Day 96: Swansea to Aberdare

‘We haven’t heard the full story’
– Conversation in the Dic Penderyn, Merthyr Tydfil.

I awake with slow and heavy movements in Uplands, Swansea, a residential suburb of the city largely populated with students at the nearby university. It’s the morning after the night before, and though my head’s not aching – I wisely bowed out of the drinking around 2am – I’m feeling a bit worn out.

Remarkably, Sarah and her housemates are all up before I am. Their relative youthfulness means they can manage a few hours’ kip and be up and spritely again! My age expresses itself as a headache, one slowly assuaged with coffee and Weetabix. We talk about drugs and their legalisation. I always feel slightly surprised when I hear people discussing drugs openly, call me sheltered, but across my trip, and I guess indeed before, it’s something that I notice younger people are more comfortable, and more sensible, talking about. Most are in favour of decriminalisation, of treating drug addiction as a social and health issue, something I agree with.

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It’s suggested that narcotics should become entirely legalised and publicly available. I raise the prospect of the dangers of young teenagers freely buying addictive drugs like crystal meth or heroin from irresponsible shopkeepers, but the conversation steers around to the attraction of the taboo of drug-taking. Sarah draws on her studies in Psychology, and points that young people enjoy taking risks and breaking ‘the rules’ in order to better develop and understand themselves. ‘Ooh, I’m smoking a spliff!’ becomes one way of doing that. Decriminalisation might reduce some of that whilst demystifying drugs – though as Paul in Whitley Bay pointed out, sometimes giving out all information can lead to people discovering things they never knew existed.

Most of the students here work part-time whilst studying in order to sustain their studies. When we wonder about the dearth of an experimental and creative counterculture among young people like that of late 20th century, it’s worth noting that the student grant and a relatively higher dole were more effective than any arts council funding in producing the ideas of tomorrow.

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Amazon has a huge warehouse just outside Swansea which serves as the UK’s main distribution centre. It’s also the only big employer here that requires a drug test, something one in this number has consistently deferred taking until he’s clean. Staff are excessively monitored, and the pay is a little over minimum wage. I’m told about one friend who’s taken to selling their grandparent’s morphine, freely given by the elderly relative who insists on not using painkillers, in order to pay their rent. They’ve fallen two months behind, and not having any family support and a too-small maintenance loan, have taken to this scheme.

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Others work in the same call centre, ringing up people from across the country and asking them to take part in various local government or police surveys. One girl I met last night will be travelling around Lambeth and Lewisham to carry out door-to-door surveys on attitudes to the Metropolitan Police. It’s so strange that one could meet like this in Swansea, someone who may well be knocking on the doors of my mum, or dad, or mates, or even my own place. I give her a warning of what to expect, not so much the locations – south London’s grubbiness hides a fascinating set of cultures, stories and communities – but the Met’s growing unpopularity and abysmal reputation for corruption, institutional racism and covered-up killings.

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I’m told to visit the Mumbles before I leave, a small seaside village to the west of Swansea, so off there I head. It’s a wonderfully sunny morning, and I whiz down to the coastline, where I follow a cycle path for around half an hour along Swansea’s surprisingly pretty and large golden beaches to Mumbles. The path and nearby parks are full of Swansea residents at play, families cycling together, student rollerbladers, people of all ages sitting in cafes licking ice creams. Mumbles is a small Victorian village but filled with visitors. I follow a local tip and have a delicious caramel honeycomb and coconut ice cream from Joe’s parlour, then head down to Mumbles pier, taking in a new lifeboat, a crumbling pier view, and milling around with these happy crowds at rest and play.

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Mumbles is in the opposite direction of my destination in the heart of the Valleys, so I cycle back the way I came, around 8 miles I suppose, keeping the residential layers of Swansea, a large town, in my vision until I come close to its 70s hexagonal civic centre, random white office high-rise, and a few very large shops in its centre, Tesco, Debenhams. It’s fortunate there’s a cycle path as the road is far too busy and fast to even contemplate cycling on. I see what I can of Swansea, a place that seems to have really benefited from some recent investment after becoming run down in the past. It’s certainly not as bad as I’ve been told – nowhere ever is. Indeed these locals have got something good on their hands. That beach…

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Forgive the predictable retail excesses and bland housing and it’s ok. That ‘ugly, lovely town’ that Dylan Thomas once called his world, ‘crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore’. It’s surprised me, and I hope to return.

I cycle out along a very busy road, sticking to a cycle route until that quite typically disappears. I rejoin the road, passing Amazon’s huge warehouse and its own street, my phone’s internet access temporarily blocked by all the employee anti-procrastination measures they have here. A huge Royal Mail lorry leaves the place packed with the gadgets and gifts purchased during a million midnight pished online shopping sprees. I rejoin the track, heading towards a place called Briton Ferry, but mainly seeing only busy dusty dual carriageways. This doesn’t change much. I get under the M4 where I read a pedestrian tunnel’s depressed and bored graffiti – ‘smoke your life away’, ‘I’m sick of this shit’, ineloquent in expression but artistic in design, paeans to no-one about nobody. I peer up at the concrete stilts of a motorway flyover, and wonder what species of life after humans have become extinct will make of such structures, what they might reckon of their purpose. A runway for flight? An abstract religious symbol?

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I get off this busy road and its narrow path by the old industrial village of Skewen and decide to make my own way, following small roads up through Neath, a seriously bland and unengaging little town that sprawls out like a fart into its surroundings, before taking a small road up into the hills. We’re in south Wales, heavily industrialised, unrecognisable to someone like Gerald of Wales who wandered through here on his travels during the twelfth century. He travelled between Margam Abbey and Neath, an area then full of quicksand and treacherous rivers, now occupied by the derelict Margam steelworks and Sandfields housing estate. ‘Terror gave us wings’, he noted in retrospect, quoting Virgil. There’s little terror here now, unless you’ve a phobia of monotony.

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The relative flatness around Swansea has been left behind and I’m now seeing and feeling a new kind of scenery, one of soaring ranges of hills with very deep glacial valleys. Here’s ‘the Valleys’, one of the most distinct and historically rich parts of these islands. Like much of Wales, the valleys were pretty much rural and sparsely populated in character up until the second half of the 18th century, when English capitalists began to develop and establish an iron industry across the valleys after iron ore was discovered. Later, coal was discovered, and the South Wales coalfield became a huge source of employment and communal life across the valleys. Thousands came from miles around to this part of the world, attracted by employment. The topography of the Valleys shapes everything about the culture that only really developed here from the early 19th century, from the relative seclusion of the Valleys beneath the Beacons to the massive industrialisation of the area later. Owen Hatherley makes this point well. In A Guide to the New Bleak he writes, whilst travelling through the area

‘the foreigness of Wales to the English eye is only really apparent when you get out of the cities and into the valleys, and even more so when you’re in the mountains … the valleys’ shapes dictating an entire pattern of settlement’.

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One hears it in the accent too, now rapidly changing. English capitalists insisted that Welsh wasn’t spoken at work, driving the language into decline in the area (though, of course, many migrants to the area probably came from England too). But there’s a distinctive intonation that sings high and low like the valleys and peaks of the area.

My road is steep, bringing me up through the villages of Tonna and later Resolven, small residential strips aboard steep hillsides above a busy road towards Merthyr that drives through the Valleys towards the Brecon Beacons. There’s evidence of the mining past of the area in Resolven’s large and derelict miners’ welfare club, a cream-painted and large building, perhaps once impressive but now with windows boarded with spare timber. I pass a series of Chinese-and-English takeaways and small shops, some which seem long out of business, and cross over the very busy main road to Merthyr Tydfil, my destination, and take another small road running parallel.

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This one’s another steep hike. In the afternoon heat I’m dripping with sweat, and I’ve not eaten much at all. I pedal very slowly up the steep incline, where distraction’s temporarily found in the delicious blackberries growing freely all along the route. Eventually I reach Glynneath, a small town surrounded by light industry and, the Tower open-cast mine, which still seems open in some kind of half-life existence. The last Welsh deep pit mine, Tower colliery, closed in nearby Hirwaun back in 2008. It became a worker’s cooperative after the Coal board closed it down, but alas a declining need for coal saw its end. Glynneath feels like it’s gone back to sleep. The Neath canal is pretty and quaint, not the high-tech industrial highway it was once built as and used. The Brecon Beacons loom in the distance. A small degree of tourism is present, though not much. Nearby, Wales’ only whisky distillery, Penderyn, ferments its tipple, after only recently opening in 2008.

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It’s all a reminder of the rich industrial history of south Wales, which developed from iron to coal, and from coal to…

Dole? Light industry? Something in between perhaps, though dole’ the mood. Swansea developed as a port to export iron and coal across the world. What is now a luxury housing development and Wetlands centre near Llannelli was once the large foundry and town of Bwlch y Gwynt that I passed through yesterday. Workers came from Ireland, England and other parts of Wales, in turn transforming the social composition of the area just as its environmental composition changed, from sleepy farmland as in the west to sooty, smoky foundries and mines. The miners’ welfare services are closed, and the miners’ institutes either disappeared or shipped away for heritage preservation. What remains are the small, pinched terraced council houses and the abortive stutters of the service industry. I get some tortilla wraps from Tesco, match them up with some old salad leaves, and call that a lunch, before heading further along.

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I’m starting to suffer in the heat, particularly with the steep ascents. I reach Hirwaun, another small town with a kind of particularly cramped and mean style of terraced pebbledash building, casting a series of self-fulfilling prophecies about the ‘low’ station of their residents. I cycle past pubs with shouty drunk men, friendly but off-putting, like the crap takeaways, occasional off-licence and social clubs that adorn this otherwise featureless place. My road ends, and I rejoin the busy major road to Merthyr, pedalling up a small hill which in my fatigue feels like a mountain. I stop for a breather in a lay-by. A sign asking people to pick up their litter is typically surrounded by McDonalds wrappers, plastic boxes and other detritus strewn about, whilst the back of a road-sign appeals to scrap thieves that no bargain is here. I push on, but get too sweaty to carry on. A change of clothes later, and I finally reach the crown of the hill, and soar down into the valley that holds Merthyr, a surprisingly small town.

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I drop past a retail park, predictable enough, then enter a small and run-down town. I’m first drawn to a series of old cottages where the house of composer Joseph Parry has been turned into a museum. He was born here in 1841, and worked as a pit boy from the age of nine, then moved onto the Cyfartha ironworks at the age of 12. His family emigrated to America, living in a Welsh community in Pennsylvania, but he was sent back with financial support to study music in England. He composed the love song ‘Myfannwy’ and the hymn ‘Aberystwyth’, whose tune was nicked and reused as the national anthem for South Africa. I’m not sure why the town cherishes him so, at the expense of any memorial whatsoever to its industrial history, or its organised and revolutionary people.

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Merthyr was once the largest town in Wales until the ports of Cardiff and Swansea outgrew it; now it is apparently the most difficult place to find work in the UK. Whilst travelling through here, Owen Hatherley found a derelict Miners Hall now roofless and windowless, built in 1921. I don’t pass it, but there’s enough residual dereliction and trauma in the atmosphere to suggest its possibility. Nearby towns like Cwm and Ebbw Vale are blighted with mass unemployment and decline. When the mines closed, no Plan B was ever prepared for a meaningful alternative employment, a problem I’ve encountered in the north-east, north-west… well, everywhere. ‘Regeneration’ schemes have preferred to demolish and hide away the problems of worklessness and poverty rather than address them. If you’re skint in London, you’re simply priced out into the far suburbs and then a faraway town, safely away from any remaining media scrutiny or outreach support. Rates of depression and suicide are particularly high in these areas.

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And yet Merthyr was the town where the Red Flag was first raised during 1831, the symbol of workers’ power and Communism. The Valleys were politically radicalised. One of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s founding organisations was the South Wales Socialist Society, mostly made up of Syndicalist-minded miners. Until the 1930s, the town of Maerdy elected a Communist mayor, Annie Powell. The Labour Party’s first MP, our man Keir Hardie in Glasgow, was first elected in the ‘safe’ Valleys.

Back then, in the hot May of 1831, miners began a series of demonstrations against lowered pay which soon caught alight, joined by protests about unemployment and high bread prices in the area. The miners were self-organised. They flew the red flag and stormed the town, destroying the local debtors’ court and redistributing the repossessed goods. On the 1st of June they marched through the mines and persuaded local miners to join them. The army were brought in to restore order, but the protesters of Merthyr managed to overpower them and seize the town. They seized weapons and explosives, organised road-blocks, organised small military units. Their banners were red, dyed with the blood of their numbers shot by the soldiers, and their symbol was a simple loaf of bread.

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They attempted to spread the revolt to other regions, in vain, and were eventually misled and divided. Their last council ended in divisions and was overrun by soldiers. Some were transported to Australia, others imprisoned, and one miner hung for stabbing a soldier in the leg, a crime it turned out later he hadn’t committed, as he’d insisted at the time. It ought to be counted alongside the more famous Paris Commune of 1871, and yet this occurred forty years earlier, in a politically-organised but also religious corner of the Valleys, in Wales, the first industrialised country of the world. So was the Merthyr rising. There’s so little about it I can find out, historically. New research is needed.

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Unemployment, low pay, decreasing wages, rising food prices, local corruption… what made this moment in Merthyr different to others since, like today? Let’s explore…

Somewhere nearby are the remains of the Cyfartha Ironworks, blast furnaces that existed from 1765 to 1919. They were once the largest ironworks in the world, producing 23,000 tons of iron at its peak. I don’t find them, but hear of them in the town later. I cycle over the river Taff and enter Merthyr’s small town. Most of the shops are closed permanently, and there’s signs of obvious decline mixed with attempts at regeneration – a good quality road-surfacing/pedestrianised effect in the small centre. There’s a dated-looking bus station where a man holding a beer can rouses from some chair and looks at me in confusion. Am I lost, or is he? I find the small building that houses the tourist information centre, one notice insisting that ‘we’re still open’, another displaying a prominent security logo. A couple pass but are reticent in sharing much about the place.

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‘The mines are gone, jobs, it’s quiet here. Have a good time…’ The man, in his late fifties, states it with more melancholy than the most amateur ham sham Shakespeare sop you could possibly imagine. His partner looks at me with a look of slight disapproval, as if I shouldn’t’ve asked.

Outside the Wyndham arms a man drunkenly argues with what appears to be his girlfriend, who storms off, wearied by his confused entreaties to stay. There’s a great noise inside, a tribute band to some kind of chug-rocking Britpop amalgamation. I cycle around, taking in the impressive town hall and Carnegie library next door, with a plaque commemorating Dyc Penderyn, that young miner killed for a crime he hadn’t committed, and the Merthyr rising. There’s a small square here created recently with benches, and the effect’s not bad. I head into the Wetherspoons to find out more.

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The boozer’s named after Dic Penderyn. Inside there’s a crowd of pot-bellied fellers in cheque shirts and comfortable blue jeans, speculating about a recently kidnapped child which has distracted recent news coverage. I sup on a black IPA and a chaser of Penderyn whisky, harsh but with a sugary, toffee taste that I find too sweet. There’s not much going off here, and I sneak out, frustrated by my inability to dig any deeper here. History and street chat or pub banter will only give so much: this is true particularly of small towns. One needs to be around a while, be introduced by trusted people, to start cutting through the fraff and explore what lived conditions are here. One could list the stats of anti-depressant prescriptions, mine closures or dole claimant numbers, or start talking about the architecture, but it’d never bring one closer. So I’m back on the move, out of time-stunted, peopleless Merthyr, where even the ghosts would feel disorientated.

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I’ve not got far to go in theory: my destination’s near Aberdare, ‘just the other valley’, my friend Bethan says, making it sound as if it’s little more than a five minute push-whoosh down a choice country road. Turns out there’s a monster of a hill between us. Chips are called for, the cheaper, deep-fried and most unlike a potato the better. A kebab shop supplies them, one of the few things still obviously open here. A sign proudly notes that this was voted WKD’s best kebab shop for 2010. The owner calls me ‘brother’, which is nice, and the chips aren’t bad. I’ve not seen that much of Merthyr, but enough to see that the town is a shrunken husk of itself, but that good money has achieved a little in redefining and establishing itself. The problem remains of what to do with urban areas after major employers leave. It’s something that no part of the UK seems to have adequately solved.

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Google suggests a quiet little route that passes directly over the great hill and over to Aberdare in the next valley where Bethan lives. It’s a couple of miles shorter, there’ll be little traffic, it may be a little steep, but what could go wrong…?

The cycle up through the suburb village of Heolgerigg is indeed very steep. There are no concessions to bicycles, horses or any other kind of transportation other than a landrover, the road rising up like a ramp into the skies. It’s at times agonising pulling oneself up this steep thing! My heart is thumping at a nauseous pace, and I need frequent pauses. Eventually I’m there, with a phone mast in sight. Just got to get down… easy eh?

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But this is an unclassified road, and immediately after the peak the road disappears, and is replaced with something little more than a footpath made up of broken rocks, sharp craggy things larger than one’s head. It’s like the trail up Ben Nevis, except now I’m cycling down, though the path’s too dangerous and steep for my bike to handle. I’m bouncing hither and thither, frequently tumbling into the steep grassy verge. Frustrated, cursing my luck and Google maps, I walk down for some time, pieces of my kit falling off in the juddering.

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Eventually I find something approaching a track and slowly head down towards Abernant and then Aberdare, a small town a little like Hirwaun and Glynneath, built around sources of employment no longer there, a similar kind of cramped terraced housing, but with a more positive mood and feeling about it. I observe people as I pass, out walking the dog in the late evening, talking with their neighbours among the small terraces. Lowry wouldn’t have it in him to capture the music or the communal feeling in these scenes: few painters or poets would. The cities and small towns of these islands require a new kind of expression that captures the nuances of lives here, their quiet tragedies and noisy titillations, the gentle banter and the occasionally intense, noisy transgression – an argument in the street, a property dispute or amorous liaison with a neighbour, a petty robbery, a wet-eared young lad quoting Garcia Lorca getting chased up by the ‘rough kids’ on his way home from school – whatever.

Everything about ideas of national identity is always tied up with the countryside, those bloody village greens, games of cricket, jugs of lemonade and croquet which form a masquerade that diverts us from appreciating and admiring the demotic, vernacular and downright everyday ways of urban living that actually make up our lives. Paint and write these, someone! It needs someone with the conversational kaleidoscope of Dylan Thomas, open-heartedness of Keats, wryness of John Betjeman, sharpness of Wendy Cope, visions of William Blake and prose of… you choose, enough of me proselytising. Rushing down these intense hills can lend one to all kinds of thoughts.

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I reach Bethan’s and am warmly welcomed in. I’m bloody late mind, and her dad knows jut the hill I mean. Even his motorbike couldn’t make it over. He tells me about the mining history of the area, and has much to share. He’s a local teacher, and has written histories of his school, and now is exploring his own family history, a social history lesson in the composition of workers here. His father was a miner, and he’s traced family to tailors from Gloucester, and workers from Western Wales, drawn to the Valleys for new forms of work.

Bethan has some delicious vegetarian shepherd’s pie ready for me, and we eat and talk. She tells me about the socialist history of the area, of the working men’s ‘holls’ built by miners from small contributions that became places of learning and leisure. Many areas like this would have one, with a library and reading room, as well as places for games and other activities. Some have been converted to bars now, others have disappeared, but the area retains a strong socialist Labour mentality, returning left-leaning Welsh Labour candidates that Bethan distinguishes from the ‘right-wing Labour’ politicians of England. There was a miner’s institute nearby too, and I’m intrigued by this structures and institutions. They had an immense and transformative experience. Aneurin Bevan attributed his political education to the library and institute in nearby Tredegar, the man who later fought and won the establishment of a national health service.

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I wonder what made them possible then, and seemingly not now. The communities I’ve passed are friendly but self-contained with themselves, true, but there’s nothing with the political and cultural confidence and self-belief as these organisations. Methodism played an important part, bringing together communities of workers into a shared set of beliefs with an underlying social message of fairness and justice for the poor. Mining forced children and men to be reliant on each other to a degree for their safety. There were few social opportunities to leave or ‘advance’ into another career: men were miners, women were mothers. Communities became established over generations of families and friends living in the same location and doing the same kinds of work, really perhaps up until the 1960s and the new social mobility of grant-funded higher education and a boom in manufacturing jobs from the 1940s-50s on.

Those kinds of jobs have just not been available to the children of those generations, born in the late 70s and 80s. But at the same time, even if light industry, call centres, warehouses, or supermarkets now employ people (though unemployment’s still a huge problem, as is drug misuse and teenage pregnancy in the Valleys, Bethan tells me) in low-paid, precarious work, there’s still something theoretically possible in establishing institutions from contributions to a new kind of workers’ social organisation. Perhaps this is what the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, are envisioning with their community membership?

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I ask Bethan about it, as we talk about her work for the Welsh government, and recent PCS-organised strikes in which few of her colleagues were motivated enough to understand, let alone participate in. Trade union walkouts feel increasingly routine and ineffective to those I talk to, and I struggle to really feel any optimism about the future of trade unions. They’ve been let down to many times by their leadership, perhaps, but the legal restrictions now wrapped around them render their activities docile and frustrated.

Bethan thinks that the public defeat of the unions during the eighties splintered them, alongside the many legal restrictions placed around their activities. I agree, and note that the unions just haven’t won any kind of obvious victory since the early 80s, unlike the massive strikes which brought down governments in decades before. It’s difficult to see how the decline of unions can be reversed in an era like this, but of course such a thing is possible, against the tide. Unions were fought for and established during the early 19th century, from illegal and persecuted meetings of workers into massive organisations that spawned the labour party and a radical yet everyday, vernacular, democratic politics.

It’s hard to imagine what the Valleys might look like in a hundred years, I find, more so than anywhere else I’ve visited. So purposively built up for industries that have disappeared, being simply dormitory suburbs for Swansea and Cardiff workers doesn’t seem enough. A problem remains of a largely unemployed population that need forms of social support, like work, or education, or pleasant amenities. This was a problem in the north-east too, and indeed, I suppose, in smaller pockets everywhere. Just what is to be done about the parts of England, Wales and Scotland left behind? Don’t look to London for an answer…

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