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.


  1. Nathan, thanks for this very honest appraisal of life in South Wales.

    In the past year that I've been doing work in Appalachia I've been constantly struck by parallels: Aberfan & Marsh Fork, Awel Amen Tawe & Coal River Wind Project, to name but two. It fascinates me that you've done the reverse journey here and are picking up on the same things.

    It doesn't surprise me that you have had a very different Welsh experience to the one Jonathan Hiskes wrote about on grist. Jonathan was on a trip coordinated and funded by "International Business Wales, a business-promotion arm of the government." You have gone out there to set your own agenda.

    The communities in South Wales lost the mines a quarter century ago and there have been a series of attempts to "regenerate" the region. I put some faith in the current Welsh Assembly to deliver a more useful community-based regeneration model, and I'm basing this hope on what has already been achieved in Cardiff. This city has changed beyond recognition - for the better - in the past decade.

    I also suggest you take a look a little further North, at Mid Wales. 50 years ago, this region was suffering the collapse of the slate mining industry. Much has changed.

    Anyhow, safe travels.

    Pob hwl


  2. Hey Nathan,

    Great to read about your travels and the makings of your Watson! Keep up the networking! It seems to be the name of the game ;) Btw, I envy your strength to bike that far and experience wheel failure.

    Cheers & safe travels!

  3. Hey Nathan,

    I'm just beginning to catch-up with your travels, adventures, and discoveries. Re: the Aberfan and Buffalo Creek Disasters, I see a similar parallel in the Kingston TN coal ash spill. Granted, it was nowhere near as deadly, but it's one more exception to the statement, "Surely this couldn't happen in the United States."

    Thanks for sharing all that you are learning!