Rhymney and Bargod Taf Valleys, April 24th 2014. 15 miles
I drive to Caerphilly for the Rhymney train. The earliest train leaves at 7.51 which is later than I would choose. I’m on a clock today and must be home in good time. The man in the ticket office is amused, spotting my brushes, that I might be going to Rhymney to paint. The trains to Cardiff are packed, but mine, heading north, has maybe five people on it. The tides of work wash southwards. The train winds through the valley I grew up in, and I’m aware that I’m postponing that particular walk. It’s a route fraught with issues, some dead, some very much alive. After today it’s next on the list.
I arrive in Rhymney and squander minutes finding my way. There are no signs for the uninitiated, and I have not, unusually, read the map before arrival. As I walk into Pontlottyn there is thick low cloud on the hills. I go to buy water but the shopkeeper is a full five minutes pottering in his kitchen, so I head across the road to a competitor. I head towards the mountain and the edges of gelligaer common. Again I’m momentarily confused, unable to map read and sweating over time. I remember, as an 18 year old, trying to take this mountain road by car and being turned around by the densest fog I’ve ever seen, accompanied by an unusual sense of fear and foreboding. The fog is cleared now, but wonder if maybe the mountain doesn’t want me there.
I find my feet and make my way towards Fochriw. A green Asda bus passes me, making sure that these remote shoppers can find their way. I walked into Fochriw at least ten years ago, and in memory it was poorer then. It is remote, nestled between two hills. I like it here and am met with a series of friendly greetings. In imagination, Fochriw is the place at the edge of the map, where the Viking ships fall off, although there is no water. There are few shops, fewer pubs and a chip shop. I cross the mountain on road and footpath. It is magical and drawing is free, robust. Passing sheep with lambs and the common’s wild horses, I find along the way, a football boot, rubber dinghy, and car tyre; three abandoned relics of transport, following the Viking ships. I pass into Bedlinog, and on the road, am convinced that I am passed by the same car twice, going in the same direction, in two minutes, although this is not a circular rd. It gives me an odd sense of time, and I imagine coming down off the mountain to find that a hundred years have passed. Bedlinog makes me feel uncomfortable. Strange town on a steep hill, that twists and turns separating itself with its own road. I feel scrutinised here although I meet few people. This is my imagining. As the road flattens out my mood lightens and its a long straight road between the railway track and the Bargod Taf. I am pushing the pace aware of the need to make good time. There are beautiful stretches of river. I pass the climbing centre and notice as I reach the end of the valley, that the riverbanks has been landscaped for the community. There has been investment here making this accessible to the community and is clearly enjoyed. Again, I notice little evidence of places to work. Small businesses, cafes and hairdressers. I wonder if communities built on large scale industry continue to view work as something that is given rather than created. Is dependency a learnt or taught position? There is scope in these communities for provision that is now reached by car. The day is warming up as I move towards Nelson. I have waterproof trousers for forecast rain, but no hat for unexpected sun. I cross the bridge into Nelson that once was graffiti’d with “We voted Labour, got Thatcher”. I pass the Lord Nelson pub, scene of youthful new years revelry and drunken kisses. The handball court. I take the road to Senghenydd mountain or mynydd eglwysilan. Cars hurtle by me alarmingly as I climb. Again, the mountain is beautiful. I look back to see where I have come from. I see the beacons in the distance and familiar horizon of youthful walking. I walked here ten and twenty years ago, and then the mountain was littered with burned out cars. None of these today, although abandoned tv sets are grazing in pairs. I am feeling the distance, the pace that I have tried to maintain. I start the descent into senghennydd. There are remnants of industry, machine and buildings. A hundred years ago Senghennydd saw the worst of Britain’s mining disasters, with four hundred men and boys dying together. I try to imagine the impact on a village where even the loss of one man in known and felt. I count a street of thirty houses to try to find context and its beyond my imagining, how this may have been held, over decades within the valley. The memorial is tended by a group of elderly visitors, keeping it tidy and I wonder at their connections. Moving through abertridwr, I feel increasingly strange. Fatigue, the sun on my head, move me into an altered state, my senses functioning differently, more present, more remote. Walking and drawing this way help me explore the edges of myself. Drawing is raw, frantic, but oddly focussed in a way my body is not. I head towards Caerphilly passing a hall where I attended a fancy dress party as a child. Wurzel gummidge, and a prize of dairy milk chocolate, small wrapped pieces. Into Caerphilly and I drop a carbon crayon over a fence and am too exhausted to retrieve it though it sits in the grass in front of me. A speeding BMW scares me awake half way across the road. At Caerphilly I make a last stop at the castle, ignoring the timer that usually selects my drawings for me. I can’t ignore it. Great heap of rock, built to repress and control the locals. Giant thing, which after a while, due to proximity, I had forgotten to see. As a baby I clearly remember feeding ducks here. The sound of pushchair on gravel path. Mother and grandmother. Spring sunshine. 40 years or so. The car is close by.