As part of our Brecon Beacons Ambassador scheme we visited Big Pit National Coal Museum at Blaenafon. When the mine closed over 100 years of coal mining came to an end. It was decided to preserve and share the experience of the Welsh miner in a museum. Real miners take you 90 metres underground in the same cage as they used though thankfully quite a bit slower. Oue guide Steve had worked in the mines for 35 years and as you can imagine had a few tall tales to tell . He made you feel like his first guests of the day and that he was really pleased to see you. Afterwards we went on a tour of the bath house. This facility is now a museum but still retains many of the major improvements of a miner’s life that it brought like showers , clean clothes and a canteen. It even has a water bottle fill station which is quite ironic considering our current move away from bottled water. So proves we can still learn from the past. Entry is free which is another bonus.
Part of the Brecon Beacons is a UNESCO Global Geopark. This is due to the significant geological formations that can be found there. As part of our Brecon Beacons Ambassador scheme the park geologist takes us up onto areas of the park that are full of these features but quite possibly not that well known as a tourist spot.
Cribarth Geotrail is a good example of this. There is a 3.25 mile walking trail that explores the rocky slopes of the spectacular hill rising above Craig-Y-Nos Country Park in the upper Swansea Valley (Cwm Tawe). The landscape has been carved by water and ice from the folded layers of sandstone and limestone. There are also remains of the quarrying and lime kilns which were such an important part of the 19c industrial landscape.
Aside from all the history there are of cause the views for miles around. To help you get the most from these areas and walks there are detailed leaflets to accompany the trail.
Today I visited Blaernavon World Heritage Centre and Blaernavon Ironworks. The heritage centre is based in a converted school house and offers an insight into the industrial era and the production of iron ore that went on to be railway tracks and cannon balls. There are displays and presentations designed to bring this era to life.
A model of the ironworks shows how it looked at the height of its production period. A few of the buildings remain in which examples of the tools remain slowly rusting in the dusty old buildings.
The cottages on site have been staged with items that would have been relavent to different eras and give you an idea of what living there was like but without the pollution and heat the 6 large furnaces produced.
We are probably aware of the beautiful countryside of the Brecon Beacons as we travel around but there is a wealth of evidence of its industrial past. The whole area is quite unique in the geology that led to the lime, coal and steel industries that prospered as a result.
Hidden away in pockets beneath the surface of this area are caches of a pure white sand. A curiosity perhaps but is it any more than that? Well yes, it is. This sand with its special characteristics is exactly what the industrialists of yesteryear were on the look-out for and when they found it, they opened up pits and carted it away.
The burgeoning of the South Wales iron industry in the 19th and early 20th century saw the construction of innumerable furnaces for smelting the iron ore. And each of these furnaces had to be lined with heat-resistant bricks. And what is the best material to make these bricks from – pure silica of course, the purer the better. With few impurities the bricks were less likely to crack under the extreme operating conditions. Factories such as that at Penwyllt were set up to exploit the pre silica rock – the basal grit or Twrch Sandstone as we now call it. Quarry that, crush it and re-form it as bricks – a simple enough process once the techniques had been worked out. But the silica rock is tough to quarry and hard to crush. When the proprietors of Penwyllt discovered that nature had done half the job for them, they leapt at the chance. You see, the silica sand was originally ultra-tough silica rock but natural processes – perhaps tropical weathering in the distant past, perhaps another process – had converted the rock into sand. It had lain there on the doorstep ready to be scooped up. They built a tramway between the silica sand pit which they opened up and the existing brickworks. Other pits operated at various remote spots on the Black Mountain.
Visit these spots today and you’ll see the legacy of an industry which ceased 60 years ago and more. There are some remains, perhaps some rusting iron and a connecting track down the hill. Otherwise it’s a tale of nature reclaiming what was hers.