It is so different now. My journey round Cardiff and up to Merthyr today will take just forty minutes along fast dual carriageways. The roads around this part of South Wales are the biggest change I've noticed in the region on my brief trips back. Sometimes it's hard to remember how it used to be.
In the late sixties I often went North to the Brecon Beacons to walk the hills with scouting friends. If we were lucky we could get past Merthyr Tydfil in a couple of hours, then our spirits would soar as the Beacons rose to meet us and the industrial valleys faded behind. Today I wanted to re-live those escapes, experience the freedom of the hills once more and recharge my spirit.
Today the weather was smiling on me. A blue sky, a few friendly white clouds and a soft breeze. The new road shows a flattering picture of the valleys, skirting the grey communities whose life was coal, and climbing through the gentle, beautiful hills. What would they have been without coal? The most wonderful part of Britain, I think. Round, sculpted hills, friendly woods and streams, the russets of autumn bracken. Perhaps it is best they now evade the ravages of tourism, a small recompense for its century and a half of blight.
Thirty years ago this seemed far from the truth. The two hour or more crawl up to Merthyr was never a pleasure. Lorries groaning and belching like trolls along the narrow road with the mindless intent of ants on a trail. Coal smoke from the houses mixed an acrid soup with diesel fumes and grey, misty rain turning all to wet slate. Black slugs of towns glistening, creeping out of the pits to corrode the beauty of the valleys. It was like the hinterland of hell, corrupted by fiendish purpose for some evil design. The Empire, born of iron and coal, now gone, still plucked its merciless tithe from the oldest colony.
The dire land spawned a people: community, chapel, nobility. Adversity bred purpose, fuelled by anger, to change the world that gave them birth. Their legacy remains and will shape the world yet. The void, the wake of coal's demise, cannot devour their purpose. But today it seems so unreal, the new road runs west of Quakers Yard, Merthyr Vale, Troedyrhiw and Aberfan. They pass by unnoticed below.
Once there were black pyramids, six I think where this road runs, above Aberfan. The spoil heaps spewed out by the mines. No more. Shame has erased them but time has not erased that shame. I remember that October day, returning from school to see television images. Unimaginable horror. At nine thirty that morning one of the pyramids, one of the coal tips, became some nameless moster sliding relentlessly down the hill to smother the defenceless school of Aberfan. As I watched the grey murk of day turning to black night, lights burnt bright revealing that which should never be seen, that words cannot describe.
Men, half naked, bloody hands clawing the black filth. Black filth torn from hell by their fathers, with their fathers' blood, in the land of their fathers. Faces obscured by black sh*t, streaked by tears, frozen by yet unfelt, uncomprehended pain. Silent sobs pierce the unnatural silence, loud above the throb of generators and scrape of shovels. More than a hundred children entombed. What hope is left? So many meanings coalesce in horror. Families whose life was their children, whose hope was education, whose dream was escape.
Nothing left but horror.
I almost crash on the roundabout at Pentrebach. I stop to wipe my tears and resolve to return along the old road after my walk. The road winds up through the last vestiges of "The Whitey", a lunar landscape vomited by the Dowlais ironworks. It began in the eighteenth century and I remember parts of it still hot, now little remains. Up and on to the Heads of the Valleys road, a bleak limestone plateau, sheep rasping their living from the wiry grass. Then down to Llangynidr and Usk valley. Crossing the river brings me into a friendly countryside. The red sandstone soil works its magic, conjuring woods and hedgerows, foxgloves standing benevolent guard midst the hazel.
My route takes me near Partrishow so I detour to its church - St. Issui, Patricio. A small building of quiet magnificence and wonder in the middle of nowhere. Its rood screen alone is worth the journey but the red ochre figure of Time or Doom on its west wall, a skeleton with scythe, hourglass and spade, fills me with awe. I contemplate the wall and wrestle with its meaning but leave without conclusion, just a vague unease and feeling of its power. This soon fades as I wind along the Grwyne Fawr valley through the trees of Mynydd Du forest.
The road peters out apart from a track up to the reservoir. Leaving the car I rejoice in the feel of walking boots, rucksack and the freedom of the hills. Today is a good one for walking.
As I stroll gently upwards through the valley's trees Kapil Dev hits four sixes in an over to save the follow on and I chuckle at the apoplexy of the cricket commentators and with joy at the exuberance of it all. Yes, this is going to be a good day.
My walk along the western ridge of the Black Mountains - a curious name for these amiable green rolling hills - is a joyous one. Few people on the hills, perhaps they didn't anticipate the surprisingly good early summer weather and I enjoy the solitude. At one point I can see in the distance far below the heart shaped field that was our summer camp site in 1971. I can tell from here that it's a special place where the ley lines and other forces that pervade our planet, but few notice, converge. Thinking back it was nearly always me who chose the places for our scout camps. Maybe the others tacitly understood that I felt the forces and would choose well.
It's early evening when I return to the car, happily tired and feeling much better for the day's exertion. On my drive back I stop for a pint and a chat in Llangynidr, mostly about the day's cricket, before heading on to Merthyr.
As the road descends past Dowlais the weather changes fast. The sunshine fades to a grey and misty half-light. At Pentrebach I turn onto the old road, the change seems fitting, houses insubstantial ghosts in the murk, coal smoke pervading the air. I don't feel right - suddenly nauseous - perhaps because of the smoke - so I stop for a moment at Troedyrhiw near the old chip shop we used to call at. Strange, I thought it had been boarded up years ago, but surely it would be open at this time of the evening if still in business? I drive on southwards but just past the Aberfan sign I feel sick again. The west wall of Partrishow church seems to loom ahead of me in the deepening, chilly, gloom.
Hallucinating now? I pull over and stop, some fresh air might help but the smoky murk gives no relief. The silence is eerie, waiting. Somewhere in my mind an insane meaning stirs. Then I hear a rumble, the ground shakes banishing my doubts and I run, weeping, down the hillside towards the black tentacles of horror devouring the children of Abervan.