Story : |
|All this industry required
a sizeable workforce, with immigrant labour coming in from all over
Wales and nearby England . Housing sprang up in the 1800s, and
still stand at the ironworks site. There is an
excellent example of an early row of workers' cottages at Cwmavon. Later
the classic terraced streets that still make up much of Blaenafon were
built (e.g. D and E Row! ) and the town expanded dramatically.
||The iron industry, so important to Blaenavon's
rise to fame and fortune, deserted the town quickly and completely when
things started to go wrong. This industry collapsed
rapidly with the coming of cheap steel production - closing in 1900.
Later in 1980 the coal industry also abandoned the town with
nothing much to take its place. Even the railway closed - 1962 last
passenger train. 2
|Pwll Mawr just means 'Big Pit', not
that many in Blaenafon speak Welsh or have done for many years. It was
the first pit in Wales to be large enough to allow two tramways.
Big Pit was a working coalmine until it closed in 1980.
I jokingly asked my friend, a time-served collier at Blaenafon, if he
would be applying for a post at the Mining Museum but his reply was that
'if he never went down the damn place again, it would be too soon' - I
am paraphrasing a little. 3
||The abundance of coal, ironstone, limestone and
timber, all the ingredients of iron production, added to a reliable
supply of water meant that the area around was worked from possibly pre-Roman days. By the
mid 1500s, contracts were being exchanged for the exploitation of
minerals at Blaenavon and workers started moving in. By 1748
there were enough inhabitants to send 48 children to the local school.
The industrial scars still remain on the ground.
|Blaenavon as a town is generally
agreed to have been founded in 1787, when Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins
and Benjamin Pratt leased some seven square miles of moorland in Lord
Abergavenny's Hills from the Marquis of Abergavenny. They displaced the
existing tenant farmers in the bargain. These three businessmen
from the Midlands had a plan to build the first plant in Wales with
several furnaces together using the new steam engine, increasing output
considerably and at lower cost. The Ironworks site at Blaenafon suited their
purpose admirably. 5
||Big Pit (National Coal Museum) is a real
coal mine and one of Britain's leading mining museums. Big Pit is an exciting and
informative day out. First opened 1983 but now much improved!
Gulbenkian museum of the year 2005. All this AND the world-famous
underground tour — go 300 feet underground with a real miner and see
what life was like for the thousands of men who worked at the coal face.
In December 2000 UNESCO made Blaenavon - Industrial Landscape World
Heritage Site. 6
|She told me
the she and the children's bookshop are the only remaining bookshops and
that the Booktown project had collapsed. Apparently they had been
unable to persuade Torfaen Council to continue funding the
project. Far from seeing this as the end of Blaenavon as a centre for
secondhand books, Joanna sees only opportunity. 'There's considerable
interest in the town because commercial property is still so cheap. You
could buy a shop for £75,000 ', she says'. 'A shop with a flat
above, where else could you get that for the money?'
||It would be pointless
to pretend that Blaenavon hasn't been through the economic wars over the last
few decades. Now around three quarters of the
population are over 60. Property prices are dismal and despite some
industry encouraged by grants and subsidies, jobs are scarce. Half the
shops may be empty... but ... when tourism has breathed new life into Blaenavon, this may become a parade of thriving bistros, antique
shops and wine bars. Who can tell - Blaenavon has surprised before.