Caerau Ramblers Fun Day

Robert Minhinnick

On Saturday 4 July, the Ramblers Cymru, Academi, Bridgend Regeneration, Valley and Vale and Caerau Communities First joined together for a fun community walking event.

Thirty five adults and children enjoyed a ramble around Caerau collecting images using mobile phones and other digital media during the walk and talking about their movements and thoughts prompted by the changing experience of their neighbourhood.

The group interviewed a broad range of individuals about their wider experiences of the neighbourhood, outdoor activities and patterns of movement. Local author, Robert Minhinnick recorded facts and stories told along the way and produced the piece of writing below.

Valley and Vale provided a number of digital cameras for the young people to take their own pictures of the environment. They also recorded the tour themselves and projected the images in the Caerau Pavilion whilst participants enjoyed refreshments.


The Great Caerau Expedition
July 4 2009

We were a motley crew. Ramblers, councillors, local government and arts officers, the Ogmore MP, his wife and family, schoolchildren, parents, a writer and two police officers left Caerau Parc community centre in bright sunshine, and walked through the estate. The tips of Dyffryn Rhondda were visible to the west, the outline of Pwll yr Hwch, known as ‘The Lion’s Head’, clear in the south west.

Cllr. Steve Smith pointed out that we were close to the underground Caerau Parc reservoir. Also, he said, there was a considerable underground rail tunnel – the ‘Cymer tunnel’ – that ran south-north. This had taken coal and passengers to and from Cymer and Abergwynfi. The train on this tunnel line was known as the ‘Gwdihw’ (the Owl). The tunnel’s northern end in Cymmer is now a turning circle for buses, although the Caerau exit is sealed.

Still the sun shone. But clouds were massing. July’s flowers were all around us, and some people said the tall pink ones were foxgloves. They were right. But there were other tall, pink flowers, called rosebay willowherb all over the mountain slopes.

One of the girls, in foxglove pink herself, said that foxgloves are poisonous. That’s true. Another said that poisonous or not, a Welsh word for foxgloves, ‘Ffion’, is now a popular girl’s name.

The police officers held up traffic for us and our expedition crossed the A4063. Not far away to the north, but hidden by the hills, was Croeserw and the wind turbines. But we turned east and came to the site of the old Blaencaerau Hotel, known as ‘The Monkey’. It was called this, it’s thought, after the ‘powder monkeys’ from Caerau Colliery, men who worked with gunpowder and therefore had special appreciation of a pint.

What a spectacular view we had. The Llynfi Valley spread out to the south, broad and green, narrowing almost to a bottleneck at Nantyffyllon, then widening once more. Mrs Huw Irranca-Davies claimed a bird hovering above us was a red kite. Others, more sceptical, suggested it was a buzzard. But as kites have now been glimpsed in the Garw, perhaps she was correct.

Councillor Smith, a local boy and next Mayor of Maesteg (for 2010), described how he once brought his children to The Monkey in summer for a glass of lemonade and to play outside. We all trooped across the site, but there was not a trace of the burned-down pub. It seemed to several of us that this was a terrible loss, because The Monkey was once a focal point for the community. I think some of us raised an imaginary glass in melancholic salute, and passed on down the new tracks, looking at the tormentil and scabious that grow there now.

Steve Smith, a Caerau man to his fingertips and source of much local lore, said the two spoil heaps at Caerau colliery had been known as ‘Black Amy’ and ‘Billy’s Tip’. They had been removed and there was almost now no evidence that there had ever been a Caerau colliery.

The Afon Llynfi ran, it seemed, straight through the middle of the site. When the coal was being worked, the Llynfi had been black with slurry, but now was clean again, flowing through new culverts. Two miles to the north, beyond our expedition, lay the source of the Llynfi. That is an area where several ancient cairns have been discovered.

The Ramblers described how tracks and cycleways now permit the adventurous to walk from the Afan into the Llynfi Valley, then over to the Rhondda Fawr, or to cross to Blaengarw, and journey south as far as Bryngarw Park. These footpaths, the Ramblers explained, are a fantastic resource that must be used, as on these high slopes or ‘blaenau’, and other mountains, can be found some of the earliest traces of human settlement in the area. (For instance, ‘Y Bwlwarcau’ near Llangynwyd).

The irony was not lost on us. For those prepared to look, there is possibly more evidence of Iron and Bronze Age life than recent landmarks such as the ‘Ivy House’, ‘The Monkey’, and Caerau colliery.

Therefore it was important for the walkers to meet Mr Williams of Bryn Hyfryd, who has a wonderful collection of historic photographs, including several of Caerau Colliery. The Williams garden extended down the hillside, where meadowsweet and evening primrose also flourished.

Walkers described how in 2007 the Llynfi, here only a brook, had ‘disappeared’ into a hole in the riverbank, to re-emerge hundreds of yards downstream. It is thought this hole, now blocked, might have been one of the colliery shafts or ‘voids’.

Caerau colliery opened in 1889. By the 1920s there were almost 2500 men mining steam and house coal, an astonishing figure. The pit was closed in 1977, and thirty years later the site is a very quiet place.

Almost no trace can be found of the immense labour and activity of the miners who once made this mine (in 1913) the most productive in Wales. Without this vanished colliery, the village of Caerau would not exist.

By now, the clouds were black. Some bright spark said it can be sunny in Maesteg but raining in Caerau. Right on cue, the heavens opened, and we were all quickly soaked in the downpour.

There was nothing to do but make our way as best we could back to the community centre. After an excellent indoor barbecue, the intrepid walkers were treated to a slideshow of photographs of their expedition, taken by staff from Valley and Vale. This was a memorable occasion, and perhaps this film could form the basis for another meeting of all those who took part in ‘the Great Caerau Expedition’.

Robert Minhinnick
Robert Minhinnick Caerau