Saturday, May 02, 2009

Re-greening the Valleys

This afternoon, Clare and I took ourselves out of Cardiff to explore some unfamiliar places within easy reach by car.

First we headed out of town through Llandaff to visit Llantrisant, which still has the appearance of a hill village, and commands views of both the Vale and the Valleys south and north. The central square of the old village is called the Bull Ring and is dominated by an old workhouse building, converted into a very fine craft centre that not only showcases many different kinds of artists working there, but also offers a base for educational activities and creative workshops. It's a superb piece of social enterprise, under the brand name of the 'Model House'. Worth a visit.

Whilst there are shops in the Bull Ring, selling toys, jewellery, garden supplies, a few pubs, there isn't a grocers, a bakery, or a mini-market, a pharmacy or a doctor's surgery immediately evident. This suggests that the heart of the old village has lost much of its convivial character. On the valley floor below, at Church Village, there's a huge retail park and supermarket. All anyone could want (as long as they are still physically mobile), is there for the asking. But it drains life from a town centre which has been there for seven centuries. The Model House is an exemplary piece of social re-cycling of a public building, but the regenerative vision doesn't appear to have extended far enough to ensure that this hill-top village still works the way the heart of a village still should.

We drove on from there up Ogmore Vale to Gilfach Goch, one of those back of beyond valley villages, which end up in a no-exit cwm. A place which only exists now because it once had its own coal mine. A place defined by its terraced houses slicing inot the rounded hillsides of the landscape. No superstores up here, but still a noticeable number of small shops, serving the local community not only with domestic provisions, but also gathering points, essential places in the social network of the valley. Are such enterprises valued enough by those with grand designs, I wonder.

We walked up the stream, presumably the source of the Owgr river at the head of the valley, through the landscaped zone where one the local colliery had stood. Much effort has been made in re-shaping the contours of land scarred by mining spoil heaps to ensure there is no repeat of the Aberfan disaster. What are in effect storm drains have been constructed in stone down steep slopes to channel rain water run-off to the stream at the bottom, rather than let rain sink into the hillside and risk de-stabilising huge masses of relatively small grained material in flattened out coal tips. After thirty years, the surfaces of these engineered areas are far less bio-diverse than ancient hillsides. Full integration biologically speaking may take centuries.

I was raised in a mining valley with coal dust in the river water, and in the sand along its shores. I'm delighted to return to Ystrad Mynach these days and see a clean water course with small fish stocks in the Rhymney again, and no sign of coal effluent. Shoals of river sediment are the same colour as the South Wales coalfield Pennant sandstone rock from which they were ground by the forces of nature.

Up at the head of the Ogwr Valley, the same Pennant sandstone is also a feature of the local landscape. The river is pure and clean. It leaches a pale red colour from surrounding strata that stains the rocky bed of the river in a distinctive way - the reason why the nearest village is Gilfach Goch (Goch=red in Welsh). As you climb up the artificially landscaped part of the stream, it's noticeable that in the river bed there's a lot more than the expected grey silt, pebbles and rocks of a pristine Pennant sandstone valley. There's a variety of colours, red, grey, blue, black in the pebbles, as colourful as a beach in Corsica. All this represents material washed down into the stream bed from the old coal tips. These are made up of stones raised from a half mile underground along with the coal. The stone ended up making the spoil heaps.

Beaches in Corsica, scree on alpine slopes may be equally as diverse in stone colour and character, representing aeons of geolgical change thrown up to the earth's surface by volcanic and glacial action. What so remarkable about the diversity of the pebbles in the Ogwr watershed is that they are so as the unique result of human enterprise. It's a tiny thing, give the scale of geological events, but nonetheless remarkable.

We drove from there down to McArthur Park outside Bridgend, a lovely scenic journey for the most part, with the aim of getting ourselves a cup of tea and inspecting the famous 'Designer Outlet' shopping mall. It was clean, well presented, well managed, but to me uninteresting, compared to the hillsides we'd just left behind.

No comments: