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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)