Skip to main content

Aberystwyth – was it different when ‘By Banks of the Rheidol’ was set?

It is very difficult not to look at the past through the tinted spectacles of the present. Society’s attitudes and expectations are always different in different eras. Morals and tolerances are certainly beyond compare. Geographic locations also change their appearance. As a great example, look at a ruined castle and think of its once grandeur and display of power. The lead mining community of Dylife, once a thousand strong, is now a small clutch of houses around the old spoil heaps and small remnants.

So how similar is Aberystwyth today from the 1890s and early 1900s? In the later industrial revolution, Aberystwyth provided a gateway for the local area’s imports and exports. It has done since the Norman castle was established there, but up until very recently, the calibre of road infrastructure has been poor as a method. Aber was more reliant on sail and latterly rail for essentials from further afield.

Thus, the harbour, now a tranquil marina and sleepy fishing port, was a bustle of activity. Sailing ships brought in many cargos, like lime to be burnt for agriculture . The kilns are still around if you look in Trefechan. Now silent in their slumber. Trefechan itself was the main working hub of town and industries sprang up there to benefit from the proximity to the harbour. Turkey (as it was called) had ropemakers, breweries and smiths. The harbour had vats for the mining companies to dump their lead ore in for shipping out. A smelter was on the slopes of Pen Dinas above it.

When sail was king, the south end of the promenade was called Rofawr. The terrace by the castle was the site of a thriving shipbuilders.The harbour  in the Aberystwyth side had the Vale of Rheidol railway running along it to take the timber and ore that had been loaded in the Rheidol valley. Adverts were still placed for those who wished to emigrate, showing the ‘Countess of Lisburne’ as the vessel for travel to the New World. One feels she took her charges to Liverpool, whence they departed on something designed for the ocean.

The railway station was also busy, with a large goods yard that is now only partly covered by a retail park. Coal was a rare commodity, as the nearest mines were over 70 miles south. Consequently coal was prohibitively expensive until the coming of the railway – which is why the mines of Mid Wales had their mechanics powered by great waterwheels. There at least was a local commodity that wasn’t difficult to find!

Across the road from the station and Goods yard was Green’s foundry, covering the whole block bar the Vale of Rheidol pub on the corner. Water again played its part – a mill stream ran the full length of Plascrug Avenue and then across the station forecourt and down Mill Street, where two water powered mills at Trefechan Bridge used the suupply before tipping the waste into the harbour. this stream is now built over, as is the tributary that runs north to Llanbadarn Road, but when the Rheidol floods, they do remind people of their presence.

Down the west side of the railway was Smithfield Road, now Park Avenue. The land here was cheap, so the new free school was built at the top and the Vale of Rheidol railway built its original terminus in what is now the car park by the football club. However, it was called Smithfield Road in tribute to the great Smithfield meat market in London. The railway and school were close to the cattle market, abattoir, a candle works and a tannery (another was at the Town clock, casting a fragrant odour down the town with a prevailing wind…). In 1900, the town football club won the Welsh cup. Not bad for a team playing next door to this aromatic group of industries. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo playing in that environment…

This is a snapshot of a very broad subject. The book ‘Born on a perilous rock’ still holds the best record of Aber as it was. But when we read historical fiction, we have to remember to place ourselves in a semblance of how things were, not how they are today.

Over the coming weeks, I will provide a few more historical backdrops pertinent to the book, which I hope will help.

(I am talking about ‘By the Banks of the Rheidol’ at the Cletwr cafe in Taliesin on 14/11/18 at 7.3opm)

Information to follow

One of my more quainter headlines, but that is my billing at this weekend’s inaugural ‘Aberystwyth Steampunk Spectacular’.  On Sunday, I am giving a talk between 15.00 and 15.30 at the Old college on… hmm…. have we decided yet?

A historical novelist in the midst of alternative history afficionados may not be the most complete match, but a chat about  about my journey with ‘By the Banks of the Rheidol’ inspirations and creation, some readings and Q&A. Everyone’s journey is different and we all have differing influences and methods in achieving our creation. There is no right way, there is only ‘our way’.

And if there’s any time left, we can have a massed tea duel perhaps?

By the Banks of the Rheidol – a background

By the Banks of the Rheidol was released three days ago on a rainy day, worthy of this land. (but then again it was August Bank Holiday – and anyone who knows the UK, knows that is the time it is guaranteed to rain!). It is set on the threshold of the 19th and 20th century and follows a young man’s journey from running away from his home to finding a career on the narrow gauge railways of the North Ceredigion area. It also features a love interest, who promises to wait for him – and then  disappears. Life is never simple, which I suppose adds to the spice of it.

The first ideas for the story came at the start of my writing career. Following a very unsettling personal time being outsourced from one heartless financial company to a bureaucratic telecomms one, I was looking for an alternative to show I was more than just a statistic on some accountant’s balance sheet.

‘Why don’t you write a novel?’ my wife asked me. ‘After all, it was your letters that brought us together.’ I hope the reality of living me wasn’t a disappointment then, my paranoid thoughts flashed through my mind. Nope, she’s still smiling and it isn’t coupled with a manic stare, nervous tic or dribble. I must occasionally do something right…

Self deprecation aside, I started thinking. Why not? I had a stab at a novel when I was about 18 and I am that Piscean who daydreams on occasions and build up stories. No, not those kind of daydreams, careful now… It’s just a simple process of transferring the video running in my head to paper.

I decided I wanted to use the history and places that I identified with. Ceredigion and also Estonia (my wife’s land) were the immediate candidates. To focus on history that isn’t as well known as many of us would like. The area around Aberystwyth is steeped in mining and railway archaeology, forgotten by many. However, the more you dig and delve into the history, the story opens up to provide a tableau that is an excellent backdrop for a human story.

A mining family was born in my mind, working in the mine at Frongoch, near Pont Rhyd y Groes from the 1870s onwards. The mine was a big concern in the 19th Century, but dying thereafter. A fascinating ruin of a place, which formed part of an A level project for me. Now mostly wiped away, but some features still remain. Reading the human stories that I could find, it became a perfect venue for Owain, Ceri and their family.

I also wanted to use the railway history of around that time, so Owain’s son, Dafydd was born. His Dad didn’t want him to go down the mine and end up coughing up his lungs, so he started work at the mine on the surface. There he was bullied and in a final confrontation, fought back to the extent of leaving one of his tormentors unconscious. Dafydd’s Mamgu doesn’t think twice, she gives him money and tells him to run for it. This starts Dafydd’s journey in life that ends up in the railway industry.

I wanted to use the story of the obscure Plynlimon & Hafan tranway – a failed enterprise that promised much, but delivered little. Like many concerns over here, it was too little too late. Created when the mines were in decline and closed by the time they were resurgent.

I also wished to weave in the building of the Vale of Rheidol railway – an enterprise that survives to the present day, on the back of the attractions of the Devil’s Bridge falls and the stunning beauty of the journey to it, behind some able steam workhorses built in the 1920s.

It wasn’t immediately obvious how Dafydd could be  involved in all this railway history. He could start as a ganger on the Hafan tramway, but then there was a three year gap between the tramway closure and the opening of the Rheidol line, where I wanted him to have progressed to be a fireman of sorts. How was that going to work?

The answer lay in a little 2-4-0 tank engine, which was built for a Brazilian sugar farm. It never got there and was bought up by the Hafan tramway, who named it ‘Talybont‘. On the closure of the line, it was taken back by the manufacturers – Bagnall’s. It was then purchased for use by the contractors of the Rheidol line and renamed ‘Rheidol‘. Dafydd’s world becomes entangled with Rheidol and he manages to acquire an apprenticeship in Bagnall’s to cover the gap between one line’s demise and the others birth..

Rheidol was a popular engine for those who used her and those who know the history. I will ever be indebted to Eric Bottomley, for allowing us to use his painting that appears on the cover. It depicts Rheidol in the original Aberystwyth station in the early days of the line. The atmosphere is perfect for my story. I can almost smell the smoke. Look at the full version of the painting on the back cover. It is a faithful reproduction of the original set up and is brought to life by the people.

The mining family are not forgotten, their story stretched three volumes and past the end of the Frongoch mine. Neither is Dafydd’s journey forgotten from the end of this novel. Hopefully they will follow in time to complete the full saga.

 

By the Banks of the Rheidol is now available for sale, priced at £8.99. The Vale of Rheidol railway sells signed copies via the following link:

By the Banks of the Rheidol

 

 

By the Banks of the Rheidol – a new novel

After many years of literary silence, i am delighted to be able to announce the publication of a brand new novel.

‘By the Banks of the Rheidol’ is set in Victorian/Edwardian Aberystwyth:.

Dafydd, a young lead miner, is forced to flee after being targeted in a violent confrontation. He runs to the port of Aberystwyth where an acquaintance, Gwen, helps him and he slowly begins to rebuild his life.
He is sent to nearby Talybont to help in the building of a new railway. An opportunity arises for an apprenticeship in Stafford and Dafydd begs Gwen to come with him, but she refuses, promising to wait for him. Eventually Dafydd gets the chance to return to Aberystwyth and work on the building of the new Rheidol railway. Can he progress as a railwayman, reconnect with his family, find and win Gwen?

 

The novel will be published by Y Lolfa on 24th August (£8.99) and is available from all good bookshops. If you fancy making a difference, please buy it from the Vale of Rheidol railway, then the profits get fed back to the upkeep of this Edwardian gem.

There will be more about the background of the novel, the history and various whys and wherefores in the next few months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Writing doldrums

It’s been a quiet year, all told. Personally, I hate quiet years they lead to a slowing down of creativity and inertia sets in. That doesn’t fit well with me, as the loss of drive affects me in every day life. Writing is an integral part of my life, when it’s not happening, I feel a huge gap.

The release of Forest Brothers was quite a high point and the sales in the UK, Europe and N America have been a joy. Not in the numbers that would see me cast aside the day job in wild abandon, but enough to justify the release in the first place. The immediate question that a few readers asked was ‘what happened next?’ Initially, I did not know. The story was a one off, allowing me to weave a tale within a backdrop little known in my country. Slowly, an idea came into being that furthered the lives of my lovely characters. This however, was a prequel, focussing with the Estonian characrters and fleshing out their back story. There was a time when it appeared that this would be picked up, but I would say that three years on, that particular avenue is unlikely to happen. I need to look if there are other options to pursue this project and I must admit, it would be difficult not to desire that. The story burns too brightly within!

In the meantime, a sequel has also been written, charting further adventures of the Anglo Estonian family, as war ends and they become involved in the hunt for the traitor, Gdfrey. A trilogy would make a good balance to the tale. However, what the post-Brexit effects are on the market for foreign settings in literature remains to be seen. The three books each have antagonists from different international backgrounds, thus subscribing to Sting’s lyric ‘there is no monopoly in common sense, on either side of the political fence.’

Another book is in the pipeline, as the opportunity has arisen to further an earlier project. This is set in Victorian Mid Wales and focusses on a young man’s journey. He runs away from home, falsely believing he has killed an assailant. The story focusses on how he rebuilds his life and reconnects. It features the railway I work for and so has an immediate point of interest to some. Circumstances beyond my control have unfortunately allowed this project to stall and there is no date of completion.

Now in the great scheme of things, this is small beer. Thinking of those made refugee by conflict or forced to food banks to make ends meet and in that sense, I am grateful of my own interesting times by comparison.

Writers do crave recognition and the chance to produce something. The worst time for them is that point where the fair wind drops and they are left searching for a steady breeze to continue their journey.

A litany for Aberfan

Imagine a community of working families, living in rows upon rows of terraced houses on the steep valley sides. Nobody’s rich, but they get by. There’s a spirit there, a bond that all small communities have. Everyone looks out for each other. As it always has been.

It’s a typical October day. The heavy rain from the night before has stopped and the morning warmth leaves a mist above the rooftops. The low grey cloud smothers the steep-sided valley, making it difficult to see from one end of the village to the other and nothing above.

The last day of term, a week off! The children look forward to their holiday with glee. Some may not want to go to school – what’s the point for one day? Some look forward to carefree playing with their mates on the hills above without any lessons.

The school sits in its place at the top row of buildings, filled with the sound of children. Their laughter full of the joie de vivre that only the young can bring to a place such as this. The adults have gone to work, the children have gone to school. It’s a normal day in the valley. ‘All things bright and beautiful’ echoes from the school. The children go back to their classes for a day’s learning.

Seven black peaks loom beyond the ridge above the village. The detritus from centuries of mining, dumped in a place that is almost out of sight, but never out of mind of the people below. Great mounds of spoil, higher than the valley, dour tributes to man’s plundering of the carbon riches below. It’s been raining very heavily. The old streams swell with the run-off. The ones that, oddly, all but apparently the owners of these satanic peaks know about.

The dust and soil at the base of the nearest of these peaks is waterlogged. Ever increasing in its softness, it becomes more and more a slurry of coal dust and mud. The mass of the tip bears down upon it, a dead weight. Then tip number seven moves, it lurches and crumbles and descends in one great catastrophic flow. The black muck and loose rock, greased at the base, tears down the valley as a terrifying shadow. Over pastures and bracken, faster and faster it descends with undignified haste. Through farms and terraces, the path is relentless, drawn like a magnet towards the school. Born of man’s ignorance, it is the innocent that will pay the price.

The roaring sound is like an aircraft coming into land, though no airfield is anywhere near. The classrooms darken as the unimaginable hell unfolds around them. Then there is nothing. An uneasy stillness envelopes the world. Nature has followed its rules and a dreadful order has been restored, in a place where man has tried to ignore the effects of his own folly.

You hear the little school has been damaged by an accident. Your body goes numb when you hear that a black morass has scythed through the heart of the village. A flow, like lava, has hit at the point where the most hearts will be broken. Nature’s act of terrorism has delivered a crushing blow to the lives of the people.

You panic, as you scale the black spoil, to find that all that you can see of the school is its slate roof, standing proud of a blanket of misery. Imagine the anguish as people rush around like ants, not knowing where to begin. Not knowing where is the key to unlock this tragedy and save those within. Not knowing for all but a few, it is already too late.

The people start digging anywhere, everywhere, for a chance that a child has managed to escape. Some claw the black mass with their bare hands to try and unlock their dreadful tomb. It’s all in vain, those precious few who were pulled out at the start are the miracles. Nobody is found alive after the first two hours.

Your body moves in slow motion as you attend the misery of the chapel, now a morgue of tiny lifeless bodies. You force yourself to look at each child in their final slumber, hoping against all the odds that yours is not amongst the rows of the dead. You hope, but in your heart you fear the real truth.

There is pain, a searing agony within that you cannot bear and yet have to, for there are few, too few who can help. Those who were blessed with relief are strangely distant, as if fearing that to offer succour would be somehow mocking the afflicted.

The anguish is shared by all, as the establishment closes ranks and tries to move on with indecent haste. You try not to think about the future when there is none. When all your hopes and dreams have been crushed with as passionless and ruthless a blow, as the landslide dealt that cold October morning. Deep down, there is a knowledge that just a bit earlier, just a bit later, would have saved the children from their fate. Just a short time either side would have left them in a safer place than the classrooms that became their tomb

When you go to your children tonight, hug them with the love you hold. Cherish the contact and their presence. Do it for yourselves. Then shed a tear and raise a prayer for those who could not, fifty years ago. At Aberfan.

Tydi, a glywaist lithriad traed
Ar ffordd Calfaria gynt;
Tydi, a welaist ddafnau gwaed
Y Gwr ar ddieithr hynt:
O! cadw ni rhag dyfod oes
Heb goron ddrain, na chur, na chroes. Amen.

O Thou who once heard hesitant steps
On Calvary’s hill of shame;
Who saw the blood in trickling drops
From Man on path so strange;
Oh! save us from our future loss;
No crown of thorns, nor pain, nor cross. Amen.

Aberfan’s tragic anniversary

Friday 21st October sees the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in Merthyr Vale, when a waterlogged mound of coal spoil collapsed. The ensuing flow of slurry engulfed two farmhouses, eighteen terraced houses and the local primary school. Of the 144 killed, 116 were children. We know the story, but why do we return to it again and again?

As the anniversary has approached in recent years, people have posted condolences on social media. It’s struck a chord with many, mostly perhaps those from Wales or other mining communities. This year being such a milestone, the world has gone overboard. The television and radio has documentaries, dramas, arts programmes. Certainly over here you cannot escape it.

There are key dates each year which gives people a poignant reminder of their losses. Every year – birthdays, anniversaries, christmas, the terrible day itself have to be borne, and with it the feeling of loneliness and loss. I hope the small community of Aberfan bears the world’s interest with the spirit it is intended, but the scrutiny must be unbearable and I am sure they will be glad when this anniversary is past.

It seems unfair that those who have suffered are reminded of this dreadful day on a regular basis. Interviews, soundbites, visiting tourists – I’m sure they want to be left alone to carry on their lives, but somehow, the world cannot let go. Why? Why can’t we let go and let be?

A week or so back, I was moved to write a small essay as a tribute to those who have suffered. But then is it my place to do so? And why do I feel so engaged? I have no connections with the area. I am not a miner. I was four at the time and not aware of what was happening. What makes me cry when I hear the people speak or see the images, for it does? I don’t want to pity the victims and pat them on their heads, to return them to the box for another year. I want to pay tribute in a way that shows empathy. A way of saying I can never understand, but my heart goes out to them. It may help to examine why it affects me so much.

Personally, my own reasons are varied. I have never worked down a pit, the mining in my part of Wales was abandoned by 1927. But the artefacts and the scars gave me an interest from an early age. I studied mining geology in Uni and my geological and archaeological interests has given me a fascination of Welsh mining. It affects my writing; my efforts have included ‘Senghenydd’, a short story of the thoughts of a rescue worker, as he looks for survivors of the worst disaster in mining history, when a gas explosion ripped through a mine.

It feels more personal, being from Wales. I remember long ago and for my sins, I went on a bank manager’s course to Birmingham. I was with about six other naive trainees and one from Aberdare, about two hours away from my part of the Principality.

‘Ooh, he’s from Wales also,’ the trainer cooed. ‘Do you know him, Geraint?’

I laconically replied yes, because we all live on the same street.

But then there is some element of that parochialism that exists in my pricipality. I’m in England, there’s a Welsh person. We’ve immediately got something in common. Well, it works for me.

Then there’s a paternal feeling. The majority of those who died are the age of my son. I shudder to think of the blow that something like this would deliver to my life. To lose someone not even old enough to have started to carve out their lives, hopes and dreams, it would crush me. Their future lives, ambitions, marriages children, ambitions were all turned to dust, by something so avoidable. You don’t have to have had children to be moved by this fact. It tugs at everyone’s heart. There have been many tragedies in history, many in Wales. Never has there been such a tragedy anywhere, outside of war, involving children.

I mention Senghenydd, a tragedy that consumed 439 men and boys, decimated a community and left many a household struggling to survive. Outside of the Aber valley, this tragedy is not well known enough and yet the reasons for it are just another testament to ignorance and corporate incompetence. Again, it was totally avoidable, but the powers that be felt it better to ignore the warnings. Senghenydd’s tragedy is no longer within living memory, whereas Aberfan still is. As such, we should be glad for the voices who tell us of their pain and suffering. Of the miracles of rescue, but living with the guilt of being rescued afterwards. We should listen, understand and mourn those who passed and make sure that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again – anywhere.

There is a minute’s silence called for on Friday 9.15am Uk time. The same moment fifty years earlier saw a wall of slurry crush the life out of a community, but never its spirit. Gorwedd mewn hedd . RIP.

We Were Men

b5783e1a3d18af4896ae35102c3dc386

We were men, of passion and honour, courage and fear. We did what we were told and were derided for it. Yet still, we did what was asked again and more, so much more. We were boys of the valleys and boys of the town, country boys and townies. We didn’t care, we welcomed all without prejudice. For in the end, we were a family. We looked out for each other; it was so natural, so obvious. Watch their back and they watch yours. Protect your own, your brothers.
Many of us were not from this land. Stafford and Manchester, Oxford, the Emerald Isle, they all provided us with their sons and we embraced them like our own, for they were part of us in the end. They sang our songs, they played, they laughed and they stood proud. They never disgraced us, nor we them. We taught them the hwyl and they embraced it like the men they were.

Welsh, they called us and we bathed in the fire of the red dragon. We sang the hymns of our forefathers and listened to the minister, fresh from chapel. We spoke in our tongue, the hiraeth burning in our hearts. The longing for our homeland was strong, but together we were stronger and we had power.

Policemen, we were and farmers. Lawyers and Dockers. Men of rugby, men of books, poets and Pals. We laughed and cried, ate and smoked together. For that was our lot. Thrown into the ruined land and told to make our people proud, that is what we did. We made sure they would never forget us and they will not. They will sing our praises for a hundred years and more. For they will know that we were men and our mettle could never be quenched.
When the call came and we knew it was our time, we did not flinch or turn away. We sang our hymns, we said our prayers and we waited for the time to show our worth. Where we could show all the doubters what we were: good honest men.

As the smoke lay across the valley and the whistles blew, we rose to a man and climbed out of our haven, to walk towards the trees. Nobody flinched and no-one turned, though the path was hard and our way was blocked. We did what we were asked again and again and again. ‘Lloyd George’s Welsh Army’ they sneered, yet we cared not. We kept walking through the hail of metal and mist. We fought until we could fight no more.
Many lived to sing in joy and return to their loved ones in the land of their birth. Many laid down to sleep, their work done. Sons and husbands, fathers and brothers, we all did our best and saw the job through until the end, until the dragon stood proud over that land.

Four thousand of our brothers gave their all in honour and glory to lie down forevermore in those 8 days of July 1916.

At Mametz Wood.

When the writer’s block happens….

It’s all there. You have a story planned, perhaps not all of it is in place, but you have the stepping stones to take you most of the way. Perhaps you know where it will end. It’s all flowing quite well, (that’s very well in writer speak.) You may have discovered a few twists and turns on your journey that you hadn’t foreseen. One or two of your characters may have stood up along the way and sent you down the path with renewed strength. They may have shown you more scenic routes or even a path you did not know that was there. It’s a big adventure. You know where you’re going and it all rocks. Then you hit the glass wall.

You are there in it with your characters. Urban or rural, past or present, intimate or remote. Whatever the setting, you know what milepost you have to reach next. You may be able to see it, tantalising in the distance. A horizon beyond which is the next stone, but something stands up and gets in the way. The more you try, the worse it gets and you end up standing still. What can you do?

How do you find the map, to plot the way round? Sometimes you can manage to nudge the plot forward a tiny step, but it feels nothing more than a slide along the side of the glass wall. You feel you’re still treading water. The view can get blurred or perhaps the path looks even further away. Mentally, you feel exhausted, barren or strained. Maybe all three. You push for progress, yet nothing happens.

It’s not a new phenomenon. J K Rowling didn’t invent it when she hit the wall during the writing of the Half-Blood Prince, for example. Nor did she make it fashionable, unless you happen to be a tabloid journalist. I don’t think she’d wish it on anyone, to be honest (writer’s block, that is – not tabloid journalism). It’s a shock to the system, an unbearable tension as you wish to move on, but can’t.

Writing is a mood thing. You’ve got to be in the mood to do it any justice. So many things happen to us in our day to day lives which can upset the balance and influence us. They may be the kind of things that quench the free spirit and suppress creativity. We try to be stronger and push through, but there’s nothing in the tank. We have to recognise that you can’t just switch off the outside. You could be tired, you could be stressed. You could just be distracted by greater priorities in life. Don’t panic, every writer gets that moment. Don’t forget your labour of love is your work of art, you wouldn’t turn the marathon into a sprint, certainly not in its early stages.

Do we feel we are cheating ourselves or flattering our ego by thinking we are cheating our audience in this lack ofproductivity? But maybe, just maybe, if we were to give ourselves a bit of time, leave everything be for a while, perhaps we’d come back fresher. Like having that long sleep after a series of sleepless nights. You feel so much better for it.

The block is there for a reason. Your mind isn’t ready to take the story further. Give it a rest, relax. Let it go.
Recognising the block for what it is is a good start. Then realising you can’t just take a run at it. Take your time, take a break if you need to. Move onto other projects. You can always go back later, it will be still there, waiting for when you are ready.

I’ll stop now. This has taken seven days to write. Too much going on, obviously 🙂