Steel mountain

May 4, 2019 1 Comment

For an early May walk the three of us are back here in Port Talbot, a town much in the news lately.  First things first: coffee and serious cakes in a popular café, Selections, as fuel for a steep ascent.   As always in Port Talbot, smiles and friendliness greet us. Then we wander across the town and under the M4, where a learned graffitist, maybe inspired by Banksy’s brief visit here, has left us three fiery messages on the underpass wall:

‘Hell is other people’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, from Huis clos, 1944)

‘Time is the school in which we learn / Time is the fire in which we burn’ (Delmore Schwartz, from ‘Calmly we walk through this April’s day’, 1937)

‘Eternity!  Thou pleasing, dreadful thought’ (from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, 1713).

As soon as we’re across the dangerous slip road off the motorway we join the path that leads up Mynydd Dinas (846 feet).  Like the town, the path is in no mood to compromise.  It doesn’t do zig-zag tacking, as a concession to wonky knees or unfit lungs; instead, it attacks the mountain head on.  Steep, timber-retained steps take us straight up the slope, via Mountain Road and Mountain Side.  Each of us disguises an urgent need to take breath as a chance to stop and admire the view.  And the view’s certainly worth the struggle.

Below us to the left is the western end of the steelworks – the original part of the Margam site, with its older, rebuilt blast furnaces.  Steam, gases and fumes rise from all parts and drift towards the north-east, darkening a dark sky.  To the west is a huge mound of coal – steelmaking uses large quantities of coal – possibly from Poland, another building we’re not sure about (limestone or sand preparation?), and the docks and their cranes.  Steel production methods have changed enormously over the years, but we suspect the photos we capture on our cameras wouldn’t look, at first sight, very different from similar views in the 1960s.

Panning north-west, we can see the town centre, the Neath Port Talbot Hospital, St Joseph’s School, the big Sandfields estate, with Aberafan beach beyond, and then Baglan Bay and its gas-fired power station.  Visibility’s poor today, but we can just make out Mumbles in the far west. The motorway thunders along at the foot the mountain, its roar never far away on this walk.  We reflect that in deindustrialised Britain there are very few views that can match this: a reminder of a world that most people imagined would last, but which elsewhere has almost entirely vanished.

Our talk turns to climate change.  What we’re looking at is as far as you can imagine from ‘carbon-neutral’.  The steel plant is a pollutant on a grand scale, especially since it’s so coal-dependent.  The power station is another big offender.  And the M4 traffic pumps dioxides, monoxides and particulates into the air day and night. What would it take to turn all this into a carbon-free landscape?  Nothing less than a revolution.  And what would become of Port Talbot, and its people?  It takes quite a leap of thought to imagine the workers all turned into climate-friendly financial sector workers.  Daunted, we start to think what each of us should be doing at home.  Scrap the gas boiler, never fly again, get rid of the car, or get an electric one?  Whatever the answers are to any of these questions, revolution is no exaggeration as the key to answering them.

At the last house on the hill two dogs come bounding down towards us, barking loudly.  With difficulty their owner retrieves them and gates them while we pass.  J. reveals that one of his two dogs has recently died, and we rehearse an old conversation about how much animals know about death.  Is the surviving Dog 2 aware that ailing Dog 1 has disappeared for ever?  Or maybe she’s must moved next door?  Or maybe the memory of her is soon erased?

At last the fierce slope eases and we’re on the top of Mynydd Dinas.  It’s a surprise to find ourselves on a plateau, or what was once a plateau before rivers gouged great ravines across it.  We’ve moved back in time from the Anthropocene to the last ice age: this was the last frontier of the glaciers.  The path’s flat now, and moves north into a forest.  It takes us ten minutes to realise that we’ve missed the turning and are heading inland to Cwmafan.  The (right) path descends, passing an abandoned early seventeenth century farm, Blaen Baglan, which C. tells us was once used in season by Sioni Wynwns (Onion Jonnies) visiting from Brittany.  We pass a large shed, its metal walls rusting happily into the landscape.  It looks like an artist’s installation, and reminds J. and me – we’ve both been in Vienna recently – of Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz.

Now we’re in Baglan, C.’s childhood home.  But the bit we’ve hit on is ‘Baglan Heights’, a new housing estate built on what were fields and woods in which C. had played as a child: he has to consult the map to avoid us getting lost again.  The primary school (motto: ‘Aiming at excellence together’) has a banner proclaiming its fiftieth birthday: this too was a field when C. was growing up.  Lower down he’s on firmer ground, though visibly pained to find that this fish and chip shop or that telephone box has disappeared.  Baglan Library is still open, just.  We visit the house C. lived in with his parents, and walk through familiar streets.  One of them, Keir Hardie, was where ‘problem families’ were housed, and C. recollects hurrying down it to avoid its hard-faced, sharp-toed Teddy boys.  Then we climb again, past the large green oval where C. and his mates would play football and cricket, disruptively enough for Mr E. to appear, in vest and pants, in an upstairs room of his house, to rain foul-mouthed curses on their heads.

The houses give out and now we’re on the Ladies’ Walk, a path that, after a short steep scramble, climbs slowly around the edge of a forest.  It’s mainly beech, and the leaves are in their full adolescent greenness, but there are sections of oak too, their trunks much more gnarled and distorted.  Drifts of bluebells fill some of the hollows.  Finally the track descends to the end of Jersey Park, according to the Royal Commission ‘an exceptionally well preserved urban public park’, opened in 1925.  We follow its long course into Briton Ferry (the entrance is easily missed, but marked by a monkey puzzle tree).

Today Briton Ferry looks a depressed town, full of closed-up shops and banks, and it’s easy to pass through it with no awareness of its past.  In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries the Ferry was a place of beauty and a honeypot for picturesque tourists and artists, including Paul Sandby, Turner, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Philip James De Loutherbourg and Penry Williams.  Much later its steel and tinplate workers gained a reputation for radicalism.  The town became a stronghold of the Independent Labour Party (one in twenty residents were said to be members), and Aled Eurig’s recent research has shown it was a centre of conscientious objection during the First World War, and was called ‘Little Germany’ by pro-war parties.  In 1916 Bertrand Russell came to the town to speak for the No Conscription Fellowship, and reported ‘a really wonderful meeting – the hall was packed, they were all in highest point of enthusiasm’.  Big political crowds were common: in 1917, Charles Ammon, a prominent London ILPer, ‘visited here on Sunday last, June 24th, and for an hour spoke to a magnificent audience’.

Whatever it may have lost, Briton Ferry still has an excellent bus service, and within a few minutes we’re being whisked back to Port Talbot on the X4 bus, at the end of a fine day’s walking.

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  1. Clifford says:

    I think there’s a reasonable prospect of Port Talbot being a cleaner, greener place in 20 years time – whether the steelworks still exists or not. I’m no expert but there do appear to be some options to reduce the carbon impact of the steel industry – Tata has developed a new process at its Dutch site, and there are other techniques being researched in Sweden.–/

    I suppose the major issue is whether these new technologies enable what’s left of the British steel industry to remain competitive at a global level, or simply add to their costs vis-a-vis producers in places like China.

    As for the M4, the UK Government intends to ban the sale of conventional piston-engined cars by 2040 and it’s coming under pressure to move sooner. Of course, there are lots of challenges on the way to an electrically-powered future including the capacity of the National Grid, the availability of charging infrastructure, the cost of the vehicles themselves, but the technology is moving fast, and I’m an optimist. Maybe the motorway itself will be able to charge electric cars in the future…

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