It’s the morning of the Pumpkinification of Donald Trump. Three of us have fled the bloggers, tweeters and trolls, to the head of Cwm Tawe. We park in Ystradgynlais, near Ysgol Golwg y Cwm, and walk up to the track of the old Swansea Vale Railway. This and the Brecon and Neath Railway it connects with must have been two of the great railway journeys, like many others in upland Wales, till Dr Beeching got his hands on it. Through the trees the weak light flows over the hills opposite.
A newly made path drops from the track, past a large, desolate colliery site, to Afon Tawe. The river is swollen with overnight rain pouring off the Black Mountain. Next we walk through Abercraf and its polychrome stone-fronted houses, take an early meal in the Abercrave Inn, and head northwards up a steep slope through trees. Beyond the wood, and a farm with the sinister name Garwleisiau, we find ourselves in open country, on the south-western slopes of Cribarth.
All along the valley below, from Abercraf to Craig-y-nos, the ridge-backed hill of Cribarth casts a long shadow. Though it’s not much more than 420m high, it stands like a dark sentinel at the top of Cwm Tawe. It’s a anticline limestone outcrop and part of what geologists call the Cribarth Disturbance, a weakness in the earth’s crust. The profile of its ridge is broken and ragged, like a rusty saw.
We’ve not been walking long before we realise we’re following an old tramway. Soon it takes off up the hill, straight ahead and at a steep angle, towards a defile or gulch, guarded by two villainous sheep. They stand stock still, with impassive faces and, for all we know, holsters clipped and rifles at the ready. We press on up the incline. The sheep lose their nerve before we do and retreat. Where the track levels out we’re in a strange new world. The track wanders on ahead, following the contours of the hill’s south-eastern flank. All around it is a lunar landscape. Heaps of disturbed limestone, large and small, lie on either side. Quarries gape, their floors bare and level. Shake-holes open up where the stone has collapsed into the earth. At times the tram track runs on a slender isthmus, the land on either side all eaten away. Above us the higher slopes are littered with broken cliffs and scree. At one point we climb and look back towards the summit trig point, and beside it a broad cairn of stones planted there in the Bronze Age.
Cribarth gives huge views in all directions: south down the valley towards Ystradgynlais and beyond, north-east towards Glyntawe and the source of the Tawe, west to the steep scarp silhouette of Bannau Brycheiniog, and, tilted to the north, the desert wastes of the Black Mountain, its heather glowing orange in the low sun. As we come to the end of the ridge we can see the Victorian pile of Craig-y-nos Castle far below, with its clocktower and the miniature opera theatre Adelina Patti had built so that she could sing to her guests and the birds. The path down is steep. Grass, stones and fallen leaves are all treacherous underfoot.
Between Garwleisiau and Craig-y-nos we’ve seen no other human being. This would have been impossible in the nineteenth century, when the hill was alive with toiling people. It was Cribarth that provided stone to feed the gargantuan appetite of the iron, copper and tin industries of Swansea and its valley. Limestone was quarried for use in the furnaces, ‘rottenstone’, friable limestone shale for polishing copper and tin, and silica sand for lining furnaces. Cribarth has the remains of thirty quarries, eighteen inclined planes, several limekilns and seventeen kilometres of railways – all built between 1794 and the 1890s. The stone was transported down the hill by the inclined planes to the Swansea Canal, and later the railway, and down Cwm Tawe. Hundreds of men, and maybe women, laboured on the mountain, building tramways, cutting stone, loading and hauling wagons, guiding horses, firing kilns. So complex is the palimpsest of industrial workings on the hill that, according to our friend PR, only one person alive, Stephen Hughes, formerly of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments, is able to interpret the maze of piles, holes and lines that make Cribarth the most intensively worked mountain in Wales.
All this vast activity has gone. Long gone, and completely gone. Today Cribarth has returned to its pre-industrial past. Apart from the occasional walker it’s only sheep that clamber on its slopes. It may even be quieter now that in the Bronze Age, when a milder climate allowed people to live and work high in upland Wales. In a post-Trump era, with climate change unchecked, vast human migrations in progress and armed conflict redoubled, it isn’t hard to see Cribarth as a metaphor not just for a post-industrial, but for a post-human future, when all man’s wondrous ingenuity has been reduced to silent ashes.
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.
Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
animals and mountains technically,
by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.
And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and
moods that make a city moral, these he taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
Death stays dark.
Death he cannot doom.
honest oath taking notwithstanding.
Hilarious in his high city
you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.
(Bianca Stone’s illustration for this chorus, in the Bloodaxe edition of Carson’s version of the play, Antigonick (2012), looks remarkably like Cribarth to me.)