Staring down at stranded assets in the South Wales valleys

Looking down the valley from the Bwlch Mountain

Very little of the vast coal wealth that helped build Cardiff flowed back up the valleys to the mining towns we were looking down on now. The early morning mist at the top of the Bwlch Mountain had cleared and below us, in Ogmore Vale and along the Afon Afan, we could spot stranded ex-coal villages – mini-pockets of humanity jammed in among the steep sided valleys.

On our left was Nant-y-Moel – once home to the Wyndham/Western Colliery until it was closed down in 1983. To our right we could see the tips of Abergwynfi and Blaengwynfi (two sister mining communities on opposite banks of the Afan).

Perhaps the most sobering thing about the South Wales coal boom was how brief was its heyday. More than 57 million tonnes of coal were produced in 1913 by 232,000 men working in 620 mines in a thin corridor of hills and valleys no more than 10 miles wide. By 1920, the industry employed 271,000 men across South Wales but, in the years following the First World War, demand for Welsh coal began to wane. Top grade Welsh steam coal now faced new competition from mining operations in Germany and the United States and from an existential threat – an oil industry that was fast replacing the old steam age (and with devastating repercussions for coal-dependent communities like the ones we could see now that our oil-addicted society would do well to pay heed to today).

Nearly 250 mines closed across South Wales between 1921 and 1926. That year a Royal Commission concluded that the coal industry had to be reshaped and that miners needed to accept wage cuts. The private mine owners jumped at the opportunity and demanded large cuts. The miners’ union refused and on April 30th, workers who refused wage cuts were locked out and coalfields in South Wales and across the UK came to a halt.

For nine days the UK economy was paralysed as most of the workforce went on strike to support the miners. However, on May 12th, other unions returned to work after agreeing terms with the Government. The miners carried on until the end of the year when starvation forced them back to work.  

To stave off mass unemployment the UK government put some miners to work on large scale infrastructure projects – including the Bwlch mountain bypass (part of the larger Glamorgan Inter-Valley Road project) which was built in 1928 and which we were walking above right now. Before the road was built the mining communities had no way of accessing neighbouring valleys unless they undertook the type of hike we had embarked on, following ancient routes up and over the mountains.

The Bwlch bypass wasn’t just a public works project to ease the unemployed miners’ unrest – politicians also thought it could provide the communities with a way to access nature and escape the often dark and dank existence at the foot of the valleys. For this reason the road, with so many switchbacks it felt like navigating an Alpine pass, was constructed with room both for motor vehicles and pedestrians. Once completed it succeeded in attracting generation after generation of local sightseers to the top of the mountain. It became so popular that one enterprising Italian immigrant family set up a mobile ice cream van in the car park at the summit. They became so famous that the mountain became known as Ice Cream Slope by the many hang-gliders who headed up there.

The other major project that the UK government put Welsh miners to work on was planting vast forests of conifer trees. All across Wales the Forestry Commission set up camps for miners – primarily to “rehabilitate” and “recondition” the men so that they were ready for tough manual labour (notably on road projects like the Bwlch). Here in the Ogmore and abutting Afan valleys major new forest projects were launched. As we wandered now through a sprawling windfarm on our way to Maesteg we could see the results to the north of us – a wide carpet of connected conifer forest starting at Coed Bwlch and running across the horizon to Rheola forest (where some 13,000 acres was planted over a 20 year period) near the town of Neath. This monocultured expanse would become known as Coed Morgannwg (Glamorgan Wood) and nowadays, Afan Forest Park.  That’s where we were headed next.

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