Gwent Industrial Heritage, Chris Barber’s 40th book has just been published by Amberley Press of Stroud. and richly illustrated it provides a fascinating insight into the industrial heritage of our county, pointing the way for those who have an interest in the surviving relics of a bygone era
Before the Industrial Revolution, this was a pastoral and agricultural area peopled with farming folk, but the western valleys were destined to become one of the most important iron producing locations in the world.
Chris has previously written several books on this subject, starting with Cordell Country, in 1975, which was written as a tribute to Alexander Cordell, whose world famous novel Rape of the Fair Country undoubtedly encouraged a greater interest in our industrial past. It even helped to inspire the creation of Blaenavon World Heritage Site which was achieved in 1999 and a few years later Chris wrote the definitive guide book.
The Industrial Revolution was a period of inventive genius that led to fascinating developments, rapid growth in population and prosperity for the entrepreneurs.
Countless claims can be made for the many engineering projects undertaken in this part of Wales and these include Britain’s finest example of an eighteenth century ironworks at Blaenavon; the oldest tramroad tunnel in the world at Pwlldu, the longest flight of canal locks in Wales, on the Monmouthshire Canal; two elegant cast iron bridges in the Wye Valley and the longest railway viaduct in the world at Crumlin.
Today, it is fascinating to study the story of our modern industrial society with its associated evils of exploitation and social deprivation. The term ‘industrial archaeology’ first appeared in 1955 in an article by Michael Rix, published in ‘The Amateur Historian’ and four years later the Council for British Archaeology organised a National Conference to launch the subject.
It seems hard to believe now, but at one time, iron, wire, brass, copper, tinplate and paper were produced in the beautiful Lower Wye Valley. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries this was a very important industrial area. People with an interest in our industrial history. find the picturesque Angiddy Valley, above Tintern a fascinating area to explore.
Britain’s first wire drawing works were established there in 1566, and by the mid eighteenth century a large complex of iron and wire works was spreading up this valley for nearly two miles.
The Angiddy brook falls 900 feet to the Wye and its fast flowing water provided power for a series of industrial undertakings, such as the Angiddy Ironworks which was excavated in 1979 and 1980. Information panels erected on the site provide detailed explanation of its operation.
An elegant five arch cast-iron bridge can be seen spanning the River Wye at Chepstow and one with a single arch, rated the most elegant example in Wales, can be seen further up-river at Bigsweir. Cast at Merthyr Tydful in 1827 it connects two counties and two countries .
Tredegar’s iron clock, erected in the mid-nineteenth century is an iconic example of the town’s iron industry. Standing 72 feet high, Its chimes can be heard throughout the town and it has been said that if you only visit Tredegar once, you will always remember the town for its distinctive clock!
The ‘Guardian of the Valleys’ which is pictured on the book cover, is a 66ft tall steel statue overlooking the landscaped site of the former Six Bells Colliery. It was erected to commemorate the 45 men who died in the mining disaster of 1966; their names, ages and home towns can be seen on steel plates surrounding the plinth.
The flight of fourteen locks at Rogerstone is a remarkable feat of late 18th century engineering, for it enables the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal to rise 168 feet within half-a-mile. An enormous quantity of water was needed to fill every lock each time a narrow boat passed through and this was made possible by the construction of a series of balancing ponds alongside the fourteen locks. This allowed the water to be re-used in the next lock below and so on all the way down the staircase.
Situated at the top pond is the 14 Locks Canal Visitor Centre which was established in 1975 and tells the story of this canal which amazingly was completed all the way to Crumlin in just three years.
Tramroads were also of great importance and there were many constructed in this county. It can even be claimed that it would have been possible to take the longest tramroad journey in the world , if one travelled from the head of the Monmouthshire Canal at Crumlin to Nantyglo, then down Bailey’s Tramroad to Govilon, and on by the Llanfihangel Tramroad to Hereford, making a total distance of nearly 100 miles.
But canals and tramroads were slow methods of transport and the invention of the steam locomotive meant that the future lay in the development of railways. By the start of the twentieth century, railway mileage in this country stood at 18,672 miles, and at one time it was righty said that ‘perhaps no county in the kingdom is better off for railway communication than Monouthshire’.
The construction of railway viaducts resulted in numerous impressive stone structures, which still remain and are now Grade II listed monuments. Good examples are the nine arch Blaen y Cwm Viaduct, the Clydach Viaduct, built on a graceful curve and the nine arch Garndiffaith Viaduct . These are well preserved and now used as cycle routes on a national network.
Abergavenny station was built by the Great Western Railway in 1857 and Grade II listed it stands, on the line to Hereford. If you travel by train to Chepstow then you can see one of the few original remaining stations designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and constructed in 1850.
A beautifully preserved Victorian Railway Station and signal box is Tintern Old Station on the old Wye Valley line, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1959. It is now a popular visitor centre and picnic site with a tea shop in the original waiting room.
Blaenavon Heritage Railway, which is completely operated by volunteers is the highest standard gauge railway in Wales and trains, predominately steam hauled are in regular use on Sundays and bank holidays.
In Newport the skyline is dominated by the town’s famous Transporter bridge which is one of two of its kind still working in Britain. Designed by a French engineer, it was built at a cost of £98,000 and officially opened in 1906. The two towers are 245 feet high and the bridge has a span of 645 feet. Suspended by twenty-seven steel wires is a travelling platform which carries vehicles and passengers across the river at 5 miles an hour and takes about one and a half minutes. It has been awarded Grade I listed status and is now a major tourist attraction.
This is just a sample of the content of this fascinating book, which has been written by a prolific author who has devoted a large part of his life to exploring the whole of Wales, in order to record a wide range of subjects. These include hill walking, megalithic monuments, history and legends. His photography skills also ensure that such books are always a worthwhile addition to your book shelves.
Gwent Industrial Heritage by Chris Barber is now on sale in Waterstones, Abergavenny @ £15.99 (ISBN 978 1 3981 o872 1).