Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Valleys of South Wales

The past two weeks has been a complete whirlwind. It feels more like two months; nearly every day has been filled with different people and locations, and I’ve barely been able to keep track of it all.

I left from North Wales with one person to contact and a vague plan to try to meet people at a national cultural festival. I remember stepping off of the train and suddenly realizing that for the first time, I really had no idea where I was going to stay that night or what was going to happen. After a very helpful meeting with Sarah Loyd-Jones at the People and Work Unit in Abergavenny, I went into town to buy a tent and then rode my bike 13 miles to the Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale. The ride was unexpectedly hilly which was made even more aggravating by the 50 odd pounds on my back, but I was too focused on the scenery to notice too much. It felt so similar to home in Eastern Kentucky; at one point I thought that I could see Hazard in the distance.

The Eisteddfod was chock full of signs in Welsh that I couldn’t possibly understand, very friendly people, and strange choral and traditional Welsh music. I met several awesome people there who I hope to stay in contact with throughout the future, and almost instantly I had much more of a trajectory for the days to come.

I quickly realized that a focal point for my time in South Wales should be to talk with former coal miners and get a sense of what a transition away from coal had meant for them. I met my first ex-miner on the last night of the Eisteddfod, a fellow named Dai who was working security. He was happy to talk with me about it, and his sentiment came to be one that was echoed again and again in the following days: all of the mines in Britain were hard-core union, they stood up for their rights, and Margaret Thatcher and the anti-union conservative Tories intentionally destroyed them in the mid 80s and have been importing cheaper coal ever since. Dai was a proud man who would “go back into the pits tomorrow” if he could, but that will likely never happen for him or 98% of the other South Wales would-be miners.

After checking out one of the last operating coal mining operations in Wales (a huge surface quarry that’s supposedly one of the largest in Europe), I spent a couple of days in the capital city of Cardiff figuring out where to go. I had set up a meeting in Glyncoch with a woman working on community development issues in a run-down ex-colliery town for Wednesday and had decided to bike up there, as it was only about 13 miles away. About 3 miles into the trip I had a serious bike wreck when I hit a slick spot on the cycle trail I was taking; I ended up running back into town to buy a new wheel, switched it with the old one, and got back on the road. By that time I couldn’t possibly make it to the meeting that day, so I rescheduled for a couple of days later and took off down the path to see where I’d end up.

I came out in Caerphilli, the site of Europe’s 2nd biggest castle. I felt like I deserved dinner and a pint, so I stopped in at the King’s Arms pub. Something told me that the older fellers there had some stories to tell, and before I knew it I was sitting at a table with a bunch of ex-miners and people whose families had been miners. They were all very willing to share their stories, and I’ve recorded them to the best of my ability. I intend to have a companion page set up in the next couple of days to share their stories and others I might come across on this trip.

I nearly got robbed of my camera by some derelict locals who were fishing in the moat of the castle, but luckily got away and made camp for the night. The next day I biked to Pontypridd and hung out at the Rhondda Collieries park. This former shaft mine site has been turned into a museum, coal mine tour, and tourist attraction with money from the European Union. I mainly spent time reflecting on the realities of what a post-coal economy has meant for this region; there are a lot of lessons to be learned here, mainly about what not to do.

I finally made it up to meet with Jenny O’Hara at the Glyncoch Community Partnership on Friday. This town was somewhere between an old Appalachian mining town and a 1970s housing project; needless to say it was a little rough around the edges. Jenny took me around to show me the different small but powerful projects they were working on here, such as a community park/greenspace where there had once been a big pile of trash. All of the work was being done by local volunteers, both youth and older folks. This was significant as the youth in these areas are generally not very involved in positive or productive things. I’ve honestly been pretty worried at different times when passing bands of these kids on the streets; they’ve done a good job of picking up on the American-style gangster rap fashion and attitude, though with a hard to understand Welsh accent mixed in.

The next stop was Merthyr Tydfil. This was once the industrial powerhouse of Great Britain back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was centrally situated between iron ore and coal deposits, making it the ideal spot for rich industrial capitalists to come over from England and exploit the resources and people of the South Wales valleys. There is still a massive open pit mining operation happening just past the town, but all of the old steel and iron works have closed as well as the dozens of mines that used to employ up to 58,000 people in its heyday, making it the biggest city in Wales at one time. It could be argued that this place more or less made the Industrial Revolution possible; the aftermath of that legacy was considerably less glorious.

I saw several parts of the town, from the notorious housing projects area known as the Gurnos to the huge castle that the iron masters used to live in, to the abandoned and decrepit former iron works site. This last area is where the mid 80s road bike I’d been getting around on got stolen, or “nicked” as the locals would say. Even though it was quite a big town (still around 40,000), there were very few sources of employment for the local people and even fewer wholesome outlets for creativity or entertainment. I witnessed a massive amount of people on the government dole with little to do, look forward to, or be hopeful about other than a constant stream of gut-rotting cider and cable TV. In a sad way it reminded me of the most tragic parts of Appalachia. Both places have been used for everything they were worth by the powers of industrial development, and then more or less left to sort things out on their own when these powers no longer needed them.

Merthyr left a bit of a bleak spot in my soul, so I made a return trip to Glyncoch to help with the community park project for a bit. The next day was pretty interesting with a trip up to Tower Collieries and then the Arts Factory. The Tower Collieries mine works had operated for well over 100 years, but ended up shutting down along with most of the other UK mines in the 1980s with the Margaret Thatcher vs. the unions debacle. However, in the mid 1990s, the former miners at Tower decided to come together and buy the mine as a worker-owned and managed cooperative. They did this successfully and profitably for 13 years, employing well over 100 men until its closure in 2007. I met with Glen Roberts, a battle-hardened Welsh miner, union leader, and director of Tower Collieries, Ltd.

Glen was possibly the most community-minded and anti-bourgeoisie person I have ever met. We talked for over two hours about the history of the union movement in Britain, the history of Tower, how they came to form a cooperative approach to management, how nearly all Welsh people are anti-conservative because of Margaret Thatcher killing their coal industry in the 1980s, how he doesn’t really like those “green enviro people” because their wind turbines can’t power all of UK’s energy, that there is in fact such a thing as “clean coal,” and Tower’s future plans which now include a large open cast mine. He said that he would normally be against open cast mining (pretty much the same as strip mining) because it generally doesn’t provide benefit to the community, but he swore that their project would be sure to have community in mind from the start. He gave me some contacts for former miners and union leaders in Scotland, and as far as I could tell we parted as friends.

Gary Foreman, a fellow who works in a similar capacity to Jenny but in the town of Penywaun, was nice enough to give me a ride on over to nearby Fernhill to meet with Elwyn James, the director of Arts Factory. The Arts Factory story was pretty inspiring, as they originally started to give local youth and mentally handicapped people a productive outlet in the dying colliery towns back in the early 90s, before anyone else had jumped on the “community regeneration” bandwagon. Through several incarnations and business model changes, they have grown into one of the most well known and well developed organizations in the South Wales coalfields, now with their own graphic design department and online book sales operation in addition to several enterprise development schemes.

A few people had mentioned the town of Aberfan to me since I’d been in South Wales. This was the site of one of the worst industrial disasters to ever occur in the UK, and it happened only 44 years ago. Something made me feel like I had to see the place. I’m generally pretty stoic in my opinion, and not too prone to emotional displays. I was surprised when I was unable to not cry as I neared the rows of graves where 144 children and teachers were buried on the hillside above the town. The outsider owners of the local coal mine had been carelessly piling the wastes from the mining process into a precarious mountain that set directly above and behind the town’s elementary school, and on October 21, 1966 it all came sliding down in a few seconds. When I’ve mentioned to people around here that I visited Aberfan, a few commented that they’re sure that nothing like that could happen in the US. I had to tell them that unfortunately we had nearly the same thing happen in 1972 at Buffalo Creek in West Virginia, and we could have something similar again at Marsh Creek Elementary near Sundial, WV.

I got on a train from Aberfan and went straight into downtown Cardiff to have a meeting with the “Minister of Sustainability” in the Welsh government. Wales didn’t actually have its own government until 1997, although it’s still largely tied to the main UK government as far as taxes, schools, police, etc. When it successfully gained the right to make decisions on its own affairs, there was a conscious effort to have sustainability as a primary focus in all that the government does. I talked to Simon Bilsborough and his aide for nearly an hour about how that focus has played out in reality, and especially how it relates to the former coal mining areas. There was a lot to digest from that 50 minutes. I hope to be able to relate their experience to what could happen in Kentucky seeing as how my home state is about the same size and population as this country.

I spent the last few days in South Wales checking out a couple of projects in the general area around Swansea, the 2nd biggest town in Wales (maybe Lexington size?). EcoDysgu is a non-profit that mostly does “holistic healing” for people who have had problems such as incarceration or school expulsion, and also teaching courses for school kids and the public. They started as a one-summer program that ended up reconciling problem kids with the police officers that they used to have issues with and it grew organically form there. The place is built on a former pony coal mine site; the old pony barns have been converted to various work spaces. It was also a test site for bombers in the 2nd World War, complete with random craters in the woods. There’s a bit of a crazy hippy look to the place, but the local youth who were doing brush clearing work there didn’t seem to mind.

Finally I ended up in the village of Tairgwaith where the Awel Aman Tawe project is based. This has been a 10-years-in-the-making community owned wind farm project that has faced one hurdle after another. Dan McCallum, the main fellow behind the effort, was nice enough to invite me to his home for dinner with his family (pork roast from a pig they’d raised that had just been killed the day before!) and an overnight stay. We had a chance to talk about the issues involved with navigating public perception behind renewable energy, as well as the issues around dealing with the local councils who often pay little mind to whether the locals are behind something.

My time in South Wales has been educational, heartbreaking, challenging, inspirational, and probably a few other things all at the same time. I originally came here expecting to find glowing examples of how an innovative country can implement sustainable change in a former extractive industry area, largely because of this article. I’m sorry, but that was not my experience. The people of the South Wales valleys have largely been forgotten; large-scale plans to move toward a more sustainable economy don’t seem to have reached into the areas where Britain’s poverty levels are the highest. I saw a strange mirror image of my Appalachian homeland: beautiful scenery, generous and good-hearted people, but also high levels of unemployment and the deprivation that goes along with dependence on government checks for day-to-day living in an area where the industry that it was once built on has disappeared.

This is a place where nothing is black and white, much like Appalachia. The coal mines once provided a proud sense of identity, a strong sense of community, and a living that the miners and their families were proud of. These communities existed only because powerful outsider interests wanted the resources extracted as cheaply as possible, and when it was no longer convenient or economically beneficial they were simply put on “redundancy payments” and forgotten. The people are still there, but they have lost their sense of identity; there has been no real transition.

As one community worker put it, the attempts at transition here have largely been “short-sighted and half-hearted.” As another said, there have been no attempts at building a culture of entrepreneurship here, a sorely needed approach in a place that spent generations under the heel of powerful industrial masters.

Despite how gloomy this must sound, I do have hope for South Wales and Appalachia. With innovation, determination, and intelligent networking, stories of success can spring forth in the most unlikely of places.

For more pictures of this leg of the trip, check out the facebook photo album.

Monday, August 9, 2010

I arrived in London at 7am on Friday, July 23rd to a mad rush of customs officials and dozens of people holding signs to find their friends, families, and associates. This was all quite alien to me being my first time flying out of the country, but I managed to figure out how to navigate around with my massive backpack to get onto the city-wide train system known as “the tube.” I had only been able to get an hour and a half of sleep on the plane (got quite sick actually, won’t go into the details) and now had to find my way to a friend’s flat in a distant part of a huge city that I’d never been to. Luckily adrenaline was kicking in along with a few coffees, and I soon found myself at his doorstep.

I’m still amazed that I made it through the whole day without crashing. Mike, my former coworker at Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, NC took me on a whirlwind tour of the entire town. I have never seen so many massive historic buildings in one place; D.C. paled in comparison. For whatever reason we also made it through the high-fashion district and also some of the more interesting down-to-earth parts of town before finally ending up back in his neighborhood for a couple of pints. I had never been so grateful for a couch to lie down on.

The train to Wales left from London at 2:10pm the next day, and I literally made it onto the carriage just as it was closing up. Apparently the London buses were not quite as fast as Mike had thought as I ended up getting off and running in a dead sprint to the train station for the last few blocks. The scenery was fairly boring initially through the English countryside but became much more interesting as we made it deeper into Wales. There was an eerie familiarity with the hills of Eastern Kentucky back home, with majestic mountains looming over vast trailer parks. Some differences were popping up however: we don’t have centuries-old castles or dozens of huge wind turbines in Appalachia.

I was greeted at the train station by Lucy, the extremely generous English girl from Birmingham (Black Sabbath’s hometown!) who would be putting me up for the next couple of weeks. I was immediately grateful for her friendliness, as it was beginning to dawn on me how completely alone I was in totally unfamiliar territory. I spent the next couple of days getting settled into Menai Bridge and exploring the surrounding area on Lucy’s bike. This little town is on the coast of the Isle of Anglesey, separated from the Welsh mainland by the Irish Sea. It was strange and quite nice at the same time to be biking down roads with ancient buildings and stone walls on either side, interspersed with views of the seaweed-covered rocky coastline with the mountains of Snowdonia rising up on the mainland far into the distance.

I made it into the town of Bangor that Monday morning to meet Franco and get started with my mini-internship at Bangor University. I had sent several emails around to various agencies and groups in Wales while still in the States to try to find interesting projects to tie into and get some work experience with that would ideally be relevant to the work I hope to do once I get back to Appalachia at the end of the fellowship. I ended up being contacted by someone who I had not actually emailed, asking if I would like to be involved with a land remediation scientific study wherein I would be helping to get soil samples and do some lab analysis for a slate quarry site in the mountains of North Wales. Franco was a really nice undergrad who was a couple years older than me and doing a for-credit internship over the summer that entailed the project I was tying into. I was happy to have a starting point for my journey, and decided to do a three-week stint with this project that I really knew very little about.

My first couple of days with the University (“uni” for short, no one says “college” here) were not quite what I had expected. I spent nearly all of my time preparing reagents and doing painstakingly accurate measurements for high-tech lab analyses of unknown soil samples. By the second day, I began to grow quite disheartened as I felt like I was not doing what I had received this fellowship to do. I didn’t really need the lab experience as I don’t intend to have a job in a lab at any point; I’m here to spend time in communities with parallels to Appalachia and to see examples of sustainability projects that could work back home. Wednesday changed everything.

Franco and I left quite early to drive down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, the site of the slate quarry where the remediation trials were occurring. I was in awe during most of the hour-long car ride. We were surrounded by massive mountains interspersed with ghostly mining towns and fancy tourist resorts. Some of these slate mining places, such as Bethesda, were once the largest quarries in the world. Huge, barren piles of broken up slate stones (known as “slate tips”) rose ominously above rows of identical hundred-year-old stone houses, all with the same dull gray slate tile roofs. Immense quarry sites where whole sides and tops of mountains had been removed to extract the slate sat directly adjacent to pristine, scenic vistas. I knew that I was in the right place.

The work at the site was very enjoyable for me, despite constantly getting jabbed by stinging nettles. Water infiltration rates, bulk density, above-ground biomass, and general soil samples are right up my alley, and I was glad to be outside working with my hands for the three days that it took to gather all the necessary samples and data. It was a bit surreal to think of this place in comparison to coalfield Appalachia, where we have similar challenges for ecological regeneration on mountaintop removal mine sites albeit in a very different setting. Total lack of organic matter with compacted broken up rock as a substrate are certainly parallels, although the scale at which MTR has occurred over the past few decades is many times greater than the amount of land affected by slate quarrying in this region over hundreds of years. The mountains in Wales were denuded of trees hundreds of years ago, and have instead been used primarily for sheep grazing where possible.

Although the soil sampling work was far more rewarding than the lab tasks, I realized a few days in that I would have to cut my stay here in half if I truly wanted to see and experience this country. I’m set to be in Spain by September, and I need to experience the South Wales coalfields as well as areas of Scotland and possibly Yorkshire before then. The soil sampling gig will have relevance to work I intend to do in the future with MTR sites, but overall there didn’t seem to be examples of sustainability projects here to transition these dying slate mining communities to something better. Ecotourism seemed to be happening to a decent extent, no doubt helped by the fact that the vast majority of this area is designated as the National Park of Snowdonia (exceptions were made for the areas with huge slate reserves). As I’ve seen in other examples of ecotourism, only a handful of jobs for locals are created to serve the outside tourists who come in to hike, camp, and go to museums and putt-putt courses.

Once I had booked a train ticket and made plans to head to South Wales (starting out with the National Eisteddfod, a 200 year old festival of Welsh culture and arts in a former coal mining and steel smelting colliery), I decided that I needed to spend at least one day in the mountains, both for the natural scenery and to get at least a taste of the culture. Menai Bridge and Bangor are both more or less college towns, and I actually met very few local Welsh people there. Bizarre bilingual signs were everywhere however, and I continue to marvel when I find out how some of these words are actually pronounced (Eisteddfod is pronounced ay-steth-vod, for example). After a chaotic morning trying to tie up loose ends in the lab on Wednesday morning, I set off on the haggard road bike that I’ve been spending way too much time working on to make it to the mountains outside Bethesda.

A researcher in the lab (Christoph from Germany) suggested I take a secluded bike path instead of the main road, and it was a very good suggestion. I can’t help but be amazed at how gorgeous the old bridges are around here, and how there are hand built stacked-stone fences literally everywhere. The path came out at the huge and still active Bethesda slate quarry, where another path started that wound between slate tips on the right and wilderness on the left. Eventually I made it to a parking lot beside Lake Ogyen where the path up mountain Tregarth started. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and had little more than a vague map in a brochure and a couple of water bottles in a pack.

Words can’t do the next few hours justice, but it was definitely the most breathtakingly scenic and completely frightening thing I have probably ever done. Climbing straight up one immense series of rocky cliffs after another (literally up into the clouds); crossing over ridges populated by mountain goats, sheep, and other-worldly rock formations; overlooking vistas that extend for miles; places with names like Glyd-y-Vawrs and Devil’s Kitchen. All of a sudden it was time to come off the mountain, and right about that time the clouds/fog became so thick that I couldn’t see more than fifteen feet in front of me. I was somehow able to scramble down through mushy pasture, brambly blueberries and heather (a local low-growing woody shrub that flowers in iridescent purple, orange, and yellow), ravines, and sections of loose rock that sometimes led to sheer cliffs to eventually make it down to the road on the wrong side of the mountain. After taking some amazing pictures of the sunset, I realized I had no idea where I was. Luckily I was able to hitch a ride with a nice family on holiday (no one says “vacation”), and they took me the 8 miles around the mountain to the point where I’d parked my bike.

Though I was completely exhausted, I was able to get a boost of adrenaline energy and bike back to Bethesda, the ghostly quarry town I had first passed through a week ago with Franco although it seemed like at least a month prior. I stopped in at a local pub with hopes of talking to people who either are or were employed in the slate mines and for some coffee and a pint. It was a very nice little place, and I was pleased to hear almost nothing but Welsh being spoken when I entered. The woman at the bar was very friendly, as were the other patrons who started talking to me once they noticed my strange accent. These were all older people, and none of them had been involved in slate mining and none knew of any alternative economic development projects in the area. I thanked them for their friendliness, and made it back the last several miles to Menai Bridge by around midnight.

I’m now on a train to South Wales, passing through a mix of hay and cattle fields with rolling forested hills in the background. Very reminiscent of the parts of Kentucky where the bluegrass butts up against the foothills, such as Madison or maybe Rockcastle county. I really don’t know what to expect of the next few weeks. I did not rigidly plan this part of the trip, as I wanted to have the flexibility and freedom to explore and follow leads as they come up. I do hope to make more direct connections with the people who are or were employed in the mining industry here; that's the one area I feel like I should've done a better job with up north in the slate mining towns. Check back again toward the middle/end of August to see how it all went!