Walking in Glamorgan, South Wales. Guided walks, routes &
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Ancient Aberdare. Contrary to the impression given by popular history books, life for the Valleys did not begin with the Industrial Revolution and there is evidence of ancient history over much of this area. From the Mesolithic Age flints have been found at Nant Pennar and an Adze Head from the Neolithic period was discovered at Craig y Gilfach along with leaf arrowheads at Mynydd Aberdare. There are several Bronze Age burial cairns. A stone circle at Cefnpennar consists of 5 upright blocks of sandstone. At Gwersyll is a rampart and ditch from the early Iron Age and a Roman marching camp was located at Twyn y Briddalt.
It took 5 men to minister to the needs of a prize racing whippet.
Aberdare town. Very much a product of the Industrial Revolution, Aberdare's population increased from 1,486 in 1801 to 43,557 in 1901. Initially the impetus came from the Ironworks with ironmasters such as Anthony Bacon and Crawshay Bailey. The iron was at first transported by mules and pack-horses to Cardiff. In 1804 a tramroad was constructed which ran 8 miles to the Neath Canal and then in 1811 the Aberdare Canal was built which extended from the Glamorganshire Canal, running from Abercynon to the Aberdare valley.
Left, Aberdare Church c.1828, pencil drawing by Emma or Lucy Bacon. Right, Aberdare cemetery.
A rail link was completed in 1846 also from Aberdare to Abercycnon linking to the Cardiff-Merthyr line. Ironworks were located at Hirwaun, Abernant, Llwydcoed and Gadlys but the demand for iron from Aberdare declined and by 1875 there was not a single blast furnace left. Fortunately this period saw the rise of the coal industry with the first pit at Abernant-y-groes in 1837. In 1841 the Aberdare valley produced 12,000 tons of coal which increased by 1870 to 2,000,000 tons. The immigration caused by the demand for labour diluted the numbers of the population speaking Welsh. Conditions in the mines also exacted a social cost with 53 colliers dying in a blast in 1848 at the Llety Shenkin pit and 68 at Middle Dyffryn in 1852. In 1839 there were 49 pubs in Aberdare, one for every 100 inhabitants and with opening hours 6am to 10pm drunkenness and brawling were common. However the second half of the 19th Century saw a blossoming of literary and musical achievement. (From 'Aberdare and the Industrial Revolution' by R. Ivor Parry in Glamorgan Historian, vol.4)
An unnamed valleys boxer - remind you of a recent champion?
Dare Valley Country Park. The Dare Valley Country Park is a good example of the transformation of what was previously a derelict colliery area. It is open all year round and car parking is free. The park is 200 hectares and there are several trails of which the longest is our short walk. There is a cafeteria, information centre, toilets and accommodation - you can even get married there! The information centre has excellent exhibits showing the historical background to the area. For more on the Park ring 01685 874672. Close by is the Greenmeadow Riding Centre offering riding, trekking, lessons and farmhouse accommodation (01685 874961).
Dare Valley Country Park: Nature. Birds you could see include the Ring Ousel (symbol of the Country Park), Buzzard, Peregrine, Raven, Whinchat, Skylark, Mistle Thrush, Lesser Redpoll, Redstart, Grey and Pied Wagtails, Greater Spotted Woodpecker. Plants include two rare species of Yellow Musk, Purple Moor Grass, assorted liverworts and mosses, Sheep's Bit Scabious, Sheep's Sorrel, Bilbery, Tormentil, Marsh Thistle, Creeping Buttercup, Star Sedge, Starwort, Bog Pimpernel, Bog Stitchwort, Marsh Pennywort, Brooklime, Sneezewort, Lousewort, Round Leaved Sundew. Trees are typically Alder, Oak, Ash, Rowan, Birch, Willow and Hazel. Also frogs, grasshoppers, lizards, shrews, field voles, Dor beetles, Brown Trout, Millers Thumbs.
Workers at the Duchy Colliery about 1919
Dare Valley Country Park: History. Around the country park you will see remnants of the coal mines which operated in what is now the country park. Near the road entrance was the Gadlys Colliery and the car park is situated on what was the Cwmdare Colliery, also known as Powell's Pit and Bwllfa No.3. The Merthyr Dare Colliery was to the South West of the Visitor Centre and just to the North East of the reservoir was Bwllfa No.4. There is also a link with Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was the engineer for the Dare and Aman branch of the Vale of Neath railway. William Henry Barlow, designer of St Pancras station, invented a new kind of rail which was sufficiently wide to be laid directly onto ballast and without the need for sleepers and Brunel was persuaded to use them for the Dare and Aman branch. In the event the Barlow rail experienced technical problems and it was soon replaced. However a short stretch of the rail can be seen in the visitor centre above the cafeteria.
Betws. There is a Bronze Age burial at Croes y Bwlch Gwyn. St Davids church is mediaeval in origins with some parts dating from the 15th or 16th century, including the font. Most of the church however is Victorian and the work of G. E. Halliday
Bryngarw Country Park. This has the full range of visitor facilities including toilets, cafe, barbecue and picnic areas. There are three short walks within the park; a Woodland Walk, Meadow Meander and Riverside Ramble. For more on the country park click here then follow Places to visit and then Countryside.
Llangeinor Church. This is the church of St. Cein or St. Ceinwyr. The tower is of the late mediaeval period although most of the structure dates from its extensive restoration in 1894 by G.E. Halliday. The ancient Ridgeway route across the common was named Fford-y-Claddwyr or burial road. The early settlers in the northern parts of the Valley used this from around the 5th Century to get to the Christian settlement at Llangeinor.
Caerau hillfort: This is Iron Age dating to between 700 BC and 100 AD and is one of the largest multivallate hillforts in South East Wales. It is around 12.5 acres in extent amd two sides are protected by 3 sets of banks and ditches. There is a ringwork in the North East corner which may date to the 12th Century and could have been constructed at the behest of the Bishop of Llandaff. This was probably an important settlement in the area with a strategic position overlooking the Taff and Ely valleys.
Ely Racecourse: First used as a racecourse around 1855 and the Welsh Grand National was held there from 1895 to 1939, the last Grand National being won by Jack Fawcus on a horse called Lacatoi. Baseball was popular on Trelai Park during the 1950s and parachutists would descend from a barrage balloon.
Glamorgan canal – a remnant of a canal opened in 1798 between the Port of Cardiff and the iron works of Merthyr Tydfil and later utilised for the coal mines. By 1836 over 200 barges, mostly carrying cargoes of iron and coal, were working on the canal able to travel the 25 miles in about 20 hours, negotiating some 51 locks along the way. (Source: information board on site)
Longwood site of special scientific interest (SSSI). A river terrace woodland of great antiquity which is listed in the Glamorgan inventory of ancient woodland. It is ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland with oak, ash standards dominating the southern section and beech standards to the north. Features aquatic fauna and flora with marginal vegetation and water plants including arrowhead and the floating liverworts. Hay and grazing meadows have remained unfertilised for many years and managed to encourage a reversion to rich grassland typical of old meadows. To be found are Common Spotted Orchid, Southern Marsh Orchid, Yellow Rattle and Pig Nut. The area is bounded by the Mellingriffith feeder (to your right as you get towards the end of the canal) which provided the main water supply to the old Mellingriffith works. Heron, kingfisher, snipe, water rail and a wide variety of dragonflies can be seen on or by the canal with lesser spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and treecreepers in the woods along with toothwort. There are warblers in summer and siskin and redpoll in winter. (Source: information board on site)
The Mellingriffith Water Pump
Mellingriffith Water Pump. The pump was constructed in about 1806 and after working for 140 years gradually became derelict with the closure of the canal. It was restored in the 1970s and received a Prince of Wales award in 1982. (Source: information board on site)
Radyr Weir. Since the early 1980s the salmon and sea trout stocks in the Taff have been recovering from nearly 200 years of industrial pollution and exploitation. During 1993 the National Rivers Authority monitored over 500 salmon and 700 sea trout returning to the river to spawn. Radyr Weir is the third obstruction to migratory fish on the river Taff, the others being Llandaff Weir and Blackweir, both of which also have fish passes. Radyr Weir was first constructed during 1774-1775 to provide water along a feeder to power the Mellingriffith tin-plate works. Iron from Pentyrch was initially transported to the works using pack-horses, then tub boats were used on the Taff passing on to the feeder via a lock at Radyr Weir – parts of this lock can still be seen alongside the feeder sluice. In 1815 the tub boats were discontinued and a tramway constructed along the Taff. (Source: information board on site)
Roman Villa, Trelai: There are several examples of Roman remains around Cardiff. A succession of four forts existed on the site of what is now Cardiff Castle and there is the base of a 3rd or 4th century Roman building on the Knap, passed on the Porthkerry walk. Ely can also boast the remains of a Roman villa and whilst nothing is visible of the building, the site is marked by the rectangular unmowed area in the middle of Trelai Park. It was constructed in the first half of the 2nd Century AD and abandoned in the 4th. Traces of the use of coal and iron-making have been found.
St Mary's Church, Caerau: This church is mediaeval and was deconsecrated as recently as 1973. A masonry tunnel vault is an unusual feature of the South Porch and the saddleback tower is still in evidence.
The Beacons Round Barrows. These are Bronze Age, 2,000-1,000BC and the commanding position suggests they may have been the burial mounds of important people. The name and situation makes it possible that they were subsequently used as beacon platforms.
Llanharan. In the 1860s Llanharan had a church, smithy, corn mill, malthouse, the inn known as the Corner House and 28 thatched stone cottages. Expansion came with the opening of several collieries in the late 19th, early 20th centuries - see below. Harry Skevington came to Llanharan in the 1870s from Derbyshire. Employed as a local labourer, he also collected refuse in a horse and cart, becoming known as Skevy the Scavenger. Ann Thomas, commonly known as Annie Baltic, was as tough as they come. She was a coal roundswoman, starting work at 4am when she took her pony and cart to the goods yard. Here she would fill the sacks with coal, load them onto her cart and then deliver them to the surrounding villages often not finishing until late evening. The picture shows her in her usual outfit, long skirt and long-sleeved blouse with Welsh shawl matched with boots and a man's cloth cap. She was still working well into her seventies. In the 1960s local blacksmith, Tom Williams, won all the major competitions in Britain including the coveted title of champion of champions.
Left, Harry Skevington. Right, Ann Thomas
Llanharan House. This is visible to the right of the road as you approach Llanharan from Talbot Green. It was built around 1750 by Rees Powell and later occupied by Richard Jenkins and the Blandy-Jenkins family. Its most distinguished visitor was King George II of Greece in 1923. Squire Jenkins, who bought the house in 1806, made Llanharan a focus for hunting in South Wales buying 21 kennels of hounds. They hunted fox, hare and otter, travelling as far west as Margam, as far South as Dunraven and as far East as Machen.
Llanharan Collieries. At the Southern end of the South Wales coalfield, the area in which we are walking is littered with old shafts and tips, for example at Meuros and Brynna Wood. At Llanbad the remains are still visible. This was the location of the South Rhondda and Rhondda Rider shafts, both sunk in 1889. By 1914 there were 450 miners working here. One seam was rich with fireclay and a large brickworks was also built here, of which no trace remains, and this included a stack 170 feet high. The colliery and brickworks closed in 1927. In addition to the large winding house and other old buildings, the original stables are still used for horses and the foundations and lower walls of the miners' bath house can be seen by a gate on the left of the path opposite the winding house.
Ridgeway. This is the probably the quietest that this ridgeway has been for many hundred years, being used as a drovers road and a route for pilgrims travelling from Gloucester to Margam. In the early twentieth century it would have seen large numbers of miners walking to and from the various local collieries. The wording of the inscription on the rocks alongside the path, in English 'God is Love', is said to have been carved by a grateful father who took his young daughter to this spot for the purer air when she was suffering from an illness to her lungs and recovered. Nonconformist preachers also used this location to harangue the passing colliers. The ridgeway walk at this point is known as the Ffordd y Bryniau, becoming the Ogwr Ridgeway Walk a little to the West.
St Peters Super Montem. This atmospheric ruin, claimed by some to be associated with King Arthur, was still a lively location in the 18th century being used as a weekly market. In 1731 some merchants were fined for selling ale, ginger bread and cakes here on a Sunday. The church was probably abandoned around 1813 when a new church was built at nearby Brynna. Later, stone was used was from this church in the restoration of the church at Brynna.
War Memorial. Erected in the mid 1920s, this was originally located in the Square but was regarded as a potential accident hazard and was moved in 1934 to the Welfare Ground. After many decades of local protest he finally moved to his present location in 1960.
Wind Farm. There are 20 turbines, generating 22 million Kilowatts annually which could power 6,000 homes. The rotor diameter is 37 metres.
Bull Ring. This was so-called because it was used for bull-baiting whilst the fairs and markets took place on the village green. The practice was disallowed in 1827, not because of the cruelty, but because it attracted unruly crowds. The original bull-baiting stone is believed to be buried on Llantrisant Common.
Billy Wynt. Hen Felyn Wynt, the highest point of the town, is the remains of a thirteenth century windmill and known locally as Billy Wynt. By the early 19th century the tower was in ruins and in 1893 it was replaced as a folly.
Black Army. The people of Llantrisant have been known locally as the Black Army for many hundreds of years. The origins are unknown although J Barry Davies (see Books section) presents some interesting ideas on the topic. One possibility is that local bowmen played an important role in the crossing of the Somme at Blanchetaque shortly before Crecy in 1346.
Caerau Hill Fort. This Iron Age fort is more correctly referred to as Rhiw Saeson Caerau Hillfort and not to be confused with the Caerau Hill Fort on the outskirts of Cardiff. It is one of the largest hillforts in Glamorgan and is surrounded by a double bank and ditch except on the South side.
The Church of St Illtyd, St Wonno and St Dyfodwg. There is evidence of pre-Norman settlement in an inscribed cross dated loosely to the 7th to 9th Century but the current structure has Norman origins which can be seen in the South door and the font. The Tudor Tower dates from about 1490 and had 6 bells which were re-cast in 1718 and a further two bells added in 1926. The East window is the work of Morris Burne-Jones, 1873, and most of the current appearance of the church dates from the same period, the work of J. Prichard.
Llantrisant Castle. This was possibly started as 12th Century ring work but the stone castle was built by Richard de Clare between 1246 and 1252. It was sacked by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. The Raven tower which is visible is of Pennant Sandstone which was part of a cylindrical tower that formed a segment of a circular keep.
Llantrisant Town. The ancient name for Llantrisant was Llangawdraf, founded in honour of Cawdraf. When translated Llantrisant means 'the church of the 3 Saints', namely St Illtyd, St Tyfodwg and St Gwynno. The earliest historical reference mentioning the town of Llantrisant is 1246. It was granted its first charter in 1346 and it still has the ancient Court Leet which originated in the 13th Century but is now a charitable trust with few powers. The ceremony of Beating the Bounds is still held once every seven years and is usually carried out before Ascension day. In 1968 the Royal Mint was built close to the town and by 1976 all production had moved there from Tower Hill in London. Edward II was captured nearby, allegedly at Pantybrad, following the invasion by his wife Queen Isabella. At Rhiwsaeson, passed on Walk 2, a battle took place in 873 between the Saxons and the Danes.
William Price. Dr William Price, 1800 to 1893, practised as a doctor and was well-known as a physican and surgeon. He claimed to be an arch-druid and was closely involved with the Chartists. He advocated free-love and at the ripe old age of 83 took Gwenllian Llewelyn as a common-law wife and fathered two children. He was discovered by the townspeople attempting to cremate the body of his young son, Jesus Christ Price, and was tried at Cardiff but acquitted and charged a nominal farthing in costs. When he died he was publicly cremated with 5,000-6,000 people in attendance. This was claimed to be the first public cremation in modern times.Bodvoc Stone. The Bodvoc stone seen on the walk is not the original which can be seen in the Margam Stones museum. Another copy can be seen in the visitor centre at Afan Argoed Country Park. 'A christian memorial stone with a vertical Latin inscription in four lines. It stood originally on Margam mountain set into one of a line of four prehistoric barrows, no doubt regarded as the graves of the ancient owners of the land thus legitimising the claim of Bodvoc and his family. This is the oldest recorded Welsh family history. It commemorates four generations of a family possibly local rulers though omitting to name Bodvoc's father who may not have ruled. The inscription reads:
BODVOCI HIC IACIT (The stone of) Bodvoc. Here he lies.
FILIUS CATOTIGIRNI Son of Cattegern
PRONEPUS ETERNALI Great-grandson of Eternalis
Apart from Eternalis, Latin and possibly Christian for eternity, the family names are Celtic. Cattegern means Lord of Battle and Bodvoc shares his name with a Pre-Roman king of the Dobunni in modern Gloucestershire. Date late 6th or early 7th centuries.' (Information board in Margam Stones museum)
Brombil Valley. There was a colliery in this valley which opened between 1777 and 1780 and closed in 1880. Originally the coal was transported in carts to Taibach. Local people have a story that the ruined houses that you pass belonged to two sisters. They made an arrangement that if either needed help they would hang a sheet out of the window. During or after the second World War when German POWs were being held in a nearby camp, there was a breakout and several prisoners escaped. One of the sisters opened the door to find someone claiming to be a Polish airman. She invited him in and allowed him to stay the night but was not fooled. First thing in the morning the police were at the door to arrest the escaped prisoner having been alerted by the other sister who had seen the white sheet fluttering from the window. For more on the nearby POW camp with its history and many photos click here.
Graig Fawr. This is one of the ancient woods of Wales and is one of 7 being restored by the Woodland Trust Wales (Coed Cadw) in a project part-financed by the European Union. Ancient woods are those where there has been continuous woodland cover since at least 1600. Rhododendrons are being cleared, paths upgraded and routes waymarked.
Cwmwernderi Reservoir. Opened in 1902 to supply the Port Talbot area this has an earthdam with puddled clay construction. A capacity of 45 million gallons or 205,000 cubic metres and water surface of 7 acres, it takes water from the surrounding catchment area of 540 acres. One inch of rainfall on the catchment area equates to 12.15 million gallons.
Hen Egwlys. This simply means 'old church' but the ruin is also known as Capel Mair, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary as were all Cistercian Abbeys. It is 15th Century and was either used by the monks as a private oratory or was used by the lay people for worship. The Cistercians did not allow their churches to be used by parishioners but they often built small chapels near the abbey for their use. The woodland that you walk through below the chapel on the final part of the walk is Graig Fawr, one of seven ancient woodlands in Wales being restored in a Woodland Trust project, partly financed by the European Union.
Margam Abbey. The evidence of the Celtic wheel crosses suggests there could have been a Celtic Christian church here before the Normans but in 1147, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, granted an extensive area of land between the rivers Kenfig and Afan to the French Abbey of Clairvaux. The white-robed monks of the Cistercian order built the abbey over about 40 years and this prospered both commercially and culturally. Many charters and manuscripts came from its scriptorium including the British Museum's copy of the Domesday Book. Later the abbey suffered during various Welsh uprisings, such as that led by Owen Glyndwr and there were only 9 monks left when Henry VIII finally dissolved the monastery in 1537. This diagram shows the original buildings of which various ruins remain.
Layout of Margam Abbey as it was
Not a single Cistercian church survived the Dissolution intact although sections of three of them have been retained for parochial worship; Holme Cultram, Abbey Dore and Margam. In the 19th Century, the owner, Thomas Mansel Talbot, made extensive alterations, particularly to the exterior, with its twin Italianate campaniles. The church contains many points of interest including stained-glass windows by William Morris, a statue of the Virgin and Child by Joseph Cribb and an illuminated Litany.
Margam Castle. Although the old house had been demolished by 1793 it was not until the late 1820s early 1830s that work on the new house began. The architect was Thomas Hopper who also did commissions at Carlton House, Danbury Park, Penrhyn Castle, St Mary's hospital Paddington and the Carlton Club. The owner at the time was Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot and he was influenced by Lacock Abbey, ancestral home of the Talbots and residence of his cousin W. H. Fox Talbot and Melbury House in Dorset, the seat of his mother's family. Lacock also involved the assimilation of old abbey buildings. The style of Margam was to be Tudor Gothic and Hopper was encouraged to let his imagination run free with the towers, turrets and battlements. This picture gives some idea of the grandeur of the house.
Picture of the Staircase Hall taken by Thomas Franklin in 1891
Unfortunately the house declined and in the Second World War troops were billeted at Margam. The house was largely stripped of its contents and in 1977 a major fire destroyed many of the timbers and the roof. It is currently in the ownership of Neath Port Talbot Borough Council and an ongoing restoration programme has led to the re-roofing of the South and West wings and other projects. A full account of the history of the house is given in John Vivian Hughes's 'Margam Castle' (see Books section). The earliest Welsh photograph known is a daguerreotype by Calvert Jones of Margam Castle taken on 9th March 1841.
Margam Geology. The walks cover a geological divide between the low-lying parkland of shales, gravel deposits and boulder clay and the upland moor and forest which is Lower Pennant Sandstone and part of the South Wales coalfield including the No.2 Rhondda and No.3 Rhondda veins. As you walk up a valley on Walk 1, the stream to your left on the valley bottom is Cwm Philip, you are heading up a valley glacier with Pleistocene deposits. From the Pulpit you are on a sandstone escarpment that forms the southern edge of the South Wales coalfield. Not far from here is the monks mine. The monks of early Britain were particularly adept at coal mining and this mine took coal from the Rock Fach seam. In order to get the coal out the monks would dam the mine so that the mine water flooded to a level sufficient to float a boat loaded with coal to the entrance with men pulling on ropes. Also on the plain below are hummocky ridges which are formed of glacial rock, sand and gravel. The gravel has been extracted over the years and used for various purposes on the Margam estate. (From Geology trail leaflet produced by Margam Park).
Margam Old House. After the Dissolution, 1537, much of the monastery lands and buildings were acquired by Sir Rice Mansel, whose main residence had been at Oxwich. Successive generations, including Barons and Lords, added to and altered the monastic domestic buildings and a good idea of the appearance of the house is given by two topographical paintings which belong to Penrice House. The artist is unknown and the date estimated as late 17th, early 18th Century.
North view of the old house.
This picture is an extract from the original painting which shows a view stretching up towards Kenfig sands. Details of the old monastic buildings can be seen and to the left, there are deer in the deer park. The building was finally demolished in 1792 and 1793 to make way for Margam Castle. More on the old house can be found in the booklet 'A Vanished House' by Patricia and Donald Moore (Books section).
Margam Stones Museum. This houses a fine collection of stones including Celtic sculptured wheel-crosses, a Roman milestone, and a pillar stone which was the first Ogham-bearing monument found in Wales - Ogham being an early form of writing used by the Goidelic Celts. There is also a grave slab dating from 1307 of Robert, Abbot of Rievaulx. The current (2001) charge for entry is £2, tickets from the Abbey Kitchen.
In Margam WoodSoft lights were in the summer sky, The air was all perfume, When Lewis, down the mountain path, Came walking to his doom. He turned into the covering wood, No man can tell his thought, But on the listening summer air Was heard the deadly shot. He fled the spot - he has his gun, He changed his clothes in vain For clear behind the avengers came, He bore the mark of Cain And now by law and justice tried He's numbered with the dead, For men still keep the olden text, 'Gainst blood unjustly shed' See passion's work! The summer eve When calm twilight fell - A murdered man - a widowed home, And now, the felon's cell 'Tis done! The dark death-telling flag Droops on the conscious air, His debt to man he now has paid For his soul we breathe a prayer
This poem by C Westwood was published in the South Wales Daily Post on 31st August 1898. A poacher, Joseph Lewis, was hanged for murdering a gamekeeper, Robert Scott in Margam woods that August. When the execution was complete it was the tradition to unfurl a black flag from the roof of Swansea Prison although this was the last occasion on which it happened. The source is a fascinating if somewhat gruesome book by Peter Goodall, 'For Whom the Bell tolls' (see Books section).
Llandarcy murders: When we first explored this walk it was May 2002. As we descended from the hills above Goytre we noticed a large blue and white tent in the cemetery. Members of the press told us that the police were exhuming the body of Joe Kappen who was suspected of being responsible for the Llandarcy murders which had taken place in 1973. DNA evidence had been collected at the scenes of the murder of three young women but it was only now that forensic science had advanced sufficiently for a match to be made. Later the police confirmed that the match had turned out to be positive and their files were now closed.
Maendy Camp: Overlooking the Rhondda Valley this is one of the few Iron Age hillforts in the uplands of Glamorgan and dates from between 700BC and 100AD. It has a small central enclosure with meandering banks. It was excavated in 1901 revealing a stone pavement in the outer entrance and a cist. There is a Bronze Age cairn between the inner and outer ramparts.
Rhondda: Visitors who do not know the area may be perplexed to find that there is no single place called Rhondda - it is an area much as the Vale of Glamorgan is an area. Pre-Norman Morgannwg was made up of seven divisons or Cantrefs. The Cantref of Penychen covered much of this central area of the valleys. This in turn gave rise to the commotes of Miskin and Glynrhondda. On the ecclesiatical side these two commotes were regarded as one unit and they lay within the parish of Llantrisant. This had four sectors based on churches at Llantrisant, Llantwit Faerdre, Llanwynno and Ystradyfodwg. Whilst not identical to modern Rhondda, Ystradyfodwg was closer to it than any other geographical area in the past.
Around 1890, the Ystradyfodwg Fire Brigade.
Rural Rhondda: Before the 'coal rush' Rhondda was isolated and rural. It was described by Thomas Roscoe in the 1830s as "a wild and mountainous region where nature seemed to reign in stern and unbroken silence". Rhondda has two main valleys with the two rivers, the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach, both starting close together at Carn Moesen and then running parallel for 10 miles before meeting at Porth. In the first half of the 19th Century the valleys were heavily wooded and it was said that a squirrel could travel the length of the valleys without once having to touch the ground. Life was mainly pastoral with some famous hunting packs and harvest time accompanied by feasting and carousal. The coal industry changed all that.
Around 1880, women hauliers working above ground at Abergorki Colliery, Treorchy.
Rhondda and coal: There were sporadic mining attempts in the Rhondda in the first half of the 19th Century with pioneers such as Walter Coffin and the first mine shaft sunk in 1812. These were mainly bituminous seams in the Lower Rhondda with small levels, shallow pits and individual speculators. However it was steam coal, used to power ships around the world, that would become so important to Rhondda and this was at sufficient depth to deter early attempts to reach it. After the sinking of the Dinas pit in 1864 the growth in coal production accelerated increasing from 1 million tons in 1869 to 10 million in 1914. From the 1920s the world's naval and merchant fleets moved from coal to oil and pit closures became the main feature of the rest of the Twentieth Century.
Collieries: Our walk passes several collieries although coal would have been dug from the hillsides for many years. A map of 1770 shows three coal pits on Maendy Mountain which we ascend early on the walk. With Rhondda coal production at its height Ton Pentre had the Maindy and Eastern collieries. Maindy Colliery was started by David Davies in 1864 and at its peak employed 1,155 men. Eastern was also sunk by David Davies, but later in 1877. They combined under the aegis of the Ocean Steam Coal Company. Maindy closed in 1948 and Eastern in 1959. Dare had similar origins, starting in 1870 and closing in 1965 whereas Park started in 1865. Towards the end of the walk we would have passed the Bwllfa Level opened in 1862 by Richardson and Carr and not to be confused with the Bwllfa Colliery near Aberdare. In Nantymoel and Price Town we would have been looking down on the Western and Wyndham Collieries. For more on South Wales collieries there are several web sites such as this one.
Rhondda Transport: Transport was limited until the 19th Century. Dr Richard Griffiths recognised the importance of the Glamorgan Canal, building a tramroad to Newbridge in 1809 with a short length of private canal. Then in the 1840s the penetration of the Taff Vale Railway created a means for distributing coal to the ports. Within the valleys trams provided a novel if 'white knuckle' ride as aptly described by Gwyn Thomas. 'It was rumoured that one could be flung out of the tram if one's seat happened to be on the open roof and it was claimed that along the more hazardous descents where the trams made their most mischievous lurches, buildings were equipped with springs that shot the flying passengers back into the same tram, if not the same seat'.
A favourite picture of ours, the Treorchy School Board, 1886. Victorian propriety was at its height, teachers could not marry but look more closely at, for example, the hands of the teachers second from right at the top and second from left in the second row.
Social Rhondda: One estimate for population increase in the Rhondda has it at 3,033 in 1861 but 55,632 just 20 years later. Immigration came from Mid and South Wales, Cornwall, Devon and Ireland. By the early 20th Century 67% of the working population were employed in the coal industry. Boys of 6 or 7 were employed and in Winter miners saw daylight only on Sundays, working a 12-13 hour day, occasionally 18 hours. The 1842 Government Commission of Enquiry into the employment of children noted the physical effects on children 'that they acquire a preternatural development of the muscles ... that for some time they are capable of prodigious muscular exertion; that in a few years their strength diminishes and many lose their robust appearance; that they become pallid, stunted in growth, short of breath, sometimes thin and often burnt, crooked, crippled ...' However Rhondda was very much a community with choirs, dramatic societies, brass bands, pigeon clubs, working mens clubs, miners institutes, churches and chapels. Bare-fist boxing and wrestling matches took place on the hillside with Rhondda producing several world champions such as Jimmy Wilde, Freddie Welsh and Percy Jones.
Left, A Canale, ice-cream vendor, 1924. Immigrants from Northern Italy arrived around 1890, opening coffee shops known as 'Bracchi' shops. Right, Tom Jenkins of Pentre, featherweight wrestling champion of the world, 1911.
St Peters Church: This substantial church had as its benefactor, Griffith Llewellyn. It cost £20,000 and was designed by F R Kempson in 1887-90. Elaborate and, at times, dramatic, it features pink and buff bandings of dressed stone, extensive use of marble and a "tie-beam roof in the nave with arch-braces and collar purlin in the Glamorgan idiom".