Wednesday, 21 December 2016

South East Wales - its recent history and its great attractions

 An article for The Guardian

Aditya Chakrabortty’s article  (The Guardian, 22nd November) about Pontypool was very welcome, because we sometimes feel forgotten down here. Welcome though it is, it does paint a rather bleak picture of this part of the world, and although the major industries that turned what is often called the Eastern Valley into a major industrial region are now long gone, this part of the country still has a lot to offer.

In its immediate post-war heyday (and in an era when environmental considerations were so far down the line that the Afon Lwyd river, which runs the whole length of the Eastern Valley, was so full of industrial effluent that it was referred to locally as “The River Stink”), the major employers included Pontypool Road Locomotive Depot, Panteg Steelworks, British Nylon Spinners, Pilkington’s glassworks, and the coal mines of the Blaenavon area. These have gone, and probably the only major company surviving from this period is Crane in Cwmbran (formerly Saunders Valve). But newer, lighter, industries have moved into the area, encouraged no doubt, by the region’s excellent infrastructure. One of these is TRW, which is located between Griffithstown and New Inn, and which makes automotive parts. Others, such as Parke-Davis, have come and gone, leaving, in the case of Parke-Davis, their rather splendid, and splendidly located buildings on the Pontypool to Abergavenny road, which, sadly, are in increasing need to renovation. 

Is much more employment needed? I’m not sure that it is. I certainly don’t think that bribing new employers to move in is the best use of available resources. Parke-Davis was, I seem to remember, encouraged to move here, but was eventually taken over and closed down. Other companies may be encouraged to leave by receiving a better offer from elsewhere, often from abroad. Besides, whereas major industry has declined, the welfare state has burgeoned (along with the jobs and offices needed to administer it). One respondent to the original article mentioned a local entrepreneur with an employment idea enquiring about putting an advertisement for staff in the window of a local newsagent, only to be discouraged with the words: “People do not want work, I’m afraid. I’ll probably get my window smashed.” Indeed, I think that a major reason Wales, a large beneficiary of EU funds, voted for Brexit is because those on benefits blamed the EU for austerity. They also believed the Brexiters’ claim that by leaving we will have a lot of surplus money. And they thought that some of that money would find its way into their own pockets. I hope they’re not going to be disappointed.

Another writer suggested that towns like Pontypool be allowed to die, with the population being encouraged to move to places that are booming; the town in his particular example being one in the south east, where hi-tech industries are thriving. But what would the result of this policy actually be?  Retirees would be very unlikely to move; as would those who can manage on benefits. The only people likely to do so would be the young and ambitious, and young families, probably causing house prices to collapse. And there would probably be undesirable results on the town they move to.   

The actual situation, of course, is that Pontypool is doing quite well. Those of us who can use their time as they please, such as myself, can live very comfortably here. Property costs a fraction of what it would in a London suburb, and the town is, after all, set within easy reach of some very beautiful countryside. Moreover, it has excellent bus services to Cwmbran shopping centre, Newport, Abergavenny, and Cardiff, and the HST from Newport station to get you to London in less than two hours, allowing people to commute if they wish - as I did myself, for many years. Then there are the pleasures that are relatively close to Pontypool. Such as the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal, with the fourteen mile stretch between Pontypool and Abergavenny being especially beautiful, with something to look at around every bend, and a perfectly flat towpath generally well away from industry, noise, and busy roads. One of my habits is to walk up the canal bank as far as Pontypool Park, the former home of the Hanbury family, and a major local amenity, with its sports centre, bowling green, running track, and tennis courts, to have cup of coffee in the sports centre cafe, and then to stroll into the town, do some shopping, and take the bus back home.

Another is to drive via country roads to Raglan Garden Centre, which is located in a very beautiful setting, with views of the Sugarloaf and the Skirrid mountains from its delightful restaurant. Here, I have a leisurely cup of coffee before continuing to Cross Ash via the country roads from Llanarth (where Thomas Dadford Junior, the engineer of the Brecon and Monmouthshire Canal, is buried). I have four or five different roads I regularly use, choosing the route depending on my mood, and dodging grey squirrels, pheasants, and tractors and hedge cutters, and monitored by the beady eyes of buzzards. I then go over the hill – what a view! – and head down hill to Llanvihangel Crucorney. Here, I enter the Vale of Ewyas, and drive through its narrow roads to Llanthony Priory (picking up some free range eggs at Trout Cottage on the way) where I have a Ploughman’s Lunch in its thousand-year old cellars, before driving back, often via an alternative country route. If Llantony pub bar is closed, I dine at the Skirrid Mountain Inn, in Llanvihangel Crucorney, said to be one of the oldest inns in Wales, and haunted by the ghosts of felons hanged there by local magistrates for heinous crimes such as chicken stealing. Another alternative is the Old Pandy Inn just up the road.  

      Another favoured drive on a sunny day is to Crickhowell via Abergavenny, and then through the Black Mountains, the sun behind you all the way if you set out early, showing just how beautiful this part of the world actually is, before finally turning off at Bwlch and taking the narrow and hilly road to Llangorse Lake. Talybont on Usk, a little further up the road, offers several very good eating-places.

      This part of the world also includes interesting ruins, such as Usk Castle, Raglan Castle, and Grosmont Castle, as well as Llandegfedd and Grwyne Fawr reservoirs, the Big Pit coalmine experience at Blaenavon, and the Roman ruins at Caerleon.  In short, I suspect my quality of life is superior to the one I would have if I were living in a London suburb, and at a fraction of the cost. So, unless I win a large prize in the lottery, this is where I shall stay.

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