The Water’s Question/The Wind’s Answer is an extract from the new book The Golden Valley: A Visual Biography of the Garw by Phil Cope.
Just six-miles long, the Garw Valley above Bridgend in South Wales hides a surprising though largely-unknown range of riches which extend far deeper than the reminders of its often-ugly coalmining years. The violence of its Ice Age scoring and its river’s later much more gentle sculptings determined between them the fundamental geography of the land, making the Garw one of the steepest-sided valleys in South Wales (the word garw translating as ‘rough’, ‘harsh’ or even ‘unrefined’).
Here was once an area rich in native trees, in bears, wolves, foxes, deer and red squirrels, its rivers filled with salmon.
A monastery founded by St Ceinor in the fifth century at Llangeinor, and the twelfth century St David’s Church (itself built upon much earlier Christian foundations) in Bettws both sit high up like spiritual sentinels on either side of the lower reaches of the Garw.
Tynton Farm was the birthplace of Richard Price (1723–91), ‘the apostle of liberty’ and supporter of the American and French Revolutions, described by Benjamin Franklin as ‘the foremost production of human understanding that this century has afforded us.’
The alcoholic poet Daniel James (1848-1920) penned his celebrated hymn while living in the Garw and working underground in the Ocean Colliery (where he was to lose his son in a mining accident). Put to music by John Hughes in 1892, the hymn and the man are commemorated in Blaengarw by the newly-created Parc Calon Lân.
In 1851, the Valley had just 78 inhabitants, all engaged in farming. Their peace was soon to be shattered, however, by the new rough carvings into the land’s skin in the early 1870s in search of ‘king coal’. Seventeen collieries emerged in the next few decades, alongside the winding ribbons of houses built to accommodate the workers and their families, and the construction of churches, schools, shops and pubs, as well as Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall and the Fflaldau Workmen’s Institute, both providing an impressive variety of cultural, educational, social and political activities, and foci for the community’s struggles to survive.
This was the time of the fiction of early promises. The uncomfortable compromise between the necessities of finding paid work and of safety, economy versus health – graphically repeated now within Covid-19 – released the floodgates to danger and to the despoliation of the land. But these were also the years of the building of communities of reliance and trust, developed in parallel with (perhaps, as a product of) hardship, recessions, lockouts, strikes and stoppages, chronic illnesses and death. By 1881, 968 people lived in the Valley, but just ten years later this number had risen to more than 8,000, a large town’s worth of people crammed for others’ profit into a narrow valley.
The last of our pits to close (and the end of hope for some) was the Ocean / Ffaldau in December 1985, punished for its offense of solidarity against all of the odds, in an act of political vengeance by Margaret Thatcher following her government’s defeat of the final miners’ strike.
Left with the urban / rural contradiction of a town’s inhabitants squashed into a tiny line of villages with no alternative employment opportunities anywhere near the scale that the pits had offered, and with nature seemingly defeated, too, the ending of coalmining removed the only real reason for people to be living here. Many of the young and the most energetic managed to move away, of course, but the old and the sick remained, leaving this, alongside all of the other ex-coalmining valleys of South Wales, with levels of disability as high as 15% within ever-aging populations, a fifth of whom have no qualifications and a third are unemployed.
During the post-coal years, many efforts at reviving the Garw’s fortunes have been made. The land reclamation schemes of the late 1980s and early ‘90s – though never fully erasing the Valley’s scars – have returned parts of the land to something approaching its original greenery.
With our four new lakes, our bike and walking trails, our community sculptures, the renovation and re-opening of Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall, and the new more-democratic uses of the mid eighteenth century Bryngarw House and Park (once the residence of the coal-owning Traherne family), a new identity is being explored. Bought by the local council and open to the public since 1986, Bryngarw offers a partial metaphor, perhaps, for an alternative approach to the use of this land’s resources.
And there’s also the more anarchic – and probably illegal – re-possessing of bits of the Valley’s skin to extend homes and gardens and to create smallholdings, making bold new demotic claims for local people and their animals in a kind of confused reclamation of what was never ever ours.
Perhaps the most impressive expression of this new optimism, however, is artist Kevin Sinnott’s return to his boyhood home and the opening of Studio 18, his new gallery which sits proudly-ironic on the Garw’s main street of now mainly vacant or boarded-up shops. Proudly flying both his Welsh and European Union flags, its windows to the road proclaim where he sees our little Valley’s place within the world: ‘London / New York / Pontycymmer’!
And beyond all of this, the greatest barometer of nature’s renewal, the river Garw – once known as ‘afon ddu’ (the black river) because of its coal dust pollution – now boasts of otters, kingfishers, herons, spotted flycatchers and dippers, as well as the annual visit of a family of kestrels nesting in the quarried cliffs where stone was once cut to build miners’ houses.
Mining’s legacy, however, is still everywhere and in everyone, though you have to look much deeper nowadays to find it. It’s in the often-artificial contours of the land; in the half buried detritus of metal rods, of bolts and cables, the bits of rubber ripped from conveyor belts, the discarded bricks stamped ‘Brynmenyn’ and ‘Tondu’, and the scattered survivals of small pieces of coal. The cuts, the scars, the blemishes remain, but with few memorials to acknowledge the difficult history which caused them. There’s the odd half-buried colliery wheel here, and there the easy-to-miss memorial to the most serious of the valley mines’ losses of life, the Lluest colliery explosion of August 1899 when nineteen men and boys were trapped and killed. And there’s the lonely sign at the entrance to the Ocean / Ffaldau Colliery site beside the track which, once walked by miners, leads today to two of the reclamation scheme’s deep lakes directly above the pit’s even deeper tales of union and of pain. And there’s also the mural on Blaengarw Workman’s Hall which positions the mining experience in a wider context, looking both pre and post its disruptive arrival; as well as the fine new ceramic sculptures doted around the villages. And its memories are also held within the faded rainbow mural to block entry to a drift mine off one of the modern forestry roads high above Blaengarw; and it’s in the lungs of old men.
What we see today is the result of more than a two millennia-long dialogue between the forces of nature and of humankind. The coal in this Valley – which brought droves of men and their families here a little over a century ago – took 250 million years to create. While decaying trees and plants in forest-covered swamps were compressed (every twenty feet of vegetable debris producing just one foot of coal), it took us less than a century to exhaust it.
Over the past lockdown months, on plateaus with always the very best of views, my Covid-encouraged wanderings have led me to another set of much older ideas on how to live and how to die.
The round barrows, the long barrows, the burial chambers and forts up here are mostly unmarked on modern maps. These were the once-sacred sites of the loose network of Bronze Age people we now know as the Silures who arrived in this area some 3-4,000 years ago. They made their homes and buried their dead up here, sometimes accompanied on their way to whatever afterlife they believed in by copper daggers, flint knives, decorated beakers and a little food.
Most of these sites were and still are covered by earthen mounds though some have been partially revealed by a combination of early archaeology and the fierce mountain winds. These hold the deepest of our histories, only available by walking high above the Valley’s floor … or searching within our imaginations.
And today, the only things which stand higher than these elevating piles of stones are the new turbines turned by the same winds which brush over the long history of these hills, breathing new life where life began.
The Golden Valley is out now, published by Seren Books.
Cardiff-born Phil Cope is a writer and photographer who has created books on themes as diverse as Paul Robeson, the Spanish Civil War, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, sugar, Liverpool, and Haitian vodou. Previous publications for Seren have included Holy Wells Cornwall (2010), Holy Wells Scotland (2015), and The Living Wells of Wales (2019). He has lived in the Garw Valley for some 35 years.
All text and photography by the author. Portrait of the author by Gordon Farmer.