a German state during the slow German unification process that concluded in 1871, later history would in some ways have been very different.

So why do we still have a monarchy, and why do we still sometimes behave as if it is implicit and inevitable that we always have one? Partly, I think, because it is what we are all used to; but largely because it brings huge benefits to all who are involved with it, to everyone touched by it.

One thing is certain, though. Within the next few years, within this decade, there will be big changes. The current reign is going to come to an end; that’s just the way things are. When it does, what will happen? Nothing, no doubt, initially. King Charles will be proclaimed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he chooses a different name to rule by. It was at one time a standard royal tradition—the Queen’s father wasn’t actually called George—but it’s one that will be shocking and alien to most people if it were to be reintroduced. The shock of the change will, I suspect, startle people into finally considering that the monarchy don’t actually have to be a fixture in our world. It will be an interesting process to watch.

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.