28th February 2008: The Industrial Ruins of Elfland

I grew up in a post-industrial landscape. I didn’t know it, of course. I thought it was normal. It took me a surprisingly long time to see it.

The South Wales valleys were empty until the industrial revolution, and then in the eighteenth and nineteenth century they abruptly filled up with people there to extract the iron and coal. If you’ve ever wondered why there was no massive Welsh immigration to the New World, on the scale of the Scottish and Irish immigrations, it’s not that they didn’t have the same problems farming, it’s that they had their own boom towns, their own industry, there own place to go. English people went there too — there’s a reason most people in Wales speak English.

There’s a reason they’re called “The Valleys” too. They consist of very narrow glaciated valleys with steep sides and not much flat land at the bottom. When they found the iron and the coal they built houses on the flat bits first, and then ran them up the sides in brick Victorian terraces — row houses, row on row, houses terraced like grapes on a hillside with barely room between them to hang out washing.

Aberdare, where I come from, has a twelfth century church, St John’s. In 1700, it probably also had a handful of farms and a population of maybe five hundred. You can see valleys like it in West Wales today, where they had no industrial resouces underneath. They’re beautiful. Aberdare is beautiful too, when you lift up your eyes to the hills. The hills are a bowl all around, they’re green, they’re lovely, there are sheep on them — grey sheep, because of the coal dust. When I was a kid the sheep would come down into the town and knock over people’s dustbins. I can never understand people being sentimental about sheep. They’re about as appealing to me as pigeons. They’re the reason you keep your gates shut.

Iron was discovered, and coal, people started building smelters on the spot, railroads to take it out, houses for workers, more smelters, more mines, more houses. The valleys were solid with houses and people and industry. They were like a city except for the actual city bit. Habitation was in solid strips. The towns and villages ran into each other, up and down, rarely over the mountains, and the roads were terrible. (For years I thought the song “She’ll be coming round the mountain” was about someone taking the narrow treacherous route over the Graig from Maerdy.) Then the iron ran out, or was cheaper to produce somewhere else, and while there was still coal mining in the seventies — though not today — it was a pitiful remnant of the boom of a hundred years before. Iron works were abandoned. Pits were closed down. The people stayed because they stayed, though sensibly there was nothing there for them. The valley ought to have a population of about a thousand, and it has about fifty thousand. Unemployment is still chronic.

I grew up playing in the ruins, and I had no idea of any of this history. It was a wonderful place for children. It was abandoned and grown-over and ignored, and when you got away from the houses it was wild. Wilderness was there in the cracks. You could always go up the mountain into read countryside, but there were these seams of trees and ruins running everywhere through the towns. There was a lot of away to get to very close. I never thought about what it was. It wasn’t the only landscape I knew — we went on holiday to Pembrokeshire every year, and we went up into the Brecon Beacons fairly often, and to the Gower, and to Cardiff, which is an actual city, with city shops — but it was the landscape of normality.

If there was a discipline of industrial archaeology then, I missed it entirely. I was in and out of the library. There was one summer where I went to the library practically every day (for complicated reasons, I only had three library tokens) and took the books up the river and sat in the ruins reading and never thought about looking for a book to tell me what was giving me shade, or more often keeping the rain off.

My Aunt Jane lives next to an abandoned ironworks. It’s notable because we actually knew what it was. We used to play in it, climbing over the walls. It was a great place for hide and seek, and for castles. I knew what castles were. We didn’t have one, but Wales is full of them, I’d been to lots of them. I had no idea what an ironworks was — if pressed, I’d have figured out from etymology it was somewhere one worked iron, but I wasn’t ever pressed about it. I knew the word, and I knew the thing. It was all over rosebay willow-herb in the autumn. I didn’t know who’d built it, or why, or how old it was. I just led groups of kids racing through it.

If the fallen bricks and stones could have talked, all they’d have said to me was : “Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us, but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.” I knew that.

In the woods, there were lots more ruins, much more ruined than the ironworks. We played that they were witch’s cottages and giant’s castles and fairy palaces and Hitler’s last redoubt and the ruins of Angband. I still don’t know what they were. They might have been eighteenth century workmen’s cottages, but probably they were more ironworks, older ones. If they’d actually had magical inhabitants, they would have been kobolds.

The places of my childhood were linked by magical pathways, ones almost no adults used. They had roads, we had these, they were for walking, they were different and extra, wider than a path but not big enough for cars, sometimes parallel to the real roads and sometimes cutting from nowhere to nowhere, from an elven ruin to the labyrinth of Minos. We gave them names, but we knew unquestioningly that the real word for them was “dramroads”. I was fifteen and living in England before I turned that word over in my mouth and saw it for what it was. “Tram road”. Welsh mutates initial consonants of words — actually all languages do, but most of them take hundreds of years and Welsh does it while you still have your mouth open. Tram to dram. Of course. Once, there had been trams running on rails up those dramroads, trams full of iron ore, or coal. So empty and leaf-strewn, they’d once been little railroads. (One of them cut across Common Ake, where we used to picnic sometimes in the summer. It was an unenclosed common, full of meadow plants and butterflies. People have built very ugly houses on it now.)

It wasn’t that I didn’t know history. Even if you only count the real world, I knew more history than most people. I’d been taught about cavemen and Normans and Tudors. I knew about Greeks and Romans. I knew masses of personal stories about World War II. I even knew a lot of family history. It just didn’t connect to the landscape.

The bit of history that isn’t quite in living memory is hard to know. My grandparents were born in 1905, when the Valleys were already beginning their long decline. And history was kings and queens and wars and conquests, it wasn’t building ironworks and surrenduring them back to nature.

These days, the Valleys are an Industrial Heritage Zone. Coal mining is over, but there are coal museums, industrial museums. There’s a lot more awareness of all of this than there used to be. Also, history in schools makes much more connections to local landscape and actual places, not to mention social history. It’s also all been tidied up and tamed. And one of the dramroads has been made into a dual carriageway (two lanes in each direction highway) cutting around the town.

When I think about it now, it seems that I thought I was living in a fantasy landscape, when actually I was living in a science fictional one. In total ignorance, I played my way through what elves and giants had left me, rather than seeing what was there as post-apocalyptic. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.

It’s amazing the size of thing that it’s possible to overlook.

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