April 2004: Rhondda Valley

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Llancaiach,-Eoghan Cory i 2640s armour

Llancaiach, Eoghan Corry in 1640s armour

IT MIGHT BE said that everyone who has ever sat beside a coal fire has an impression of the great Wales coalfield burned on their imagination.

At Pontypridd you can see for yourself. Ex miners will show you around the Lewis Merthyr Colliery in Trehafod, which is now the Rhondda Heritage Park and help kit you out with lamp and helmet for a journey down pit that will change your perspective on everything underworld.

There are some 27m miles of tunnel in the mines on which Rhondda Heritage Park (slogan “a mine of information”) is based Facilities include a period village street, an artefact exhibition, and a tour through the mines entitled “a shift in time.”

The tour takes an hour and fifteen minutes and finishes with a simulated ride, while another attraction, an outdoor children’s play area called the Energy Zone will be added in May 2002.

The audio-visual exhibition doesn’t spare the methane, baldly declaring that one coal miner died for every six hours of work in these black holes.

At the Pontypridd mine a million tons of coal was mined in 1913 and 3,600 people were employed, but the industry went into decline shortly afterwards and the names of the canaries in the lamp room, Arthur and Maggie, are testament to the last great industrial battle to be fought before their demise.

The coalminers’ cottages of stone and late are everywhere, but the black stuff itself has run out. From Craig Y Llyn (the crest of the Leinstermen) you can look down on Tower Colliery, the only working colliery left in the Valleys, started by unemployed miners with redundancy money and now operating at a profit.

 

peter handsPeter Hands is the proverbial Englishman who came up a valley and stayed there. Now he is Vice Chairman of Valley Tourism, proprietor of the Heritage Park Hotel (slogan: “an oasis of modern Welsh culture and comfort”), next door to the best to the coal mine attractions that have replaced the real thing in Rhondda. He pioneered the Fairways to heaven golfing package, which offers a round of golf and a three course meal for Stg£22. “Even with the strength of sterling, Irish people will find Wales excellent value for money when they come.”

Just up the mountain farmer Hopkin Smith’s family have tended sheep and cattle since the time of the Black Prince. After seven hundred years, Smith has turned his attention to tending quad bikers and clay pigeon shooters instead, although the sheep and cattle (and a “don’t mess with me” bull) look on nonchalantly as quad bikes rattle over the muddy fields.

“Don’t mind if you hit one of the sheep” Smith shouts over the noise of the engine, “they aren’t worth anything.” Visitors are first dressed in mud-friendly gear, given their instructions and let off on a variety of courses, graded from one to six according to expertise. “We haven’t lost anyone yet,” Smith says, after instructing one city girl who complained about the mud that “it isn’t mud, it comes from cows.”  Further down the farmyard Keith Masters instructs newcomers in the fine art of shooting clay pigeons. The 300 acre farm also offers assault courses and four by four challenges.

The Welsh climbing centre in offers adventure of a different kind. Dewi Durban says that climbing enthusiasts of all ages will find something to keep them amused, and a caving centre next door caters for those of lower tastes.

 

History lurks above ground as well. Caught in a time warp invented by the heritage council, the period actors in Llancaiach are worried that the lord of the manner might have come to harm. The house is restored to its condition in 1645, kitchens, privies and bedrooms and the actors will regale visitors with cures for piles and worms, instructions for wet nurses and how to make soap from animal fat.

Graham Ryder and his wife Liz run a restaurant in the ancient settings of Llechwen Hall, resplendent with its low ceilinged  kitchen, its stout blackened oak beams and huge fireplace with stone roofs, cow house and dairy.

Wales had a proud record in the English Civil War, it provided a large number of the king’s soldiers (famously it was referred to as the nursery of the king’s infantry), and a lot of cash. The Welsh mint at Aberystwyth was moved physically, first to Shrewsbury and then to Oxford, to help pay the kings’ troops. The bulk of the infantry that fought at Naseby were Welsh. But most of all it was the defection of the Welsh gentry in 1645 that finished off Charles. As we arrived the good housekeeper enquired how Lord Ormond was faring in Ireland, where a three sided war was in progress. Visitors can be put in the stocks or dressed in 70lbs of weaponry and a programme of special events for later in 2002 includes a “lady at home” day, “apothecaries and ailments”, preparations for the king, drovers days and court cases.

The biggest attraction in South Wales is Brecon beacons Naitonal Park, with 3.2m visitors annually. Attractions include the waterfalls, of which there are eight along the A470 and Ystradfellte Falls is the most famous. Activities include walking, caving and pony trekking and there are six golf courses in the park, and at one stage 32 pony riding centres before consolidation took place.

The biggest show cave in Britain is open to the public half way between Brecon and Swansea (slogan: “it’s taken 315m years to create a great day out”).

 

Britain’s smallest distillery is just outside the Beacons Park at Penderfyn where Arthur Davies oversees the manufacture of Merlyn Cream Licquer, Brecon Dry gin, Brecon Premium Vodka, and Penderfyn Malt Welsh Whisky. Visitors can buy a share in the barrels of Welsh whisky, due to come on stream in 2003 after the previous Brecon-based initiative was deemed too dependent on imported blends.

The Brecon Beacons communications manager Jane Lewis recounts the troubles of foot and mouth, which is estimated to have cost the area £50m in lost revenue and 2,500 jobs. This year the park is open for business once more as are the locality’s two big festivals, Haye on Wye literary festival which attracts 50,000 people in May and the Brecon jazz festival attracts 70,000 spectators in September.

Cardiff has Europe’s biggest free festival through the summer, and an array of attractions of its own starting with their world famous collection of impressionist paintings (more than the Musee d’Orsay in Paris) and their stadium. As the annual venue for the League and FA Cup finals, it is easy to form the impression nowadays that Cardiff is the capital of England was well as Wales.

North Wales may have the mountains, Pemrbokeshire has the beaches and mid Wales has the Celtic mists, but it is the gritty post-industrial valleys of Wales offer the keys to the principality.

 

 

Fairways to Heaven golf package offers 18 holes of golf and a three course meal for £22.

Heritage Park Hotel (Coes Cae Road, Trehafod, Near Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan CF37 2NP. Tel 00441443-687057 Fax 00441443-687060 heritageparkhotel@talk21.com Website www.heritageparkhtoel.co.uk. Offers include two nights for £60pps including full Welsh breakfast minimum, two nights for £94pps including dinner. Subject to availability.

Rhondda Golf Club Tel 00441443-441384.

Brecon Beacons Naitonal Park Website  www.beaconstrust.org

Gwirodydd Cymru: The Spirit of Wales the Welsh Whisky Company, Gwalia Distillery, Penderyn CF44 OSX, Tell 00441685-813300 Fax 00441685-813301. welshwhisky@totalise.co.uk

Llancaiach Fawr Manor between Nelson and Gellgaer Tel 00441443-412248 Admission £4.50 child £3 Family £12 Open 10am to 5pm weekdays 6pm weekends. Character actors at the manor simulate the house in 1645 when the civil war was raging

Llechwen Hall Tel 004414443-742050 Fax 00441443-742189 Email reservations@llechwenhall.co.uk Website www.llechwenhall.co.uk a mile and a half on the road from Llanfabo to Abercynon owned by Graham Ryder and Liz Ryder

National Showcaves Centre for Wales Tel 00441639-730801 Website www.showcaves.co.uk Open seven days a week from April 1st or Easter to October 27th. Open 10 am last admittance varies. Approx 20 mins from M4 along A4067 halfway between Brecon and Swansea in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Includes three major caves, an iron age farm and a dinosaur park. Winter helpline 00441639-730805. There is a skiing and trekking centre on the site (separate charge). 00441639-730284.

Rhondda Heritage Park open daily 10am-6pm last tour 4.30pm closed Mondays from October to Easter. Admission £5.50 Children £43.30 under-fives free. Family (2+2) £16.50. Tel 00441443-682036 Fax 00441443-687420. Email: rhonpark@netwales.co.uk Website: www.netwales.co.uk/rhondda-heritage. Energy zone adults £2 children £1.50 open Easter to October. The park is just of the A470 between Pontypridd and Porth and 30 minutes by sprinter train from Cardiff to Trehafod.

Taff Valley Quad Bike and Activity Centre 004429-20831658 www.adventurewales.co.uk quad biking costs £17.50 per hour. Off the A470 at Rhydyfelin junction.

The Felin Fach Griffin run by Huw Evans and Charles Inkin  five miles from Brecon 00441874-620111 00441874-620120 email enquires@eatdrinksleep.ltd.uk Website www.eatdrinksleep.ltd.uk boasts that ingredients haven’t travelled more than 15 miles  for any of their produce. The chef Charles Inkin trained at Ballymaloe and Shanks of Belfast.

Wales International Caving Centre offers 150 metres of tunnel, squeezes, vertical pitches, keyholes, a 4.5m waterfall, letterboxes, stalactites and a water course throughout. Equipment is provided. Admission: Group of four £48, Group of eight £96.

Wales International Climbing Centre in the Taff Bargoed valley, Trewlewis, close to Bedlinog Follow A470 north from Cardiff or south from Merthyr Tydfil 00441443-710749 Fax 00441443-710789  Website www.indoorclimbingwalls.co.uk

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