This could be anywhere…
Let me just start by saying I’ve never actually been to Abercynon, I’m from a place called Blaengarw about 20 miles west of Abercynon. In fact, I feel slightly uneasy writing about the South Wales Valleys considering I left Wales and the Garw Valley when I was 12 years old (“How green was my valley?” - Not green enough, apparently). In a sense I can’t help but feel like I’ve abandoned my home. On the other hand; I never really left. Everywhere I go people ask where I’m from and I feel the need to explain in lengthy detail where exactly the Garw Valley is:
“I’m from Blaengarw"… "Where is it?"... "Do you know a place called Bridgend?"... "No? Okay, well it’s somewhere between Swansea and Cardiff and from there you head north past the M4. There’s only one road in, one road out and you follow it all the way to the end..." "Oh, right.”
It’s as if I want people to know and acknowledge that there are people and communities who actually live there; all trying to get by on what remains of the post-industrial coal scorched earth and that there’s more to us than being able to play ‘catch the egg’ against the English (and don’t get me started on the ‘x Shore’ spinoff TV show…).
Looking at Megan’s photography of Abercynon and the surrounding landscape I find myself incapable of separating the images from my own memory of the Valleys; the packed rows of hastily built terraced houses for the families of the miners - now homes to their descendants, the eerily silent streets and overgrown alleyways, the lone man hiking across the mountain tops past the graffiti daubed cliff faces.
It’s almost impossible to talk about South Wales without mentioning ‘the mines’. It is integral to our history and our understanding of where and who we are, but we also risk romanticising these bygone days as it implies we have no other path to walk (my old neighbour once said to my Dad, “You could offer me all the money in the world and I still wouldn’t go back down there, no one should.”) Since the closure of the mines there have been few real opportunities for the generations who came after the industrial boom - the generations who still live and grow there. We can’t deny that the industry brought people together and established these communities, with the memory serving as part of the glue that holds them all together. In Blaengarw for example; the workers all donated a portion of their wages to pay for the construction of a local Workingmens Hall for cultural and recreational pursuits (before the Odeon sprung up outside of Bridgend I’d go there to watch films, I also made my first musical performance there).
Visit almost any village or town in South Wales and you’ll find a mural; a newly built park or other landmark dedicated to the people who delved into these pits - pits, which have now become tourist landmarks. You’ll also find boarded up buildings that once were home to local butchers, cafes, barbers and grocers - now we have betting shops, supermarkets and failing pubs. There’s an underlying sensation that we’ve been forgotten by the rest of the world (remember that one time when we were left out of a map of Europe?) and if we must be perpetually reminded of - and bound by - history, the least we can do is tell a contemporary story of the Valleys in the 21st Century. Abercynon is a great place to start this story. To anyone outside the Valleys this could be anywhere - but it’s not.