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Window on South Wales

Antiques and old books, seaside treats and people who just wouldn't give up...

It seemed like a no-brainer. During a recent trip to the UK, shouldn't we make a visit to South Wales, as our home is in Australia's antipodean version - NEW South Wales? We knew there would be coal, coastlines, and even a place called Cardiff – but we were surprised and enchanted to discover many more differences than similarities.

To everyone's astonishment (ours included) we booked in to a small local pub for a week in Pontlottyn (above). 

There are no airs and graces about the Lord NelsonNo views, no spa, no grand restaurant. Yet we found our hosts, John and Christine Doyle, to be most welcoming and generous, and our room was clean and comfortable. What more could we want?

Good honest food, of course, and Christine turned that out too. Home-cooked ham in sandwiches, lasagne, local lamb chops and homemade gravy. Even curries were on the menu, if we'd felt the need for one.

(pic: Gordon Hammond)

While for us, the Lord Nelson hotel was a central base from which to explore, for the locals this was a busy and friendly spot to catch up with friends over a pint (or three) pulled by bartender Leighton.

There's Christine and John behind the bar. (pic: Gordon Hammond)

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I haven't been entirely honest here, though. One of the main reasons I wanted to be away from the cities, choosing to be up in 'the valleys' amongst the ghosts of former thriving mining towns, was that this was where my great-grandfather was born. His father was a forge hammerman in one of the ironworks, so I imagine he worked long and hard, as they all did in the mid-1800s.

Life was more than hard in those long-ago days. It was often tragic. Overlooking Tredegar, a village still struggling to recoup after the mines closed in the 1980s, we came across this poignant reminder. David and Ann Williams have faded from memory, except here on a lonely hillside overlooking the town, where they represent the families so devastated by a plague of cholera in 1849.

Although it happened over 160 years ago, any parent can identify with their despair and fear.....but more of these valleys and their rebirth later.

 

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High on my personal must-do list was to catch up with a favourite TV show. In Australia, we see it years later than it is filmed, so I was determined to find it in action. As luck would have it (or maybe I organised our itinerary to fit with the filming...who knows?) during our time in South Wales, a BBC Antiques Roadshow episode was scheduled at Pembroke Castle on the far south-western 'toe' of Wales. 

Pembroke is not a large town, but it was the ideal location for this event as its main street leading up to the 12th-century castle, birthplace of Henry VII, is lined with tearooms and antiques shops.

For a special event like this, entry to the castle grounds is free, and once inside, even though it was afternoon when we arrived, there were still long lines of patient people with their precious heirlooms waiting to meet an expert who could assess the value of their treasures.

We saw many faces that were familiar from the show. Here, ceramics and glass expert Andy McConnell, expounds on a vase which moments earlier he had donned as a hat, clowning for the crowd.

When something that might become part of the show is being examined, the camera crew is called in to film it. We recognised jewellery expert John Benjamin (above) too, examining a tiny gold trinket. Only glimpses, though, of presenter Fiona Bruce who seemed to be everywhere at once.

Britons do 'queuing' very well. It seems to be their default position, so ingrained that no-one seems to notice a little waiting around. And anyway, there are always others to chat with in the line. To one side of the grounds there was a huge white plastic marquee, a 'Tea Tent' serving tea and coffee and scones and sandwiches, and offering shelter from the rain, should there be any. For those who could not stand the wait, there were chairs like these, each with a witty phrase on the back.

Pembroke is full of history. The thing to remember about Britain, is that 'new' may not mean this decade. Or even last century. 

Just a short distance away is Tenby, established in the 13th century. It got a tourism boost in 1802 when the Napoleonic Wars stopped the rich from going abroad for spa treatments and holidays, and healing baths. With its maritime climate and mild winters it was the ideal place to attract British visitors. And it still is.

With four kilometres of sandy beaches Tenby has been called the ‘prettiest town in South Wales’.

Of course every seaside town needs ice creams....

...and of course fish and chips. There is a holiday feel in this town, almost continental, with outdoor dining, flags, umbrellas and plenty of places for a cup of tea and a cake.

Because of its age, Tenby is a walled town with an unusual and proudly preserved five-arched gate.

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In contrast to the bustle of the coast we spent one day exploring 'the valleys' as every local calls them. Locations are given as 'in the next valley' or 'across the moor' and here, high amongst the cattle, we could see why Richard Llewellyn, author of the book How Green was my Valleywanted to share it with others. So popular was it that it became a major Hollywood film in 1941.

Now quiet and rural, once the air over these valleys would have rung with the noise of industry, coal smoke filling the sky, clinging to clouds and mist and settling over the towns like a thick unhealthy blanket. Pontlottyn is just one of scores of unremarkable Welsh villages without which the immense advances of the Industrial Revolution could not have been achieved.

In 1801, Merthyr Tydfil (current pop. 62,000) was the largest town in Wales. It is the largest town in the valleys, and a hub for the surrounding villages. Like these it is still reinventing itself, adding cafes and bars, a shopping centre and indoor market and looking at attracting visitors.

The busy bar-restaurant in the town centre (above) has an unusual name, and it wasn't until we walked across the street that we realised its origin.

The harsh working conditions for miners and ironworkers caused many insurrections and uprisings, the tales of which have become part of local lore. While tempers sparked and emotions ran high, few forgot the possible cost of trying to gain a fair deal from their masters. This young man, aged just 23 years, paid the ultimate price.

Something else which was a surprise throughout southern Wales, is that Welsh is used in almost every situation. On road signs it may be at the top, so English-speakers need to read the bottom first - or else miss an important direction.

This is Siloa Chapel in Aberdare where my great-great-grandparents were married in 1858. I am including this, not as an indulgence, but because the chapels throughout the valleys were an important element in the push for fair rights for the workers. Not only were they a place for worship on the only rest-day of each week, but they also became places to gather and plan strikes and tactics for industrial change. 

Merthyr, as many call it, has had a rugged history, and can still be a tough place to live, with some places gaining something of a reputation.

Yet, close by on the main street we found Pizza Woodfired Kitchen doing just what its name suggests: crusty woodfired pizzas, and good coffee.

The locals in these towns know all about hard work. They have reinvented themselves many times over the centuries, and my guess is that in a couple of years – five, maybe ten –Merthyr Tydfil will again be a welcoming and vibrant hub, servicing the region as well as attracting tourists who will hike the moors, cycle bike paths, and hungrily devour good food in a host of cafes and pubs.

There is nothing romantic about the era when coal mining was the major industry in this region. The quality of Welsh coal was high. It burned cleanly and quickly with no ash and was greatly prized throughout Britain and the Continent as the Industrial Revolution began. It led the world for a while with the world's largest ironworks, the site of the first steam locomotive journey in 1804, and perhaps the world's first cast-iron bridge, although Shropshire disputes this!

Today there is only the occasional mine such as this one high on the moors above Pontlottyn, but tourists can visit the Big Pit at Blanaefon near Abergavenney to get some idea of how and why it was done.

Nothing, though, can truly express how slavishly the men (and boys as young as seven) worked. Hours were long with workers underground for up to 12 hours a day: bent double, hacking into the coalface, hauling carriages, inhaling foul and noxious fumes that would send them to early graves.

Merthyr was close to reserves of iron ore, coal, limestone, lumber and water, making it an ideal site for ironworks. The people who benefited were the owners of those ironworks, of course, like William Crawshay, who, it is said, built a church with a tower overlooking the valley road along which the men walked to the mine and back each day. He put a clock face on three sides of the tower, but not on the valley side (where the men could have seen the time) as he wanted them to not realise the hours they had been working.

The monument to his career, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built in 1824 with the money his underpaid workers enabled him to amass. Little wonder that this area has a long history of uprisings and protests, stretching right into the 20th century.

This 'memorial' to him on the castle grounds shows him proudly surveying his property and holdings, while grinding down the workers beneath his feet. The castle and its museum and art gallery is open to visitors.

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The Brecon Mountain Railway runs from Pant, near Merthyr Tydfil to a point high in the Brecon Beacons. The Beacons offer natural beauty and outdoor options to rival England's Lake District. There are lakes and waterways, castles, caves, waterfalls, nature reserves and gardens.

Whether your passion is abseiling or rock climbing, caving, cycling and mountain biking, horse riding and trekking, or watersports, it's available in the Beacons, with the back-up plan of cafes and pubs in which to rest and refuel, or to pick up the makings for a picnic on the moors.

The full return journey from Pant to Torpantau takes 1.5 hours which includes a 25-minute stop at Pontsticill on the way back.
 You can stay longer if you wish to, returning to Pant by a later train. Time travel at its best!

In Pontsticill there is the Lakeside Cafe, a new Steam Museum, walks alongside the reservoir, and a children’s play area.

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We saw these cakes everywhere, in markets, cafes and bakeries, and it was interesting to learn that despite their name, they really should be called South Wales cakes.

We watched them being made in the Indoor Market in Merthyr Tydfil where the owner of the stall proudly says that he taught Jamie Oliver how to make Welsh cakes.

Similar to the griddle cakes made years ago throughout Britain on a flat iron pan over coals, these can be served sprinkled with sugar, buttered, or split and spread with butter and jam. They are rich and pastry-like, so ideally sit yourself down with a cup of tea, to enjoy them best.

Here is the recipe: if you want to try making them for yourself.

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This is why I have great hopes for Merthyr Tydfil. About 13 years ago I visited Abergavenny, a major centre on the eastern side of the valleys. I was travelling with a couple of other people and none of us was local. We had no leads as to where to find lunch and I remember we wandered around the main centre searching for something we wanted to eat. We found plenty of fast food, but nothing that any of us wanted to eat. From there on, Abergavenny became a sort of private code for us of a place with poor food options.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the Abergavenny Food Festival is a major Welsh annual food event. There are several well-ranked restaurants in the town, and a market bursting with produce. Good cafes, too.....

...and while the locals may not worship in chapels as much these days, this one at least has become a fun venue in which to relax and celebrate.

This striking mural is on a building in the city centre near the clocktower, and extends around the sides, showing how Abergavenny has changed over the centuries. Keep this in mind as a landmark, because in the vicinity is an excellent cafe-bar, a bakery, a master butcher and the markets.

Crickhowell is a delightful village twenty or so kilometres north-west of Abergavenny. Suddenly we had left the mining villages, and entered a town of flowers and finesse. In the serendipitous way that happens when you travel, someone in a shop way across the valleys, had said the magic words: 'You really should go to...'. We always pay attention when someone says this, as it is often gold for a visitor. Local knowledge is the best, usually, so here we were.

And so we found ourselves at The Bear, a former 15th-century coaching house. Newly built around the time of the Wars of the Roses (I do love the age of so many places in Britain!) it is now a hotel and restaurant. Inside, we found the dining area a warren of small romantically-lit rooms, the tables packed by diners, many of whom had their dogs quietly installed at their feet.

Better still, the menu was contemporary, with several options we fancied: like fresh gorgonzola-stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto (yes!), a sensational fish pie with seasonal vegetables (a huge plus in a country that does not always meet my need for veggies) and an authentic mushroom risotto (above) topped with shards of crisped parmesan.

As if it could get any better, while we ate we watched an elderly lady make her way from table to table, chatting with diners. When she reached ours, she introduced herself at Mrs Hindmarsh, the 92-year-old owner. She told us she had bought this property 36 years ago as a sort of retirement activity, and here she was, still meeting and greeting and charming us all!

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Cardiff the capital, city of cafes, castles, cheese and cwtch. 

Keep calm and Cwtch. I saw this on a fridge magnet in a souvenir shop in the city, along with love-spoons (a traditional Welsh love-gift, found everywhere in town) red dragons, daffodils, Welsh slate coasters and cookie cutters shaped like Wales. Yes, really! I asked the salesperson what is cwtch, and was told it means a hug, a cuddle, the feeling of being secure. Well, I just had to buy one.

We drove to the city as it turned out that Cardiff was only an hour or so down the highway from the valleys, even though the high-rise and traffic made it seem much more removed. Just across the road from the parking station we found this cafe, Bill's, established in 2001, and now with several branches. Judging by how busy it was even at 11am, we decided to try it - a good choice.

Eclectic decor, and with a happy hum from the diners, it was serving great coffee too - just the starter we needed for our day in town.

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Cardiff is known for its arcades. They link the major city streets and are packed with boutiques and small shops and restaurants.

The St. Mary Street entrance to Cardiff Central Market was originally the site of Cardiff gaol where the gallows that hanged Dic Penderyn in 1831 were located. Now this has become the site that food-lovers delight in visiting. It's a great place  to find Welsh cheeses that are known and loved around Britain. Sadly, knowing I had no way of storing them, it was with difficulty I resisted these.

In a city we have never visited before, I always like to take an orientation trip on a City Sightseeing bus. Cardiff has only been the capital of Wales since 1955. Fifty minutes later, at the end of the tour with a truly excellent commentary, we felt we knew the city a little better, and were ready to take our own slower tour by car.

This is not a new city though. Cardiff Castle dates from the 11th century and was possibly commissioned by William the Conqueror. It was built on the remains of a third-century Roman fort. In the 1940s, the last owner of the medieval castle gave it, and the surrounding park, to the city on behalf of the people of Cardiff. It is protected as a grade I listed building and is a scheduled monument, and now is now run as a tourist attraction.

Cardiff has many fine public buildings made from local limestone. The top deck of a sightseeing bus is the best place to see the taller buildings, but on this one we were warned to watch out for overhanging tree branches - and low bridges. Well, that was enough to keep us in our seats!

While there are many nods to Cardiff's heritage, this is a vibrant contemporary city which is forward-looking. Closer to the waterfront, a Tardis-blue building brought exclamations from  the Dr Who fans on board. Many would make their way back there to enjoy it later.

You could walk past this stone animal and never know why it was there, apparently trying to escape from the castle grounds. There are fifteen of them , some dangerous, others not. Read the full story about them HERE....

Despite the name, this is a shop only. Hotel Chocolat is smack-bang in the upmarket shopping area of Cardiff, near John Lewis department store and the city's Central Library.

You just have to love a place which sells something like this!

Within a few blocks you can trace the growth of Cardiff and its changes. These massive fists are a symbol of the strength of the hands of those long-ago coal miners. South Wales was integral to the economy of Britain in the 19th century. By 1830, Monmouthshire and east Glamorgan were producing half the iron exported by Britain. Ultimately the economy downturned when coal and related industries moved to England.

Of course liquor is also basic to most communities, and Brains Brewery was founded in Cardiff in 1882. The company still controls 250 pubs in south Wales.

This landmark building is one of the most recent fine buildings in Cardiff and was opened in 2009. Centrally located, and highly visible it makes a great meeting spot for locals and visitors to the city.

Twenty minutes or so from the city centre, Cardiff again morphs in to a new entity. Mermaid Quay is the fun side of town, a waterfront playground, with cafes, restaurants, bars, ice cream parlours, a ferris wheel, and exhibition halls.

With space to walk, cycle or rollerblade, you can simply sit and reflect (literally!) if that is all you want to do.

For something really wacky, peer over the edge and see this shrine. Strangest of all, Ianto Jones was not a real person. He was a fictional TV character, now 'mourned' here forever, it seems. Read more here....

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Another 'You must go to....' tipoff from a local. This time it was Llandaff on the northern outskirts of Cardiff. As it was on our route back towards the valleys, it made sense to stop and dine here. Tiny, but picture perfect, it has just one main street that joins the highway.

It's name is also a good excuse to share the lesson I was given in Wales on how to pronounce words that begin with that confusing Ll. I had always though I could fluff it by using 'F'. Llandaff become Flandaff, right? Oooh no, I was told. What you have to do, is produce the L from the back of your throat, blowing forward and ending with your tongue as you would normally for L. It works out something like HHH-landaff! Try it, it works.

Spoiled for choice in this small place we opted for Maltsters, taking what seemed like the very last seats in the place. It's one of those 250 Brains-operated pubs, and ran like clockwork despite the capacity crowd. An hour later, full of good fish and chips and veggies (me) and rump steak burger (Gordon) we hit the road for what, for this short time, was our South Wales 'home'.

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There is no end to the places to explore in South Wales. One day we visited Talgarth, a village north-east of Brecon, towards the English border.

There we found Talgarth Mill that grinds its own flour and bakes superb bread which is served in  the cafe overlooking the stream which, in a lovely act of circularity, powers the mill itself. The town was also worth wandering. There is a produce market and several specialty food stores and handcraft shops which make it a great day trip.

For book lovers though, the ultimate outing is to visit Hay-on-Wye, known for being book-centric.

There are close to thirty bookshops in the small town, covering all topics, as well as antiquarian and second-hand. Non-readers are not forgotten either as there are antiques and second-hand stores, a market, and naturally plenty of places to eat and drink and relax.

One of the largest bookshops is Hay-on-Wye Booksellers which has been operating for over forty years and has thousands of books on its shelves and database.

But if you like a little sunshine with your reading, across the road is this open air bookstand where you can browse at your leisure then stretch out on the grass and relax.

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Despite all the culture in those bookshops, on our way home that afternoon, we couldn't overlook the fact that this was still rural countryside. Sadly we were to be far away by the time this fascinating event was to take place, so we are still none the wiser about how it is possible to judge ploughing and hedging!

There are constant reminders, too, that this is an old land. At one point, near Crickhowell, in a field just visible from the road we came across Tretower Court and Castle with its rounded medieval tower, and one of the finest houses of this period in Wales.

Next day, as we leave South Wales at Monmouth, we see similar curves on the bridge over the river Monnow where it meets the Wye river. This friendly wildlife worker was happy to chat for a while. His rescued barn owl seemed not quite so keen to waste time.....

...although he posed for a picture.

Land of my Fathers is the Welsh national anthem and although Wales is the 'land of my grandfathers', I was surprised to realise how much South Wales resonated with me, and I am now immensely proud of that small trickle of Welsh blood in my veins.

It's just as if I have brought some genuine Welsh cwtch home with me!

 

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More information about Wales.....

&

Learn about Wales from VisitBritain....


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Gordon and Sally Hammond travelled to Wales independently, and stayed there at their own expense.

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Text & images: ©Sally Hammond 2017

Video: @Gordon Hammond 2017

 

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