Saturday, 11 July 2015

A Land of Change

I started writing this whilst sitting in the Pizza Hut on the north side of Caerphilly. Pop music fills the place and I look out over a main road towards modern housing opposite. It is almost deserted, like the hills that surround me. They are hills that must have so many stories to tell about how man has changed the landscape around here over the past 100 years or so.

The two photos show the headgear of Penallta Colliery at Ystrad Mynach which opened in 1905 and closed in 1991; and the site site of the former colliery at Bedwas which opened in 1912 and closed after the Miner’s Strike in 1985. The latter has been cleared of all in the surface infrastructure and is now just an overgrown wilderness. The only main visible evidence of its former existence is the huge waste tip that dominates the skyline for miles around. This also is now being slowly colonised by nature like all the other tips in the area and it is just their unnatural shape on the skyline that gives them away. The landscape is full of reminders of the history that envelopes this area. I have visited this part of South Wales twice over the past month as part of my work and have been trying to understand the landscape here. It has intrigued me but I know that my explorations have only been superficial and there is much more to explore and understand.

I see the area as a place of deep contrasts. If I go for a short walk from the modern grey rectangular industrial unit that has been my base I can walk up a wooded footpath beside a rocky stream. There is a picturesque ancient church with a large overgrown graveyard. I can look out over an expanse of Welsh hills. There is a old farm with rather fragile old stone out buildings. Sheep and ponies graze in small buttercup filled fields. Hedges are unkept and mature trees are everywhere. Yet there are huge modern industrial units hidden behind trees and new housing estates are creeping up out of the valley towns onto the hillsides. Energy generated by the mining of coal has been replaced by electricity generated by many hilltop wind turbines and solar panels scattered over the landscape. Dual carriageways form transport corridors between the towns.

The mining history is disappearing. The hard manual labour that came with the sheer brute force of industrialisation has given way to a digital age. Whereas in years gone by a man would have undergone physically hardship for his entire working day deep in the mines, today the only physical effort required may be just the getting out of a chair to retrieve something off a printer or to go to the loo. This deep history seems almost incompatible with a health and safety conscious society and it feels as if it is being erased from our collective awareness. We move on, the past is in the past. New generations create their own history.

Together with other changes in agriculture and industry, I feel the hills are becoming lonely places, perhaps even a foreign landscape to many who are isolated by modernism in the valleys - or indeed by social and employment deprivation. 

One evening I walked out over the hill towards Bedwas. Within a few minutes I was in another world. I felt like I was on a remote country road in the middle of a deep rural idyll, not a half a mile away from industrial estates, houses and, it seemed, a healthy abundance of police cars! Perhaps it is the topography of the area that makes it unusual. The urban environment is surrounded on all side by high hills like it is cradled in a large bowl. I am aware of the two at the same time - the urban and the rural together, and yet they don’t seem to mix. The footpaths look little used and there is little evidence that the road is used by many people. The hedges are overgrown and full of mature trees, honeysuckle, bracken and holly. I find rivers and streams that seem to appear out of nowhere. It feels an old landscape and one on which it is hard to make a living. It suffered much when the coal mines were active. Now nature is trying to reclaim the landscape, but it still has fight on its hands from the needs of industrial and social development. 

Geology has formed the basis of the formation and development of the area and I much prefer landscapes like this than the chalky flint nature of the east of England where I live. Rock creates hills. It creates stream, rivers and a far more diverse natural history and cultural landscape. Weather patterns are more variable and there is a much greater variety of things to look at and places to explore. 

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