Meridian Writers’ Group
PONTYPRIDD, WalesAuthor Richard Llewellyn called his epic novel How Green Was My Valley. He was lamenting how the once lush meadows and hills in the Rhondda district of south Wales had been despoiled by the insatiable demand for coal in the 19th century.
In the book, and in the 1941 Academy Award-winning movie that it inspired, the young narrator Huw Morgan tells what his valley was like in the mid-1800s: “It was so green and fresh and clean, with wind from off the fields and dews from the mountains ”
All that changed, says Llewellyn, as the Rhondda became south Wales’s Coal Kingdom. The green hills became serrated with terraces to build rows of bleak houses for the miners. And where there weren’t houses and collieries, the hills were blanketed with slag heaps, the billions of tonnes [tons] of scrap coal that couldn’t be sold. The rivers died, poisoned by slag tailings.
If Llewellyn were alive today (he died in 1983) you fancy he’d be whooping with joy. For the wheel has turned full circle. Coal mining has all but ceased in south Wales and the valleys are indeed green again.
The story is toldand told wellin the Rhondda Heritage Park, just outside Pontypridd. In audio-visual displays and markers and artifacts, it tells of greed and sacrifice, of loyalty and heroism and terrible industrial strife. “We sank shafts, they built castles,” one miner says of the Victorian coal barons, in a letter preserved in the park.
Indeed, they sank shafts and dug coal for a few sovereigns a week, and ended with arthritis and emphysema, silicosis and glaucoma, and many were in their graves before they turned 40. That is, if they weren’t killed on the job: in the late 19th century one miner was dying in a pit accident every six hours.
The heritage park tells us that by 1900 the Rhondda, which in the early 19th century had a population of about 2,000, employed more than 50,000 men and boys, producing the fine steam coal that was driving Britain’s industrial revolution and stoking the boilers of Her Majesty’s ships that ruled the seas.
The park is in the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery, which ceased production in 1983. The interpretive centre is laid out like a miner’s cottage from a century ago. Guides take visitors down a pit to view first-hand the conditions under which the minerssome of them boys as young as 10 (or seven in the very early years)worked.
A bit to the north, in the village of Aberfan, there’s an even starker reminder of the dark side of the mining industry. This is perhaps the saddest place in Britain. Headstones in the little cemetery mark the graves of 144 people, including 116 children, aged five to 11, who died when a mountain of slag from the colliery slid down on their school on the morning of October 21, 1966.
(As a young reporter, I covered the disaster and, yes, it has stayed with me for life).
For more information on Wales go to the Visit Wales website at www.visitwales.com.
For information on the Rhondda Heritage Park visit www.rhonddaheritagepark.com.
Mitchell Smyth/Meridian Writers’ Group