Next Stop Bruges

It’s hard to believe my time in Wales (land of giant bumblebees and pigeons – I swear both are about three times as big here as they are at home!) has come to an end.  Thanks to my wonderful hosts I’ve managed to get a well rounded overview of Wales and had a fantastic time.

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Chris and Sharon have been to a few of the places I have on my itinerary so I’m fully armed with tips and must see’s.

But time has come to an end here in Wales has and I’m moving on to Belgium, first stop Bruges (via London and Brussels) – gonna be a long day!

I share the train from Swansea to Cardiff with hordes of locals off to see a game (I’m assuming by all the red shirts).  It’s absolutely packed – standing room only.  I’m glad I was at the front of the queue and managed to get a seat. The mob is buzzing, fuelled by the cans of alcohol they are consuming well before 11am in the morning.  At each station more people pile on – I don’t know which spaces they are squeezing themselves into!  Finally the train arrives in Cardiff and departs with a much lighter (and quieter) load.

At Paddington I grab a taxi and head off to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar – my first trip on it in fact.  I clear customs and have a while to wait before my train, but with this massive backpack there’s no way I was going to fill in time wandering around.  Soon enough the Eurostar is departing and I settle in for the ride.  It’s only a few hours to Brussels and I don’t even notice the train going underground across the channel.  I swap trains and despite the lack of English around, end up on what seems to be the correct train to Bruges.

Out the window of the train, two baby deer frolick at the edge of the woodlands alongside the railway line, and startle at the noise of the train passing by.  Quaint little towns pass by the window and it’s not long before Bruges station comes into sight.  I am a little anxious as to whether this is my stop as the monitor on the train only seems to speak German.  Luckily many German words are similar to English words and I feel I know enough to be sure I can get off here.

I arrive in Bruges just as the sun has set and darkness is just starting to set in.  I  punch in the code I have been given before arriving to access my room and climb the narrow circular stairway to my room.  It’s very cute and clean with a view out of the tops of the surrounding buildings.  I want to head out and join the crowds of people in the town square.  It’s not far from my hotel, although I’m not sure which way, but I follow the noise and soon enough reach it without trouble.

Diners pack the tables surrounding the square, with people walking and cycling around the outskirts.  It’s quite clear that the town is full of tourists.

I can’t wait to get out and explore the city tomorrow (along with al the other tourists).

Swinging into the Future, Catching up on the Past

Enough of the serious stuff, for today we are going to get our ape on.  Not far from Swansea town, located in Margam Country Park is Go Ape – a high in the tree-tops zipline adventure park.  This two to three hour long adventure starts of with a thorough safety briefing and kitting up into safety harnesses.  During the briefing, I look to the trees.  It’s kinda high.  I’m not scared of heights, but it’s kinda high.

Our guide supervises us one by one as we navigate the first platform and wires, making us repeat any mistakes, until she is 100% confident that we are doing it properly.  Off we go, climbing to the platforms, sometimes navigating sky-high wobbling plank steps and flying down the ziplines to the next stage.  Our guide is never far, appearing out of the bushes like magic if anyone needs help.

Some of the platforms are so high off the ground I have to second guess myself, but one you make the leap of faith it’s great fun.  The hardest part is making any landings look stylish and by the end of the session it’s safe to say, there are woodchips down the back of my pants.

The park itself is a beautiful destination, with Margam Castle, a 19th century Tudor Gothic Mansion standing proudly on the grounds.  There’s also an Orangery and the ruins of Margam Abbey.  For those who are interested – or might recognise the buildings in the photos below, the BBC have used Margam Park as the location for several Dr Who episodes, since 2007.

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This afternoon is special.

You may recall from my trip to Poland last year that my family on my Father’s side was originally from Poland.  When my Father’s family was forced out of Poland during World War II, it was a hard and sad time for them.  They had ‘lost’ Poland and not ‘found’ anywhere else to belong.  A group of them travelled together – my Babcia (grandmother) – who had been visiting her sister and family in the countryside from Warsaw – her mother, her sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband Ignacz, and their children Bogdan and Alicija (Ala).  Ala was only young a the time she left their farm in Ostrow.  At the end of the war, she settled in Coventry, whilst my Babcia and Father emigrated to Australia.  Through the wonders of technology, I have been able to chat briefly to her via Skype over the years, but Chris (her son) and Sharon have arranged for her to visit Wales from Coventry for a couple of days during my visit.  I can’t tell you how excited I am for the opportunity to meet her, and perhaps also put together some more pieces of the puzzle.

We meet Ala off the bus and she says “I never thought I’d be seeing Wlodek’s daughter in my life”.  She asks to look at me properly to see any likeness to my Father.  She thinks I’m more like my Mother.  But she’s very excited to meet me.  Likewise.

Our chatter in the car is a variety of things – how was her bus ride, snippets of family information, questions about my trip.  She didn’t bring her mobile because it needed a new SIM card so Andrew (Chris’s brother) was fixing that, but she does have her IPAD, which she loves.  She can’t believe how much information about the Polish deportations is on the internet.

She has an excellent grasp of the English language and has a brilliant memory.

She wishes I could have come and visited her home city in Coventry.

I am only at the beginning of the research trail into my family history and whilst I know some things and have some questions for her, I feel anxious to fill in the gaps now so I can speak to her more.  It’s really incredible to speak to her about her experience as a displaced person, learn what my Babcia and Dad’s father were like and also just to chat to her about her life now and what she likes and doesn’t like.  I am incredibly thankful to Chris and Sharon for making this meeting happen and I can’t wait to meet with Ala again, next time in Coventry and hopefully I’ll be armed with much more of my family history.

Ala

The Real Valleys

So what of the Valleys?  “The Valleys” were a number of industrial towns in South Wales stretching from Carmarthenshire in the west to Monmouthshire in the east and from the Heads of the Valleys in the north to the vale of Glamorgan and the coastal plain around Swansea Bay, Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport.  The Rhondda and Cynon Valleys formed the rough centre.

The Valleys were only lightly inhabited until the second half of the 18th century when the iron industry was established in the Northern valleys, at which point South Wales became the most important part of British ironmaking – the centre of the industrial revolution.

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From 1850 until the outbreak of WWI, the South Wales Coalfield (SWC) was developed to supply steam coal and anthracite.  The SWC attracted huge numbers of people from rural areas to the valleys.  The population of the Valleys was generally young and male, with migrants often coming from other parts of Wales or further afield.

The coal mined in the valleys was transported via railways and canals to the ports of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea – Cardiff was among the most important coal ports in the world and Swansea among the most important steel ports.

The coal mining industry was artificially buoyed throughout the war years, though there were expectations of a return to the pre-1939 industrial collapse after the end of WWII.  However, nationalisation of British coalmines in 1947 meant a steady decline in the output from the Welsh mines.  The post WWII decline was a country wide issue, but South Wales was affected to a higher degree than other areas of Britain.  Oil had superseded coal as the fuel of choice in many industries and there was political pressure influencing the supply of oil.  The few industries still reliant on coal, demanded quality coals, especially coking coal which was required by the steel industry.

Half of Glamorgan Coal Co’s product was now supplied to steelworks, with the second biggest market being domestic heating, which the “smokeless” coal of the South Wales coalfield became once again fashionable after the publication of the Clean Air Act.  These two markets now controlled the fate of the mines in South Wales, and as demand fell from both sectors the knock-on effect on the mining industry was further decline.

The other major factors in the decline of coal were related to the massive under-investment in South Wales mines over the past decades. Most of the mines in the valleys were sunk between the 1850s and 1880s, which, as a consequence, meant they were far smaller than most modern mines.  The Welsh mines were comparatively antiquated, with methods of ventilation, coal-preparation and power supply all of a poor standard.

In 1966, the village of Aberfan suffered one of the worst disasters in Welsh history when a mine waste tip on the top of the mountain slid down the valley side and destroyed the village primary school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.

Margaret Thatcher’s free market economics policy clashed with those of the National Coal Board and after the government announced plans to close many mines across the UK, the workers went on strike.  The failure of this strike led to the virtual destruction of the UK’s coal industry over the next decade.  The movie Pride, which is based on the true story surrounding these times for the miners, tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who raised money to help the families affected by the British miners’ strike in 1984.  It’s a great story for a glimpse into this era, with a twist.

The Valleys are now home to around 30% of the Welsh population, although this is declining slowly because of emigration.  The Valleys suffer from a number of socio-economic problems including drug abuse, high rates of teenage pregnancy and high unemployment.  In fact, in the mid 1980’s, unemployment rates in the Valleys were among the highest in the UK.

We spent the day in Blaenavon, located in Monmouthshire.  The town grew up around it’s ironworks, with the steel-making and coal-mining industries following.

The Blaenavon Ironworks date back to 1789.  The cutting edge technology of the day enabled the power of steam bringing the industrial era to new heights.  The ironworks played an important role in the development of cheap, low quality, high sulphur iron ores worldwide until they closed in 1900.

The ironworks, which is free to visit (though you can make a gold coin donation if you wish), is a wonderful look back in time and well worth the visit.  The site also contains a row of houses decorated to replicate the miners huts through the different eras, including a local truck (or company) shop from the 1840’s.  Workers would be paid in tokens which could only be used in these (usually overpriced) truck shops to buy food and other essentials.

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Big Pit stands on the eastern rim of the South Wales Coalfield, not far from the ironworks.  As mentioned above, both coal and iron were transported to the coast by road and canal.  However in 1852 the railway from Newport reached Blaenavon and production started to soar. The first coal was worked in levels dug into the hillsides, following the outcropping coal seams.  Dodd’s Slope, was rediscovered in 1989 and its entrance now forms part of Big Pit’s surface attractions.

Big Pit stands on the site of an earlier mine called Kearsley Pit.  The shaft was sunk to a depth of 39 metres in 1860.

Big Pit came into being when the shaft was deepened to a depth of 89 metres.  It got its name from the size of its elliptical shaft, which at 5.5m by 4.6m was the first in the area wide enough to wind two trams of coal side by side.

At its peak, the colliery was producing more than 100,000 tonnes of coal from an area of about 12 square miles.  Nine different coal seams were worked at some stage during Big Pit’s life and the coal it produced was first-class ‘steam coal’ for which South Wales became famous around the world. 

Mechanisation did not come to Big Pit until 1908 when a mechanical conveyor was installed.  The pit was among the first in South Wales to be electrified, and by 1910 the ventilating fan, pumps and underground haulage system were all worked by electricity.  

Output of coal peaked in South Wales in 1913 and at its busiest Big Pit employed 1,300 men.

Big Pit closed in 1980 and is now one of the world’s leading coal museums.  The highlight of a visit to Big Pit is the hour-long underground tour, led by ex-miners, which takes you down in the pit cage through underground roadways, air doors stables and engine houses built by generations of mineworkers.

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Blaenavon’s Ironworks, Big Pit and town centre were heritage listed in 2000.

I did Caerdydd

‘WHAT?’, ‘yeah?’, ‘yeah?’ ‘Well I’m not listening to this s*&t, I’m on the train, I’m leaving and I’m hanging up!’

Heads turned toward the new arrival on the train, announcing his situation at the top of his voice and we all silently thought, yep, probably a good idea to hang up.  Seconds later – ‘F*&% off, I’m hanging up’.  Followed by another call and another.  And on it kept for at least half our trip to Cardiff – ah domestic bliss it seems – something I’m yet to achieve (luckily?).  By the end of the trip, we knew the calls were being recorded on the other end of the line and he had had enough and was leaving ’cause she had issues’.  Is he from the Valley’s? I wonder.

About an hour later, and we reach Cardiff (without our vocal friend) to see the sights.  Cardiff was pronounced the capital of Wales in 1955, but it began life as a Roman fort around about 55 AD.  Cardiff town was founded when the Normans conquered Glamorgan and Robert Fitz Hamon (himself a Norman) built a wooden castle within the walls of the old Roman fort.  A town soon grew up around the Castle.

This little wooden castle, rebuilt in stone in the meantime, was passed through the hands of noble families until 1766 when it was passed to the Bute family by marriage.  It was the 2nd Marquess of Bute, who was responsible for turning Cardiff into the world’s greatest coal exporting port in the world.

The Cardiff Castle grounds are fairly expansive, starting off with a short video that brings you through the ages of it’s 2,000 year history.  Afterwards, you head into the corridors of the castle wars, following a display of posters from the time of World War II requesting citizens not to waste food and to be home early.  Extensive air-raid shelters were tunnelled out of the castle’s walls during this period, which could hold up to 1,800 people.  The castle also tethered barrage balloons (or blimps) above the city to defend against aircraft attack – the blimps would be tethered with metal cables and would damage aircraft upon collision and make attacking more difficult.

The architecture inside the medieval castle is quite something, and features a spectacular middle eastern ceiling and fireplace in the Arab Room, which was intended as a drawing room for the women of the castle.

A short train ride away from the castle is Cardiff Bay – apparently Europe’s largest waterfront development and home to the Techniquest Science Discovery Centre, the Welsh Assembly, Butetown History and Art Museum and a leisure village.

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Cardiff Bay

 The welsh name for Cardiff is Caerdydd, meaning ‘day fort’.

What to Expect from Wales

This morning I’m jumping on a train and heading to Wales.  Now I don’t know much about Wales at all.  In fact, all I do know about Wales is this…

But, I’m being unfair.  There are plenty of other famous people that hail from Wales – Tom ‘What’s New Pussycat’ Jones, Shirley “Hey Big Spender’ Bassey, Anthony ‘Hannibal’ Hopkins, Catherine ‘Entrapment’ Zeta-Jones and Shakin ‘well, shakin’ Stevens.  Yes – Shakin Stevens.  Remember him?  Huh, probably not.  Here’s a reminder…

There’s a couple of other people who live here too (though maybe not so famous) and they are my cousin Chris and his wife Sharon, who have very kindly offered to put me up for my visit.  They live in Newton, in the Mumbles, the word “mumbles” coming from the French word ‘mamelles’, which translates to ‘breasts,’ so maybe I’m well prepared for my visit by having seen the episode of The Valleys after all.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to piece together the story of my Dad’s family this last year, having finally found the right kind of resources in Melbourne to do so.  So it’s absolutely awesome to be heading to Wales next to spend some time with some of Dad’s relatives.  As I mentioned, Chris and Sharon have very kindly offered to put me up for five days which I am extremely grateful for, not in the least because it’s always amazing to get a local perspective on any place you visit.

So here we go – let’s find out about the real Wales.