Our industrial heritage
St David’s Day was a most appropriate day to hold an industrial heritage tour in the south Wales valleys.
Organised by Ruth Taylor-Davies of Valleys That Changed The World and led by Diana James, a Wales Blue Badge Guide, the tour was for tourism industry stakeholders and tourism ambassadors from across the region.
Our tour began in one of the major seats of the industrial revolution. Back in 1851 Merthyr Tydfil was the largest town in Wales, built upon traditions of iron and steel making and of course coal mining.
We boarded our coach at the impressive Cyfartha Castle Museum and Art Gallery, built in 1824 by the local ironmaster William Crawshay II. The visually imposing monument serves as a reminder to the industrialists’ dominance over the town and the wealth the iron industry brought to the area.
First stop was Goytre Wharf at Llanover, near Abergavenny. Home to over 200 years of industrial heritage and site of the charming Waterfront Cafe nestled in a copse ringed by an aqueduct carrying the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal.
Here lime was made in the kilns, and timber and coal traded. We marvelled at the remarkably well preserved lime kilns, and even walked inside them.
Next came the Old Wye Bridge at Chepstow – elegantly constructed of cast iron in 1816, the River Wye still meanders beneath its sturdy arches. Of the ten largest iron arch road bridges built in the world before 1830, only Chepstow remains.
It’s an architectural marvel and feat of engineering that has stood the test of time. Hard to imagine that until as recently as 1988 it carried the main A48 road betwixt Newport and Gloucester – when it was a notorious bottleneck!
Lunch at the Anchor Inn in the shadow of Tintern Abbey followed, with an address by Nick Critchley, Development Officer for Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
And so to a short distance upriver, and the Angidy Ironworks, Tintern. Here we were treated to a talk by Ian Fewings of the Aberystruth History & Archaeology Society.
The sound of the babbling Angidy river is the sound of energy – the water power which turned the wheels of industry in this valley for hundreds of years. Flourishing from the 1560s, the Angidy was one of the earliest places in the UK to industrialise.
The first brass produced in Britain was made here in 1568, but attention soon turned to iron wire making. Tintern was soon producing some of the finest wire in Britain and by 1600 the wireworks were the largest industrial enterprise in Wales.
The wire made here made knitting needles, fishing hooks, bird cages, buckles, priming wire for guns, pins, and carding combs for the woollen industry (Britain’s main export of the time). Tintern wire was also used in fashionable Elizabethan clothing providing the structure for farthingales (which held skirts out) and stomachers (which pulled stomachs in).
All this industrial activity was well established by the time fashion conscious travellers began flocking to Tintern on the The Wye Tour. Although the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey were the highlight, the nearby ‘great iron-works, which introduce noise and bustle into these regions of tranquility’ offered inspiration and excitement to many tourists. Not so today, as relatively few tourists venture beyond the iconic ruins of Tintern Abbey.
Our final cradle of industry stop was at Clydach Ironworks set in the majestic limestone outcrops of a steep-sided valley at the lower end of the Clydach Gorge just off the Gilwern to Brynmawr section of the A465 Heads of the Valleys trunk road.
Although explored and exploited since prehistoric times, as evidenced by the entrance being guarded by two Iron Age forts, industrialisation here began with the construction of the ironworks in 1793. It was a huge concern employing 1,350 people, many of them children, in what today would be considered appalling working conditions. It finally closed in 1877.
And so, with our party of tourism envoys truly ‘cultured out’, the tour ended back in Merthyr. Cradles of industry of global significance abound in south Wales, many of them nestled just off tourist trails and little celebrated.
Today was an eye-opener for us all, and an inspiration to go spread the word to others.