We were going to spend our last two nights in Wales with a friend of mine, Rhi, and their wife so we duly packed up camp and started to make our way to Cardiff, but if you’re going to spend any length of time in south Wales you should probably check out Big Pit National Coal Mine Museum. Because it’s free. I shit you not, you can get a complete guided tour of a coal mine, learn all about the lives of the men who worked in the mines, all for a grand total of exactly fuck all. Apart from the parking. That’ll cost your first born.
Not only is it free it’s really, really good. Again though, you can’t take a camera in because it’s got electric parts and with it being classed as a working coal mine where there were all manner of gases that go bang floating around, anything electric was banned. Except there wouldn’t be any gases at all because it hadn’t been a working mine for donkey’s years, but special permission was still needed to take cameras in, and we didn’t have that special permission. Once we were kitted up with overalls, helmets and headlamps, we were loaded into a lift with a man called Dave and a bunch of other tourists and into the mine we went.
So. Best I can remember is that the youngest workers in the mines were around 6 years old and their job was to open and shut doors to let carts through. That might not sound too awful but remember you’re six years old, underground, and if your lamp goes out you’ll not see your hand in front of your face. I can’t even remember what I was doing at six years old but it more than likely involved consuming large quantities of pudding and stealing biscuits. I was a fat child. But anyways, women used to be employed down the mines too, not like up in the slate mines of Llechwedd where it was considered bad luck for anyone with a tendency to bleed profusely from their genitals once a month to go underground. They used to push and pull the coal carts around, until they were replaced with horses which lived underground in stables. So fuck being a Welsh horse back then, ain’t no amount of Polo mints gonna make up for that.
Eventually it was made illegal for women to work in coal mines anyway, mainly to stop pregnant women lugging coal around. We were lead around the mine and taught all manner of cool stuff, including how they used to communicate, which included using two electric wires running parallel and completing a circuit with a bit of metal which then rang a bell. All well and good but he got us to shut off our lights and did the thing, and it made a pretty little spark which would have been less pretty back then if something called Firedamp was knocking around which is a super explosive mixture of gases, mainly methane.
Other fun gases include Whitedamp which is carbon monoxide, Blackdamp which is carbon dioxide and nitrogen and will suffocate you, and Stinkdamp which is Hydrogen Sulphide and that stinks like rotten eggs and is highly poisonous. So a lot like my farts after a night out then. They did use canaries back in the day on account of their tiny, tiny lungs. If they started to “get distressed” it meant that gas was present and the blokes bolted for the surface. Eventually canaries were replaced with special lamps which had an enclosed flame. Not only was it a handy light source, the flame blazed different colours if there were certain gases present. You just had to learn what they looked like. These days, for tourist purposes, there are gas detector located around the mine.
It was hot, dirty work. We only went down about 90 metres but the miners, or colliers as they prefer to be called, worked a shit tonne of metres underground where it was hotter than the fucking sun. They might have been wearing overalls when they went in but once down there, most the blokes just worked in shorts. Probably another reason women were banned, if it were me I’d probably trip up over my own fucking tits, or catch a nipple in a door or something. And as for payment, they weren’t even paid in cold, hard cash. The mine owners paid them in a fake currency they could only spend at shops owned by the mine bosses which is a complete dick move on their part. It basically meant the colliers and their families were trapped there forever.
Anyway, once we were safely back on the surface and reunited with our technology we headed off to look at a few other buildings. There’s an old shower block and locker room which was built so the colliers could clean up properly before they went home. This also housed a museum, and snippets of information about the blokes that worked there, putting a human face on it all. It’s a brilliant tour, highly recommend it. So we still had time to swing by the Blaenavon Ironworks via a brewery we didn’t know existed called Rhymney’s which also does tours but we wanted to get on. The Ironworks are also free but you don’t get a guided tour, you just wander from building to building and little displays are triggered. If you thought coal mining sucked then you wouldn’t want to work here either.
So there were two levels, the lower one is where the furnaces were but the iron ore had to be thrown in from the upper level, and that’s where the impressive tower at the end came in. It’s a balance tower which used water to lift trams of iron ore to the top. Once up there the ore was chucked into roasting kilns with coke to remove sulphur and moisture, then the roasted ore was chucked down a massive fucking chute into the furnace. You can imagine the heat working there, with roasting kilns one side of you and furnaces which had to burn hotter than lava on the other. I don’t think I’ll ever complain that it’s a bit too warm at my workplace ever again.
Sod off great big pipes carried air from steam engines which was blasted over the furnaces to make them even hotter and limestone was added to draw off impurities thus creating a waste product called slag, and once the ore was melted a bloke called a tapper would open a little door in the furnace, preferably without burning his fingers, and the molten ore would flow out into trenches dug into the sand to make bars of iron called pig iron. This would then either be shipped off, or they’d remould it here.
Thousands of miles of railway lines were shipped from Wales to the rest of Britain. There were a few houses built nearby too and this was where the workers lived with their families. The downfall of Blaenavon Ironworks came with steel. Their iron contained too much phosphorus but a local chemist called Sidney Thomas worked out a way to draw out the phosphorous at the smelting stage using a special lining, but he sold the idea to Germany and America. They’re still pretty bitter about it. It’s mentioned a few times in information boards and someone even made a whole comic strip about it for the museum. Blaenavon was priced out of the market.
Right then. Off we went to Cardiff, but not before shovelling a few Welsh Cakes into my facehole. Mate, they’re gorgeous! I hope you can’t only get them in Wales because it wouldn’t be fair to keep these little parcels of joy from the non-Welsh population. We got to Rhi’s, met their wife, and their amazing little corgi puppy who’s a furry bundle of excitable awesomeness, and just chilled with those guys for the evening. Camping is amazing but it was nice to sit on a proper sofa and sleep in a bed under a roof which had no chance of leaking if the rain didn’t fucking stop.
We probably would have seen a lot more of Cardiff if Pokémon Go hadn’t been released in the UK that day. We were enjoying a spot of breakfast… ok, probably more like brunch by the time we’d dragged ourselves out of the comfortable bed and into town, when we got the news so we instantly downloaded it and spent 20 minutes trying to work out how to use in in between shovelling bacon into our traps. One thing we really didn’t want to miss though was Cardiff Castle, Castell Caerdydd, so once we’d consumed the appropriate amount of fried food to get us through the next few hours we wandered through the city centre in the general direction of the castle.
So your entry fee gets you an audio guide too and we’re suckers for a good audio guide. Turns out this castle wasn’t built once, it was added to and changed a shit tonne of times by various owners. Back in, like, the third century the Romans built a fort here. Then it was abandoned and when the Normans rocked up in the 11th century, probably not too long after trouncing King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, they built the motte and bailey which is still there today, pride of place, in the middle. The motte bit is the mound, the bailey is the outer wall, and inside that is the keep. It’s not that big to be fair, I don’t think you could stash too many humans in there in the event of a raid. Apparently it did used to be bigger though, but it’s never had a roof. It’s a shell keep, which means it housed smaller buildings. It’s pretty cool though, you can climb up it for some epic views of Cardiff.
The Normans went to town on the castle, building walls everywhere, including a huge dividing wall which separated what they called Wards. The remains of this wall are still here today. The house was built in the 1400’s when some posh bloke called Beauchamp owned the place. That’s been extended and altered over time too. In the 1700’s it became Bute family property and some grand designer called Lancelot “Capability” Brown tore down a lot of the medieval buildings, and the huge dividing wall too. Excavations revealed some of the original Roman walls though so they built on these, leaving the foundations in place. You can still see them, they separated the two walls with red bricks. It’s pretty cool to be fair, though they could probably have done with not tearing down a crap load of history in the name of design. Also worth a look though are the tunnels within the battlements which we used during the war as air raid shelters. They’ve done them out with bunks to show how it would have been back then, waiting there in the dark for the bombing to stop.
There’s a lot more to the castle than that, we spent a good couple of hours meandering round it with the audio guide pressed to an ear with one hand and our phones in the other, catching Pokémon. We just spent the rest of the afternoon strolling round the city, and what a nice city it is too. The weather finally wasn’t too awful either so we applied food and boozes to our facehole until we joined Rhi and Becky and the increasingly adorable Ollie later that evening for foods and boozes and good times.
Wales though, guys. I think it deserves more exposure than it gets, it’s such a stunning country filled with lovely, hospitable people. I’m sure a lot of Welsh people hate the English, I don’t blame them, the English have done some fucking appalling things to a lot of nations. But there’s such a sense of community in Wales. They have their own culture, their own language. A lot of place names are reverting to their original Welsh as opposed to the English names bestowed upon them, though signs and maps often carry both names. Hopefully it won’t be too far in the future before only the Welsh names remain, the English names being consigned to the past, outdated and obsolete. The language is beautiful and nothing like English. It might use a Latin script but they have some different letters than we do, and seemingly familiar letters are pronounced differently.
F, for example, is pronounced in Welsh how we’d say a V. So araf, meaning slow, would be said “arav.” If you want the F sound you use Ff. They used several digraphs like this, which we’d see as two letters but in Welsh they’re classed as one. Such as Ll, pronounced as it you’re about to hock up a greeny… kind of… You can easily pick up the odd Welsh word. I’m about as good with languages as I am riding a unicycles whilst juggling elephants, but even I now know that siop is shop, heddlu is police, llyn is lake and has that phlegm sound that I can’t say without spraying, and ysgol is school. That’s not even possible to say if you’re using English pronunciations, but that Y is said like an “err”, so it’s errs-gol… though I could be wrong and it might get you stabbed in the face. Best check hey.
I wish we could have spent longer exploring the country, once you start researching it you realise there’s so much to it. So much history, so much to see and do. And they have, without a scrap of doubt, the single most badass flag in all of the known world.
Brecon to Cardiff, Wales
Stayed at: A friend’s place in Cardiff