Yesterday (Tuesday 14th August) Deb and I took a day off from the garden.
We had promised ourselves that this summer we would get out sometimes, but have failed miserably until now.
We set off towards the Heritage Town of Blaenavon just over the border into Wales. Unfortunately our drive was delayed a little because of a nasty incident on a roundabout near Abergavenny where a lorry carrying a load of straw bales had overturned.
Hopefully the driver was OK.
Our drive was far badly slowed down by our SAT NAV.
Firstly it tried to take us a down a road that was closed off, and had been for several months I think. It decided upon another route but that took us onto a lane which was extremely narrow and instead of white lines, it had grass.
Undeterred we continued, but the route became even narrower and the only good thing about it was that there was no other vehicle using it. I was dreading having to find a way of letting something pass.
Eventually we found civilisation again after some wonderful views from the top of the Brecon Beacons that SAT NAV decided we should experience.
The town of Blaenavon is a small sleepy place with a lack of road signs. With SAT NAV forgiven we were using it again to find our first point of interest, but after telling us several times to turn into a lane with a perfectly acceptable name, we discovered no sign to guide us.
Eventually after two laps of the town centre we gave in and stopped in a car park that we had passed twice already. Fortunately it was free. Consulting the pathetic map, that the town offers online, we set off on foot for the Heritage Centre.
We went in the direction that looked the likely way, and soon a friendly man saw our looks of confusion and pointed out our target.
Our first urgent requirement were the toilets, followed by a cup of coffee after the expedition into deepest Wales. We discussed a possible place to dump the SAT NAV but decided it was probably doing its best in a foreign country.
The Heritage Centre was free to enter, and along with the café and toilets, it has a small exhibition describing the history of the town. Blaenavon, like much of South Wales, had an abundance of coal which was a major reason for the town being created. The ground also contained a lot of iron that was also mined making the town a very busy and successful place. The iron was extracted with the help of coal fired furnaces and the resulting metal transported by canal to its destination. As mining declined and eventually ceased, the town went into decline but fortunately it was declared as a world heritage site, and became a tourist magnet for those wanting to see a little bit of social history.
To aid the tourists who might be lost (like us) there is also an information desk with the usual plethora of handouts suggesting interesting places to visit. Armed with our trusty online map, we asked how far away the next place we wanted to go to. The helpful lady admitted that although our map was extremely artistic it was rather useless because the scale was random to allow everything to be fitted into one page.
She pointed out directions of how to get to the iron foundry, and the coal mine site, so off we went.
The Iron Foundry was just a five minute walk away, and we were soon looking around what is left of a once busy industrial site. Unlike the vast majority of places we visit, it was free to enter.
There were two main areas to look at. Firstly was the industrial bit with the remains of at least three furnaces and associated buildings where the molten iron was turned into usable chunks of the metal known as ‘Pig Iron’. The site had a small rail system with the trucks of coal and iron ore being moved around, and it included a huge water powered lift to move stuff between the site levels and away to the nearby canal.
I was disappointed with a lack of information and description about what I was seeing. Perhaps the lack of entry fees means little investment in the site, when a bit of thought, and some money could make this a really serious reminder of social history in an industry that created so much wealth for Britain.
The second part of the site was where cottages had been built for the workers, and these were fascinating.
There were five examples of what the cottages might have looked like from the 1920s through to 1967. It brings home the basic cramped conditions the workers in an industry that was hard, dangerous, and poorly paid.
The final two cottages were from the 1950’s and 1967, and they brought back a lot of memories from my first decade and my teenage years. A lot of things were as I remembered although the 1967 one seemed to be a long way behind my own experiences in Cornwall.
We spent an enjoyable hour at the site, but with my stomach suggesting I need something to eat, we moved on towards the other place we wanted to visit. That was called the ‘Big Pit’ and was the remains of the major coal mine in that area.
It was only a 20 minute walk (so we were told) but we decided to drive there to give my legs a rest.
SAT NAV’s sense of humour, and lack of signposts struck again.
It took about 20 minutes to find the place. We had two aborted sets of directions from the little electronic box of dodgy maps, plus with a lack of street names matching any possibly useful instructions we were given.
We eventually did a bit of guesswork plus semi-correct SAT NAV instructions and finally found the ‘Big Pit’ coal mine. The car park was almost full with at least 100 cars, and although entry to the exhibition was free, there was a reasonable fee of £3 to park the car.
This now disused pit was once very busy, but now offers visitors a chance to experience what it was like to work in the coal mine with a trip down to the mine working areas 300 feet below ground. We didn’t go down the pit itself as my knees would never have managed that on top of all the other walking I had done.
There was still plenty to look at. The remains of various mining machinery and buildings at are open to stroll around, and the site also houses the National Coal Museum in the old shower and locker area.
We began our visit with a snack before exploring some of the older buildings as we climbed up the steep hillside to the museum. Before going in, we looked out at the Brecon Beacons that towered above us. This reminded us of where we had been on our SAT NAV’s adventure a couple of hours earlier.
The museum was dominated by the vast shower room where the miners had a chance to wash off the black coal dust and mud before putting on their clean clothes at the end of a shift. The lockers remain as well although many of them are now a tiny snapshot of some of the mine’s characters with a photo and information card plus a short spoken description of their time at work.
Beyond the shower area there is a thought provoking exhibition describing mining in general as well as the Blaenavon Pit itself. There are examples of equipment and clothing used by the miners including the rescue support teams, as well as the actual coal face workers.
Of course there is also a history of coal mining in Britain culminating in the strikes of 1984 and the eventual demise of the industry. It is obviously close to the hearts of the people of this town, and the rest of South Wales and other mining areas of Britain. The display boards and photos telling the story of that dramatic episode are thought provoking, even to those who had no sympathy for Arthur Scargill and the miners.
There are several others places to visit in Blaenavon along with a series of walking trails, but we decided it was time to go home. Actually it was me seriously needing to give my legs a rest.
To summarise our day, I thoroughly enjoyed the time in this sleepy town, and while the Iron Foundry was good, the Big Pit was inspirational.
We gave SAT NAV another chance, but when it tried to make us go the way we had come, we laughed and ignored it. Rather than crossing back over the Brecon Beacons, we descended several miles down the side of the mountains and went around them to Abergavenny and home. The scenery is sensational, but the driving stopped me seeing much of the glorious landscape.
Perhaps we will come back here again one day, and look at the views properly.
Well worth a visit for those looking for something to do in this area.