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Talybont at the turn of the last century – a snapshot

The village of Talybont (pron. ‘Tal-uh-bont’) in Ceredigion lies eight miles North of Aberystwyth. It features in By the Banks of the Rheidol, as Dafydd lives there from 1896 to 1899. However, it has also changed dramatically since this time. The sleepy village of today is not the bustling settlement of the past.

The centre of the village is sited in a river valley. The main trunk road northwards, the A487, passes through, dropping steeply to the village green on each of the valley sides. The rivers Ceulan and Leri power through  the bottom, a description which became very apt in 2012, when severe flooding even had the incumbent Prime Minister, ‘man of the people’, David Cameron visit. (And forever endear the locals by talking about Taleebont, if you can’t even get the name right…)

As you pass through the village, you pass two rather large chapels. A third is nestled slightly off the main road. The publishing company ‘Y Lolfa’, one of Wales’ premier literary companies, work out of a building that has the word ‘Police station’ above the door. Two large pubs stand guard on the village green and the design of many of the sash windowed houses point to large shop windows of the past. Evidence of a large population. The rivers proved to be Talybont’s blessing in the industrial revolution, as it powered the local industry, but what industry was there?

The town hosted woolen mills. The last being the Leri mills, its waterwheels having provided power until as late as the 1970s. The village is surrounded by lead mines. The woodland to the South West hides the largest, Allt-y-Crib. There are remnants of mines on all the roads out of Talybont. Not only that, but many of the large mines in the surrounding area had miners who lived in Talybont – such as; Blaenceulan, Bwlch Glas, Esgair Hir, Bryn yr Afr. The more remote mines like Esgair Hir, had their workforce stay from Monday to Saturday morning in barracks before coming back to their homes and families in Talybont for a brief welcome, before returning on a Monday morning – in the latter part of the year in the dark.

At one time, Talybont boasted fifteen shops and two banks. The Agriculture surrounding the village is marked by one of the largest shows in Ceredigion. Proof that this was once a hub of North Ceredigion commerce.

Scratch beneath the surface and you find tales. The two pubs are called the Llew Ddu (Black Lion) and the Llew Gwyn (White Lion). Each was tied to one of the two powerful landowner families in the area. Patronisation was more than  likely along the loyalty lines of those who wish to keep their jobs. Both establishments happily still survive and still offer refreshment and food to us all.

The village even had its own railway, albeit briefly. The Plynlimon & Hafan tramway was a 2ft 3in gauge railway that ran from Llandre through Talybont to the Hafan quarry. Built in 1896, it never really paid its way and was abaondoned in 1899. The railway was chiefly proposed for taking stone from the quarry to port. There was a hope that it would regenerate the dormant lead mines of the area as well as capture the trade of those going to market in Aberystwyth. Sadly, the market trade never really took off and the mine regeneration happened (again , albeit briefly) after the railway had gone. The one ironic use was found by the miners using it as a level track, as they walked to their remote workplaces.

This is but a snapshot, a small description to set the scene. When you look at the places today, they bear only a slight resemblance to how they were. But if you close your eyes, and listen to the water rushing past, perhaps the smell of smoke , an engine’s whistle or the sound of a pick on rock, will reach into your imagination and you are back there.

 

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!