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.