The goings on in and around Bridgend

Monthly Archives: October 2015

Digital Bridgend, Pontycymer

The Pontycymer Trail in the Garw Valley

#DigitalBridgend is a new and innovative smartphone application that challenges users to find almost 300 places of historical interest throughout the County of Bridgend. Using augmented reality to find your way around, there are no less than 17 trails to follow, games to play, quizzes and scavenger hunts to unearth the unique heritage of this fascinating part of Wales. This series of blog posts reviews each trail in turn on location. The app is now available on Apple and Android platforms.

This week, it's another visit to 'the Garw' to review one of three available #DigitalBridgend trails in the valley, and as I'm starting to get to know my way around these days, I'm confident to kick off my morning with a visit to Bryngarw Country Park. The trail I'm following today is the Pontcymer trail, a village that I normally pass through but honestly know hardly anything of its history, so this should be a good one for me.

Bryngarw Country Park

Bryngarw Country Park is not the first point of interest on the trail, but it marks the beginning of the Garw Valley cycle path, that takes you to Pontcymer and beyond to Blaengarw if you wish. So the excellent new café in the park is ideal for a quick 'cuppa', before heading off by bike or car! I chose the latter, but it's just as easy and probably more pleasant on two wheels rather than four if I'm honest.

So. I launch the #DigitalBridgend app on my iphone, select the Garw Valley (the railway icon on the homescreen) and then the axe symbol (which is the Pontcymer trail). Fortunately, I've already downloaded all the additional content that I need for the Garw Valley previously, so pressing the big 'play' button on the Pontcymer page on the app, I'm straight into action, and I'm told the first place I must find is a chapel, about 5 km away.

Pontycymer 1

Following the directions given on the app, that always pop up for all points of interest as soon as you start the trail, it's a short drive up 'the Garw' and I must keep my eyes peeled for the first bridge that I come across on the left hand side. I find it, park up on the side of the road and there in front of me is Tylagwyn Chapel. I walk towards it, and right on cue, the commentary pays on the app. It tells me that this baptist chapel was the first in the valley and the river nearby (even when it was frozen over) was used to baptise the local congregation. Sounds quite the opposite to a baptism of fire to me I must admit.

The second point of interest is only around 150 metres away so we can leave the car parked on the side of the road near the chapel, and continue on foot to find the Pont-Y-Rhil Junction. This time, the commentary is activated by the app, just as you walk over the bridge that crosses over the railway line and junction that played such a major part in the industrialisation of the valley and in particular the transport of coal to the docks in Cardiff. Interestingly ,a railway station was built for passengers but instead of purpose built carriages, initially, they'd wash out the open top coal wagons, put benches in them and offer passengers a ride to Maesteg (including a 1km long tunnel ride too!).

Pontycymer 3

We press the play button again, and continue our journey up the valley until we reach the site of the Lluest colliery. Once again, this is on the side of the main road through the Garw Valley, so it easy to park and indeed, there's a convenient lay-by around 100 metres from our next point of interest. It's quite sad to discover yet another local mining accident had cost lives in the Lluest Colliery, with 19 men and boys being victims of an explosion on this site in 1899. Today, it is poignantly commemorated by a coal dram positioned at the site where you can also see on the hillside remains from the stone arches that once formed part of this colliery.

Onwards to the next point in the trail, so its back to the car (or the bike) and continue along the main road (or cycle path) only a km or so to find a chapel made of tin! The delightfully named Pant-Y-Gog Chapel is also visible from the side of the road so it's easy to park outside and its an interesting place to take a quick look around. The commentary at this stage tells us that this unique place of worship is one of the few remaining corrugated prefabricated chapels that once populated the valleys throughout Wales to meet the demand for non-conformism. The tin chapels and building were a quick and convenient way to erect a building after the method of galvinising zinc with iron reduced corrosion significantly. However, over the years, rust has eventually started to get the better of the building as can be seen today by viewing this remarkable relic from the main road through the valley.

Pontycymer 4

Before leaving the tin chapel, the app has a nice surprise challenge for the user to complete, where you must use your finger on the screen of your phone to drag the prefabricated parts onto a template of the tin chapel in order to erect the building as quickly as possible. Ingenious really, and one of the easier games on the app to enjoy! Even I completed it. It cleverly illustrates the point that these prefabricated tin chapels could be erected very quickly, were springing up all over the valley sides and because of that, and their basic appearance, it's fair to say that they were not everyone's cup of tea.

Next stop, we become aware about a local character, called Merlin, a recent renown Welsh harp maker who I was told by a local who I stopped to talk to that he used to recently ride a penny-farthing through the village much to the amazement and amusement of passers-by in this day and age. That's what I love about this place, there's a wealth of local quirks and facts that are hidden and sometimes only unearthed in conversation with people in the know. So, pop into a café and talk away, this is the Garw Valley, very friendly, and they do like to chat up here that's for sure!

The Ffaldau Workmens Institute and the Pontycymer Square provided an interesting lesson in local history before I moved on to what I think was the best part of this trail, the Garw Valley Railway. For the Square, and all the remaining points in this trail, I found the best place to park was near the local supermarket 'the co-op', as the last stage is all within walking distance of this point.

Pontycymer 5

First, I'm guided by the app over the bridge and down passed a leisure centre and on towards a modern yet basic industrial 'hanger-like' building where the commentary kicked in to tell me all about the significance and history of the local railway.  I was perhaps very fortunate to bump into one of the 85 volunteers who today are working hard to preserve, restore and hopefully reopen the railway line that once stretched the 4 miles from Pontcymer to Bryngarw. I was taken into the large 'hanger' which was in fact the engine shed that today houses the former engines and carriages that would have once been a frequent sight in these parts. This was a real unexpected find, and it's amazing to think that this incredible 'museum' and railway enthusiasm exists hidden away in a valley in the middle of South Wales. I found the app to be really useful here because it presents the user with a number of images of the rolling stock that you can see before you, and there is corresponding text informing us about the history and other facts surrounding each vessel.

I am now directed to the final few points nearby and discover that within yards of where I stand, there have been some quite famous feet standing here before me. The app tells me that the former theatre site known as the Rink once hosted Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy fame) and the authentic Italian café called Station café just across the road was a recent film set featuring Welsh actors Ioan Gruffydd and Matthew Rhys, both Hollywood stars of course who were required to serve behind the counter! This café is definitely worth a visit, it has a story of its own and was once the centrepoint for the whole valley housing a jukebox and a giant brass Gaggia coffee machine. The final point in the trail is a short walk through a restored landscape that once bore the scars of the Fladau Colliery that once dominated the centre of Pontycymer.

In summary, a great little trail which hardly requires any walking at all if by car, and a very pleasant gentle cycle ride if you decide to go by bike from Bryngarw Country Park. Allow around 2 hours max for this, even though I could have easily spent all this time looking at the locomotives in  the Engine Shed. Another part of hidden Bridgend unearthed, I look forward to next week's adventure. Until then.   

Digital Bridgend, The Ogmore Vale Trail

#DigitalBridgend is a new and innovative smartphone application that challenges users to find almost 300 places of historical interest throughout the County of Bridgend. Using augmented reality to find your way around, there are no less than 17 trails to follow, games to play, quizzes and scavenger hunts to unearth the unique heritage of this fascinating part of Wales. This series of blog posts reviews each trail in turn on location. The app is now available on Apple and Android platforms.

Today, we unearth the heritage of the Ogmore Valley, one of the three great valleys that stretch north from the M4 near Bridgend. Once you exit the motorway at Junction 36 (the Designer Outlet in Bridgend), it's straight forward. The signage is excellent, you just select the valley of your choice from the roundabout, and off you go.

DSC06868 R 500

On the Digital Bridgend app, from the homescreen, click on the icon that best depicts the Ogmore Valley, and that's the one in the top left hand side showing a river meandering through scenic hills. Once done, you will then be presented with three trails in this area, select 'the bell' icon which is the trail through the village of Ogmore Vale, about 5 miles north of the M4. The app reveals the significance of the bell during the trail, so more about that later.

Ogmore Valley 1

I'm instructed to head north to the site of the former coal washeries in Ogmore Vale. Easy to find, and a pleasant drive through a wooden valley. Arriving in the village, I'm taken alongside the rugby field, double backing along the valley slightly, until the commentary for this first point of interest eventually triggers as I approach the picnic spot. I'm at the base of the valley floor in a spot that feels quite secluded but you can clearly see despite the scenic setting, that the land all around here was once scarred by heavy industry. There's a timeline on the app at this stage that allows us to select different periods in the mining history of this valley. Given the beauty and greenery today, it's difficult to imagine that this area was once blackened by the coal that the Ogmore Valley was famed for.

Nantmoel Aber Fields 4 R

Having been fully briefed on the significance of this site and the role that the Valley played industrial South Wales, I decide to leave the car near the rugby filed (as there's plenty of room to park) and head off on foot along a community cycle and pedestrian route into the village itself. The next point I'm looking for is 2km away and is actually a former outdoor swimming baths!

As I follow the icon on the screen towards the swimming baths site, I realise that this trail could easily be done by bicycle, the route is great, it's flat, paved and well maintained. The walk takes me across the main road and around the back of the houses that line this typical linear Welsh valley village until I arrive at a point in the heart of Ogmore Vale where the swimming baths once stood.  Should I have stumbled across this place by chance, I probably would not have realised that this was once a focal point for the whole valley during the early 20th Century. The popular baths were actually fed by the mountain stream and the app shows some excellent photographs of how this area once looked in its heyday. The tin structure was actually built over the River Ogmore and the village even hosted diving competitions many years ago. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that these baths only closed in 1998!  The app now launches into a quiz about some of the other leisure activities that would have been enjoyed locally alongside the swimming. You have to complete this before heading off to the next point - the Aber Colliery.

Wp 3-2_2ndabercolliery

For the Aber Colliery, I'm directed towards the site of the fire station on the valley side. You have to follow the footpath behind the station which offers commanding views of the valley and the village below, so is worth the walk just for the vantage points. The commentary and image slideshow of the former colliery 'kicks in' as you walk along the path and you can clearly see where the workings were once located. I learn from the app that Aber was one of the oldest mines in the valley (first sunk as a drift mine in 1865) but sadly the colliery is remembered for yet another local mining tragedy when 5 men lost their lives through an explosion on 1888.

From this point, the app now invites us to explore Cwm y Fuwch, further along the path, up the side of the valley. A pleasant stroll along a footpath that takes us a few hundred metres behind the fire station. The apps tells us that this small tributary valley translated into English actually means 'Valley of the Cow' which is typical of ancient Wales where valleys were once named after animals, perhaps signifying the connection with a Celtic deity. At the site where the commentary starts playing, we learn that there was once possibly an ancient medieval settlement in Cwm Y Fuwch, as there are remains of dry stone walls scattered throughout the area. You can also see the remains of buildings and workings of yet another colliery that was sunk at this site, which quite remarkably used a rope and horse powered tramway to transport the coal down the valley for processing. 

Next, the app takes us back down the valley into the village and a short walk to the former site of the Workman's Hall, on the corner of Commercial Street, which was partly funded by miners donations. Here we are presented with a timeline to explore the various dates in the history of what was once the most iconic and beloved buildings of the Ogmore Valley, the largest of its type in South Wales holding up to a 1000 people at one time. Sadly, we learn that the building was demolished in 1983. Some imagery on the app shows clearly how impressive and significant this building once was for local people. As well as boasting a library, billiards room, a bar and committee rooms, the Hall installed the famous bells in the tower in memory of those who had fallen during the two World Wars.

Completing the timeline, the icon appears on my screen and invites me to follow it to the former railway station site, another short walk away.  At this point, there's a scavenger hunt where the user has to follow the icon to find the various points of interest peppered around the former station. Each point reveals a short history and an image related to the station and its activity. Interesting to learn that the railway linked the valley with Porthcawl on the coast and was also a passenger line, which even offered third class tickets - selling 62,000 of them in 1868! Finishing the Scavenger Hunt, the app now directs us back towards Commercial Street and the site of the famous Gwalia Stores.

Intro -3

We're told that the Gwalia stores was Ogmore's very own department store and the app challenges users to complete a short quiz about the items that were once sold from the stores which included a bakery, grocery, ironmongers and men's outfitters making it the Harrods of the valley, furnished in mahogany, white marble and plate glass.  On Friday nights, following the distribution of miners pay packers, this store became the hub of the valley marking the beginning of the weekend. Sadly, we learn of its closure in 1983 but fortunately, in 1991 it was re-erected at the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. We are now lead further along the community route to discover yet more innovation form this part of the world and the Electric Light and Power Supply Company. Despite relying on candles, oil and coal for power, in 1891, Ogmore Vale became the first place in Wales to see electric streetlights! The plants closed in 1944 with all electricity after that being supplied via the National Grid.

This trail ends following a nice walk along the valley across the blue bridge over the river Ogmore and to the site of the former Penllwyngwent Colliery in what is today an Industrial Estate. This was a drift mine whereby the owners took full advantage of a quirk in the local geology to drive a drift over a thousand metres into the valley, to access a rich vein of high quality coal needed to fuel the blast furnaces and foundries of the region. The mining techniques used here were innovative at the time with huge investments into technology resulting in 100,000 tones of coal being extracted annually at its peak.

Once you complete this trail, it's a fair walk back to the car, which I parked near the rugby pitch, but walking back through the village there's ample opportunity for a quick bite to eat and to experience the natural warmth of the local people in a couple of the village's pubs and cafes. The highlight for me today was discovering the unique stream fed baths and the walk up the 'Valley of the Cow'. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, but allow around 2-3 hours to take it all in. It has been a  fascinating insight into the hidden heritage of Ogmore Vale, the first place in Wales to boast electric street lights!  

Digital Bridgend, Tondu Ironworks

#Digital Bridgend is a new and innovative smartphone application that challenges users to find almost 300 places of historical interest throughout the County of Bridgend. Using augmented reality to find your way around, there are no less than 17 trails to follow, games to play, quizzes and scavenger hunts to unearth the unique heritage of this fascinating part of Wales. This series of blog posts reviews each trail in turn on location. The app is now available on Apple and Android platforms.

This week's trail on the Digital Bridgend app was taking me just off the M4, slightly north to the village of Tondu. The 'Tondu and Parc Slip' Trail is part of the 'Industrial Times' theme on the app and does require you to do a fair bit of walking, around 2-3 miles and allowing 2 to 2½ hours to complete. So, walking boots, wet weather gear and a little snack wouldn't go a miss!

Tondu 7

I actually decided to start this trail with breakfast and coffee in the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, Bridgend. It doesn't matter where you start any of these adventures as the app always tells you how far away you are from any of the starting points, but it is useful to be near wifi in case you need to download additional content first. The Designer Outlet, just off junction 36 is ideal as there is free WiFi almost everywhere. 

Anyway, having opened the app, selected the 'industrial times' hub, I then chose the 'Tondu and Parc Slip' Trail. Immediately I'm told to download additional content which my phone agrees to, and off we go! The first place for me to find is 2km away in a northwards direction, so I return to the car, and head for Tondu Station.
Tondu station if I'm honest, was initially a little difficult to find, and when you get there, don't be disappointed that there is only one platform, and you are unable to access it. The best place to head for is the Bridge, which is precisely where the commentary is activated on the app. Despite its size, this station was pretty significant in the growth of industry in the valleys as we are told. In front of us is the well preserved and impressive signal box, reminding me of the ones I remember in Hornby railway sets growing up. There's not many of these signal boxes left these days so it's worth popping along just to see this.

Once the commentary finishes, there's a little game to complete that is fortunately very simple and it neatly demonstrates the significance of this little station during the industrial times in the valleys. Playing the game, you have to change the signals to make sure that the trains keep flowing through the busy Tondu Junction without colliding. Next step, is the Tondu ironworks, which the app instructs me is around 500m away, so a short walk.

Tondu 4

I decide to leave the car at Tondu Station car park and head off for the Ironworks. The car is probably best left here for the duration for the trail, so make sure you have everything you need before heading off.   The Ironworks is just across the road and up a slight hill passing a small housing estate on the right hand side. In front of you will be a gate at the end of the road which marks the entrance to Parc Tondu and the impressive former Ironworks. Continue through the gate following the icon on your screen until you get within 20m of where you should be of course, for the app to tell you all about this special place. At this point, you should now be able to see one of the best preserved Victorian ironworks found anywhere in Wales. It's amazing to think that this little known gem is just minutes from the M4 and to me, is a must see for anyone interested in industrial heritage and history.

The app at Tondu challenges the user to find a number of points of interest throughout the grounds (however, do remember that you are unable to enter the compound of the Ironworks itself which is currently inaccessible as it can be quite dangerous, but is best viewed from the park surrounding the buildings). There is a wealth of content to unlock here as there are scavenger hunts and a timeline too that reveal the details about all the ironmasters that were once responsible for the production and overall operation of this remarkable site. As you walk around, finding the hot spots on the app, you discover the story of iron locally, how the site operated and the significance of the features and buildings that you can see in front of you. I think the app at this site alone is an excellent educational resource for local schools for example to enjoy and to understand so much more about their local history.

Tondu 3

The next stop on the app is not too far away (around 500m according to my screen!). I'm told to head towards Tondu Methodist Church, back out through the entrance, down the small hill and turning right towards the church. I discover through the excellent commentary once again that the church was built by the owners of the ironworks for their workers, who also built schools too, as they placed a huge emphasis on employee welfare and social wellbeing - so the Victorian masters in this part of the world were arguably not always as bad as we are sometimes lead to believe! The church itself today is definitely worth a peek inside just to see the vibrant detail in the stained glass window and the original pipe organ that is still in working order!

The next part of this trail, I think was the most enjoyable, yet the most demanding. It's not a difficult walk but it is quite lengthy through a beautiful woodland setting on a well maintained cycle and walking path through the trees.  As a visitor, unless I was using this app, I would probably not have encountered this lovely walk, so I'm so glad that the trail takes us along this route to find the next point which is called Park Terrace.

Tondu 1

The app takes me from the Methodist Church and along the cycle path which is approximately a mile and a half walk to Parc Slip. The icon on the screen which we follow to show us the direction and distance to the next trigger point, is an excellent and clever feature on this app, however, Park Terrace is along the way somewhere and a little difficult to find at first. Fortunately though, each point you have to find is supported by textual directions that can help you find the exact location that you need to unlock the information.  Using the text on this occasion, I was reassured that I was on the right track as along the main path, but to find Park Terrace, you have to head off to the right, up a small tributary pathway that takes you past some allotments until you can see some houses to your right. Once you get to these houses, it's well worth the journey as on arrival, it's not that difficult to imagine how these listed terraced houses would have been during the Industrial Revolution. They have been restored to their former glory and if it wasn't for the cars outside the houses these days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you had turned the clock back.  These houses were built by the ironworks owners for their staff, and today they must be some of the most pleasant and sort after places to live locally. So glad I came here, as I wasn't expecting this 'hidden street' and it does feel quite secluded!  I also learn from the app about the former Tondu Mansion nearby that was once the living quarters for the Ironmaster and his family, and interestingly, later became in 1947, Britain's first hospital for injured or sick colliery horses. Sadly, the building is no longer in existence today.

Leaving Park Terrace behind, the app directs me to retrace my footsteps, back down the path, passed the allotments to the main drag once again, and onwards to find what's known as Parc Slip. The walk through the woodland gets even more impressive over well build and maintained boardwalks until eventually arriving at a road, which you must cross carefully towards the Parc Slip Visitor Centre. Outside the centre, the app guides you towards a former coal truck (or 'dram') which is the next point of interest on the trail. It is here that the app commentary reveals that this site, despite its tranquillity and scenic beauty as a nature reserve today, was once a 300 acre hectic coal mine. It was also sad to learn at this point that Parc Slip was the site of one of Wales' many mining disasters killing 112 men and boys who once worked the coal seam in this very location. It is perhaps fitting today that the former mine has been transformed into a peaceful wildlife haven almost as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives.

Despite this sad end to the trail and a poignant reminder of the price that many members of the local community had paid for their endeavours, this trail is one of the best I have encountered on the Digital Bridgend app to date. It's a 'must do' for both locals and visitors, and once again unearths little known places to visit and the unique history of a very special place in Wales. Highly recommended.