The first day of October and, with what seems to me at least to be greater regularity at this time of year, the sun is beating down from a cloudless sky and the thermometer is nudging into the 70s in old money. I am on my way to the project’s first creative writing workshop in Tairgwaith on the fringes of the upper Amman valley in the western reaches of the valleys. The origin of the village’s name is still a matter of debate. Personally, I side with ‘the works’ houses’ as the correct derivation in keeping with its welcome sign rather than the other school of thought that alludes to the three collieries in the area at the turn of the 20th century. It just makes more sense grammatically in Welsh.
Heading westward along the M4, north of Swansea I turn north-east up the Tawe (or Swansea) valley reaching the town of Pontardawe, the tall narrow steeple of St Peter’s church prominent against the azure background. There I branch north north-west, without any drama, past Rhyd-y-Fro and over and into verdant countryside. Eventually, high on the common to my left, the rather recently erected turbines of Mynydd y Betws Wind Farm emerge as I enter Cwmgors. With 15 turbines and an installed capacity of 34.5MW, its production is stated by the company “to be equivalent to almost one third of the domestic consumption in Carmarthenshire”.
Here, as increasingly elsewhere in parts of the valleys, the old and new faces of energy production sit juxtaposed. This is anthracite country, an area developed rather late in the historical scheme of south Wales coal mining. But not just any old coal; as inhabitants in these parts are prone and proud to say about many things, not least rugby, ‘West is best’ and here the quality of the flameless, smokeless hard coal was high – the highest carbon content, the fewest impurities, and the greatest calorific content. Sales from the former Cwmgors colliery, which employed just over 400 men a century ago and closed in 1964, were overseen in the early 20th century by the Cleeves’ Western Valleys Anthracite Collieries Company which specialised in supplying gas producer plants.
The road runs into Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen over the rail track where I turn right and right again along the long road towards Tairgwaith at its terminus. Passing the service road to one of the UK’s few purpose-built harness-racing tracks, run by Amman Valley Trotters, on the site of a former mine, and the close to the entrance to Celtic Energy’s huge East Pit opencast mine, I reach my destination, Canolfan Maerdy, the community centre. Here Gill and her staff and volunteers have been wonderful in supporting and working hard with our project partner, Emily Hinshelwood who is running the series of five weekly workshops.
As I enter the buidling, there is a display of local maps, photos and memories and Emily is already deeply engrossed in chat with the early comers. By the time the workshop starts fully, there are 15 people in attendance, all eager to get underway. The round table introductions reveal a fascinating group, each person armed with their own object connected to the area as a catalyst for opening discussions. As we head into the tea and cake break, already there appears to be a conflagration of stories.
Mid-afternoon, and ‘llawn dop’ (full to the brim) with cake, I make my way back energised by Emily and the workshop and the radiant rays of the warming sun. A brilliant start to activities in the western valleys; Ymlaen Tairgwaith – Onward Tairgwaith.