Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day trip up the Valleys

With Clare up at a Welsh language day school in Bedwas, and a fee day before me, I decided to take my camera, and ride a train or two until she returned. A Valleys line rover ticket cost just £7.70, and set me free to range over the remains of the old coalfields rail network of mid Glamorganshire, as it was when I was a kid.

The first train took me up the Taff Vale to Pontypridd, quickly winding through Cardiff suburbia generally along the river Taff, a 'greener' ride than one might imagine taking the same trip by car. At Ponty, the line branches West into the Rhondda Fawr, and further north, to a junction at Abercynon, where one can go straight on towards Aberdare, or curve right across the valley following the Taff Vale to Merthyr Tydful. I stayed on the train which went up the Rhondda to Treherbert, where the train terminates in what is now a rural village, surrounded by woodland, and those barren hilltops that are typical of the coalfield plateau, through which the Valleys run, scored out by ancient rivers and glacial action.

The further you get from Ponypridd, the more of an impression you get of prosperity waning. There has been investment in healing the many scars of mining, but the level of wealth creation from industry of any kind remains well below the need of the population - like Ebbw Vale. It was good to see that the train was fairly busy in both directions, people moving between villages, as well as going up and down to Ponty, or on to Cardiff for shopping or football.

On the return trip, I got off at Ponty, took some photos, and then picked up the train bound for Merthyr Tydful. Notably, this train consisted of more modern rolling stock than the Treherbert bound train. I wonder why? It added to the sense of everything being jaded and faded. Can't possibly be good for citizen morale. However - credit where credit is due, damage by vandals and graffiti were minimal on all the trains, suggesting a perennial problem is being managed well.

The ride up to Merthyr, with its modern terminus station, next door to Tesco's in the southern part of the town, was very pleasant. The valley is less bleak, more rural in appearance than the Rhondda Fawr. The old collieries, tips and marshalling yards have been fairly well disguised. It was pleasing to ride past playing fields with local Saturday football games in progress in the bright afternoon sun.

In both valleys, seen from the railway, the churches and chapels stand out in many villages, prominent because of their positions or the substantial size. Huge wealth was generated here in the early twentieth century, and a goodly slice of it invested in places of worship for industrious industrial communities. Nowadays, with worshipping communities so much reduced, these are a nightmare legacy.

I got off the train and had a wander around Ponty on my return journey. It was pleasing to see that the open air market, which I remember my mother taking me to when I was a child, was still functioning. I also discovered the extensive covered market, which I don't recall at all from those visits over fifty years ago. It has quite an intimate feel, because its buildings aren't huge and imposing like Cardiff's, and the layout is just a bit higgledy-piggledy, oddly reminiscent of the old city soukh in Jerusalem, heaven knows why I should think of that in Ponty. Perhaps it was the mountains of Welsh cakes being batch baked on one stall. Clare would enjoy this, I thought. I must bring her back here.

Pontypridd has a certain air of modest prosperity about it, understandably with Glamorgan University the next stop down the line, bringing in students from all over the world. I had tea and a custard slice at 'The Princes' cafe-restaurant, a retro-styled Italian place, neatly presented black-uniformed waitress service with a maitre d' in charge, packed with customers. I chatted with the manager, and was delighted to learn that the place in its 60th year. (I suspect his father was the founding proprietor.) In all those years the style and 'look' of the place had been maintained immaculately and unchanged, not retro at all, just original. Why change something successful? Sitting there, I could have been in a back street patisserie in Vienna, Basel or Paris. I also noticed that the waitresses all had valleys acccents. No need to out-source personnel hereabouts!

My journey home as the sun was setting in blue skies brought my trip to a pleasant close. I got off the train at Cathays, close to home, and arrived just after Clare. To complete the day, we went out to supper at Jinglees, one of our favourite Cardiff Mediterranean home cooking restaurants, to talk through our respective days out.

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