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Thank you for travelling The Merthyr Line

October 20th, 2020 by

Thank you for travelling on our first ever Welsh route! We hope you had a good trip 🙂

Please can you take a moment to help us improve the experience by answering 3 simple questions?

If yes, please visit https://forms.gle/PpQbetAWNHEibmq26

Many thanks,

Pete & Rich @ Window Seater

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October 20th, 2020 by

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Welcome to The Merthyr Line

October 20th, 2020 by

Welcome to the Merthyr line. In this Window Seater guide, we’ll ride with you to explain how the River Taff shaped the valley which shaped the world.

Merthyr Tydfill

October 19th, 2020 by

As we roll into the railhead at Merthyr Tydfil, it might be difficult to fathom that this town was once an industrial supernova. Merthyr sat at a confluence of key ingredients for new industrial technologies – water, timber, iron ore, coal, and limestone – and for 200 years few places on the planet could match this city’s economic importance.

While ironworks had been operating in the valley since medieval times, new industrial technologies – innovations in coal mining, road and canal engineering, and most importantly the steam engine – meant that the scale and ferocity of iron working went through the roof.

The Cyfarthfa iron works, just to the west of the railhead, was once the largest iron works in Britain, and possibly the world. But this was just one of 4 massive iron works in Merthyr. They ran around the clock, decade after decade, filling the night sky with firelight, and valley with smoke, and the River Taff with muck.

Merthyr fueled the rise of the British Empire into its zenith of global power. It drove a global transformation and brought the world into a new era where it was being bent and shaped to the will of humans – especially those who could harness the emerging technologies such as Iron Masters, and the great architects and engineers like Brunel.

The remains of these sites now sit crumbling like a lost civilization of red-brick. By the beginning of the 20th Century, miners began to get organised and demand greater safety and share of the profits.

During the Great War, when the government took control of the coalfields, workers’ pay doubled. But when the coalfields were privatised again and an economic depression was felt in the interwar years, the layoffs started, collieries began to close, strikes became commonplace, and the social fabric of the valleys became frayed by class struggle, unemployment, and poverty.

Despite a resurgence of coal mining during WWII, when the National Coal Board was founded, the centre of gravity of the global economy had shifted, and British mining was petering out.

The fundamentals that underpinned Merthyr’s stratospheric economic rise had evaporated. Only a few coal mines remain today – most of them open-cast, such as Ffos-y-fran which sits uphill to the east of Merthyr.

Coming into Merthyr from the south, on the right hand side you’ll see some of the attempts to bring industrial and economic prosperity to the region.

For example, General Dynamics – a global defence contractor – has a large factory making Army materiel, which was actually built on the site of one of the largest of the 19th Century Ironworks.

But a few hundred metres later, in a bend in the track, a large factory of the American appliance maker Hoover sits.

It was opened with much excitement in 1948 to make washing machines with ex-mining labour, and grew from an initial workforce of 350 people up to 5,000 in the 1960s and 70s – the largest employer in the area. Today Hoover is a brand owned by Haier – a Chinese conglomerate – and while there are still some people working there, the site is largely derelict.

Yet, while Myrtha’s days as a going concern at a global scale may be well and truly over, what’s left after the rains have washed away the soot and decades have left the land to heal is a small town with big history.

Having been built for an industrial frenzy and bulk, there’s now room to move. Built at the height of the industrial period at the end of the 19th century, the former town hall has been converted to a space for arts and culture named Red House.

Cyfarthfa Castle, once the lavish estate of the Crawshay family – who owned Merthyr’s Cyfrathfa Ironworks – is now a school and museum, and a great outdoor venue for concerts and events in its ample gardens and fields.

And Merthyr is now surrounded in green – firstly in the hills and fields reclaimed from the mines and factories, and of course in the beautiful Brecon Beacons further North, which is where this train used to continue on to.

If you’re heading that way, a bus can now take you there from the bus depot 100m to Northwest of where your train will pull up.

We hope you enjoyed the Merthyr Line, and I wish you a wonderful journey ahead.

Aberfan

October 19th, 2020 by

As a warning to those who might not wish to hear it, we’re going to be talking here about the Aberfan Disaster.

8 years old at the time, Melvyn Walker was in the middle of the classroom. He recalls his teacher going to the window upon hearing the sound of thunder.

Brian Williams, 7 years old at the time, was towards the back of the classroom. He described a sound like an aeroplane coming in to land. Then silence, and then lots of screaming and crying.

Melvyn was in the middle of the classroom, and was pushed to the side and up against the windows as he struggled free from getting buried. Melvyn recalls seeing adults standing in a daze through the window, and weren’t responding to his cries of help, so he smashed the window with a piece of wood.

He saw the hand of a girl towards the back of the class, and went back to pull her out before escaping by clambering over the debris and through the hole left where the roof had come down.

Brian was pulled out of the window by the school caretaker, who’s own children were buried in another part of the school with Brian’s 10 year old sister.

Jeff Edwards woke up immersed in slurry to find his stomach pinned in by his desk, a broken radiator trapping his leg and pouring hot water onto it. A deceased girl next to him. Eventually a fireman saw his blonde hair.

Yvonne Price, a St Johns ambulance nurse recalls the miners pulling Jeff out that day. She remembers Jeff whimpering, without the strength to cry, as he was passed along a human chain. After him, only the debris and the dead were being passed down the chain.

Yvonne remembers one of the miners in the chain exclaiming “that was my child” before he continued working. David Davies’ father believed his son to be dead when handing him out of the wreckage, but another nurse later found him to be just barely alive.

Reverend Irving Penberthy recalls walking into Bethania Chapel to see bodies of children, cleaned and wrapped in blankets by Saint Johns ambulance nurses and helpers, laid on the pews. The fathers of children would walk down the rows, lifting the blankets, and breaking down when they found their own children.

144 people were killed. 116 were children.

How do you return and rebuild in a place of such trauma? Could you live under the same hill, with the other tips still standing there? Could you again believe those in authority who say that you are safe now? How does a village survive with a generation of children missing?

For the next two years, Melvyn Walker couldn’t bring himself to return to school. He would walk in his uniform up the mountainside and sit there waiting to go home. He still experiences flashbacks and anxiety attacks when he hears childrens’ voices. He finds it difficult to hold down a job and form relationships.

The nurse Yvonne Price couldn’t control her emotions whenever she saw something on television or in the newspaper about the Aberfan disaster. She waited 43 years before returning.

Ros Bastow, who was a 7 year old in one of the classrooms that wasn’t buried that day, avoided speaking to anybody about the disaster – even her own family – for 50 years. If people ever asked where she was from, she’d say she was from Merthyr Tydfil.

Others found it easier to move on, and dedicate their lives to their community through more difficult decades when mines closed and jobs were lost. Jeff Edwards grew up to be the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, and David Davies grew up to be a High Sheriff of Mid Glamorgan and Chairman of the Aberfan Memorial Charity.

The whole of Pantglas Junior School, and 19 other houses were destroyed. A memorial garden now. The Bryntaf Cemetery should be visible from the train across the valley, with the white graves of the uppermost section dedicated to those who died in the disaster.

The parents of the children who were lost are still being buried alongside their children. Around 500 people attended the funeral of Hettie Williams – one of the 4 teachers who survived – in 2018. It should have been the same for Renee Williams, another teacher who passed recently during the pandemic.

Events like this still happen around the world where engineering standards are absent or not followed, or where wealthy corporations, like the National Coal Board, similarly can’t be held accountable for the choices they make by the communities of individuals who they put at risk.

Quakers Yard Viaduct

October 19th, 2020 by

You’re approaching a rather lovely bridge: the Goitre Coed Viaduct at Quaker’s Yard was designed by – you guessed it – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and was opened in 1841 with the Abercynon to Merthyr Tydfil section of the Taff Vale Railway.

The viaduct has a curve to its plan – hanging an easy left as it spans the river. The 6-arch structure of heavily rusticated pennant sandstone stands 32.3m above the water. 20 years after the viaduct was opened, its width was doubled – as was the rest of the Taff Vale Railway.

The extension, this time by John Hawkshaw, who is famous as the engineer of the Severn Tunnel, has masonry with a plainer aesthetic on the downstream side.

The viaduct not only passes over the Taff at this point – but also over Penydarren Tramroad that the railway ultimately replaced. Much of the old tramroad is walkable today – some of it now part of the Taff Trail – and you can even see some of the old stone sleepers near the beautiful bridge at Pontygwaith, to the north of Quaker’s Yard.

Abercynon and the Birth of Steam Railways

October 19th, 2020 by

Abercynon seems like the smaller, upstream version of Pontyridd. It hosted some collieries, but its importance grew from sitting at the confluence of two valleys full of iron and coal – those of the Taff and the Cynon rivers – so it became an important junction for the tramroad, the canal, and then the railways.

For some time Abercynon was once known simply as “Navigation” – perhaps speaking to its role as a waypoint – and was once replete with pubs. But because it never quite reached the scale of Pontypridd, it never got enough industry and infrastructure before the boom times slowed.

So it shrinks. Each decade there are fewer people, fewer schools, fewer pubs. One of the few surviving pubs is called “The Navigation.”

But one thing that can never be taken away from Abercynon is that it was the end point of the first steam railway journey in history: on 21 February 1804, the inventor Richard Trevithick drove his steam locomotive hauling five wagons – or ‘trams’ – carrying ten tons of iron and seventy men from the Penydarren ironworks up in Merthyr Tydfil to here in Abercynon on his new tramroad.

The 10 mile stretch of what became known as the Penydarren Tramroad took just over 4 hours to travel – more than walking it would take today!

A couple of years earlier, Trevithick had built high-pressure steam engines to drive hammers at the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr. He then simply mounted one of these engines on wheels, turning it into a locomotive, and sold the patents for his locomotives to Samuel Homfray – owner of the Penydarren Ironworks – for a pretty penny.

But Homfray then wagered 1,000 guineas with Richard Crawshay, the owner of the Cyfartha Ironworks, that he could build the first steam locomotive, and promptly won. It would take 36 years for the technology to be commercialised on the same route with the Taff Valley Railway.

Pontypridd

October 19th, 2020 by

We loved visiting Pontypridd when researching this Window Seater route, which we’re told is not unusual.

When the industrial revolution began in the mid-1700s, Pontypridd was a small hamlet that sat at a strategic junction with Cardiff downstream, the River Rhonda and its valleys and resources to the west, and the Taff and its valleys (including Merthyr) to the north.

The river ran slower in this area so it was easier for drovers to ford a little downstream in Treforest, which meant that there was more human settlement there before the industrial revolution.

So in 1746, a 3-span bridge was commissioned to be built over the Taff at Pontypridd where only a ford of stepping stones could be crossed when the river ran low. 27-year-old William Edwards was commissioned for £500 to build the bridge on the condition that it would be maintained for 7 years – but just 2 years later the Taff flooded and washed the bridge away.

Edwards was required to give it another go, and this time tried to traverse the river with just one single arch. But just before the central arch was to be struck, another flood came and took all his hard work away. When the single-span design was finally completed, it only survived for 6 weeks.

The third and final design was the winner which remains today. It has a distinctive look created by cylindrical hollows placed at each end of the bridge to balance its weight and correct the previous mistake.

At 140 feet, it was the longest bridge in Britain when it was built in 1756. But the lasting integrity of its structure seemed to come at the cost of usability – it was too steep for most horse-carts to go over, and was replaced as soon as technology would allow a century later.

Perhaps in part because it had such a bad bridge, Ponty had only a population of 3,000 odd when the railway came in 1841. The Taff Vale Railway built the longest railway platform in the world here, which is a reflection of its strategic importance, as well as the narrow space between the valley and the hills in which the town sits. The railway made a number of collieries and large-scale iron working economically viable in the area.

Within 50 years of the railway opening, the population had swelled 10-fold. By the time that the South Wales industrial machine reached its peak before the 1st World War, Ponty had a sufficiently diversified economy to continue to being a major economic hub in South Wales.

Many of the chains and anchors of ships – including those of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Royal Navy – were being made here. The town served much of the area’s sick with the Dewi Sant Hospital, and educated much of the area’s youth at South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mines (now part of the University of South Wales, who helped us tremendously in the making of this guide).

And the area is, of course, home to Tom Jones, who bought a telephone box from Laura Street in Treforest to sit by the pool at his Los Angeles home.

Radyr and Castle Coch

October 19th, 2020 by

Heading into Radyr, the line starts to snuggle up closer to the Taff and we begin to climb into the hills. Shortly after Radyr station, you’ll see Radyr Weir spanning the Taff. This was built way back in 1774 to divert water into an artificial course (known as a leat) to the Melingriffith Tin Plate Works, which were at that time the largest such works in the world.

These works bore witness to the entire industrial era – it was a forge even before industrial times, and was a corn mill before that. As the industrial revolution took on new technologies and greater scale, so did the works.

And since 1798, the Melingriffith Brass Band has been the semi-official band of the works, and has also been evolving its sound from a drum & fife troop into a full brass ensemble that still plays today.

The Melingriffith works were eventually closed in 1957, but the area around the Radyr Weir continues to evolve into the new industrial era.

For example, if you look across the weir through the trees you might glimpse the South West School of Non-Destructive testing – a facility where they evaluate the properties of materials, components or systems, without causing damage, for clients ranging from the oil industry to aerospace.

Similarly, a few minutes down the line, the Treforest industrial estate was the largest industrial estate in Western Europe at the time it was built on the site of another industrial-era tin plate works.

A hydro-electric scheme was built into Radyr Weir itself in 2016. It takes the 500 million cubic metres of water flowing through it per year, puts it through two screw turbines, and generates 400 kW and saves 700 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Being an obstacle to migratory salmon and sea trout, a fish pass was built into the weir, along with the Llandaff Weir and Blackweir. This, along with efforts to reduce industrial pollution, has turned the Taff from a waterway where nothing could live into one of the best salmon and trout rivers in Wales.

Shortly after Radyr, you should be able to see a fairy-tale-esque castle which begs for a story.

Castle Coch – or “Red Castle” – is regularly voted by the public as one of the most loved buildings in Wales, but the story doesn’t quite seem to live up to the aesthetic. It is one of a patron with unlimited wealth and a passion for antiquities and architecture giving an architect of boundless imagination a blank cheque to restore a medieval ruin.

The patron was the 3rd Marquess of Bute – John Crichton-Stuart. His father was one of the principal investors into the South Wales iron and coal industries early in the industrial revolution – he built iron works in Merthyr, docks in Cardiff, and acquired land almost everywhere in between.

The 3rd Marquess succeeded the 2nd at the tender age of 5 months, and spent his early years cultivating scholarly interests in history and architecture. He became the mega-patron of Victorian architecture.

The architect was William Burges. He too grew up in considerable wealth, which allowed him to explore his own interest in architecture. He became a central architect of the Gothic Revival style which fetishised a utopian vision of medieval Britain.

The original medieval castle was likely built shortly after the Norman conquest for its strategic location. Around the year 1290, the Clare lords of Glamorgan built a formidable stone fortress with a massive earthen moat some 34 metres across over the earlier defences

The castle was probably destroyed during the Welsh rebellion in Glamorgan of 1316 and in the 1530s it was described as “all in ruin… but high” by antiquarian John Leland, and it remained that way for centuries.

The 19th century fixer-upper could be termed “High Victorian Gothic Revival French-influenced style.”

The conical towers only hint at the splendour within. From the bedrooms to the banquet hall, the interiors are extravagantly detailed from floor to vaulted ceiling. But 6 years after the restoration commenced in 1875, when only 1 room had been decorated, the Marquess of Bute died of kidney disease.

The Avon Taff

October 19th, 2020 by

You should now be on a train rolling out of Cardiff. Welcome aboard!

The Merthyr Line roughly follows the waters of River Taff. If you haven’t seen it already, it will be coming into view soon. Since the glacial period, the river and its tributaries have given the Mid Glamorgan Valleys their shape over millions of years of storms coming in from the Atlantic; dumping hefty rains against hills and loosening the dirt and rocks with attrition, abrasion and general splashing, working its way down to the Severn Estuary at a rate of many tonnes of sediment every year.

But in the last couple of centuries, the river has had a bit of help. As soon as humans figured out how to do it, iron and coal have followed the Taff’s course from the mines up in the hills, down roads, canals, tramways, and eventually railways that have been crammed into the Taff Valleys, and eventually to trains and ships that took it on further to feed the machinery of the industrialising world.

This process not only further shaped the Mid Glamorgan Valleys into what we see today, but it shaped the world into a new industrial form. It was here, along this very route, that the world first stepped into the anthropocene – the current geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment – about 270-odd years ago, around the time the first modern mines and ironworks were built in Merthyr Tydfil.

In the narrowing valley ahead, you don’t have to stray far from the current railway line before you come across previous versions of the ways the new industrialists found to get the iron and coal from the hills to Cardiff and on to the sea.

The first version was a basic tramway of horse-hauled carts moving along L-shaped plates, which was built around the time of the first ironworks in the 1760s, almost as an extension of the rails that came out of the mines.

Then came the mighty, man-made Glamorganshire Canal. It ran from the Cyfarthfa ironworks through 52 locks, over the Taff at Abercynon, and all the way to the docks in Cardiff. It prospered: by the end of the 1830s, 200,000 tonnes were being transported down it every year. But by the end of the century, this would need to increase almost 100-fold to keep up with the sheer volume of materials being mined.

So then came the region’s first railway service, the Taff Vale Railway. The tracks that were laid back in the 1840s followed more or less the same route you’re on today. There were even more railways built – criss crossing between and across valleys with tunnels and bridges heading to other ports such as Penarth, Newport and Swansea – to keep up with the ever-growing volumes, now running into the millions of tonnes per year.

The whole system of extraction reached its zenith just before the first world war. Over 50 million tonnes of coal was being mined in Wales every year by around 250,000 men.

Then oil grew in importance globally, coal was found overseas, mining unions grew in power. Eventually coal mining and railways were nationalised and rationalised. Once a throbbing central artery of the global economy, the River Taff and its man-made variants are now quieter.

Some of the original tramways and canals were largely paved over to make roads including the A470, and what is left has been incorporated into the Taff Trail walking and cycling route. The railway is largely for people like you.

There are actually two lines out of Cardiff Central which will converge at Radyr. If you’re on the Eastern route, you will soon come over the Afon Taff Viaduct, the first of the bridges designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a man who probably needs no introduction, and who I’d struggle to summarise in this format.

If you’re on the Western route, you may get a glimpse of this viaduct briefly across the Taff on the right hand side. This Western route was laid precisely because the Afon Taff Viaduct and the docks that were at Cardiff Central couldn’t deal the growing traffic. Eventually, the tracks from Cardiff to Pontypridd were quadrupled, and the Avon Taff viaduct was widened (twice) since its original was built in 1840.