I was born in Cwmgors in 1923, and lived there for much of the inter-war period until, through force of circumstances, we moved to Tonyrefail shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939.
My grandparents on the Rees side lived there though my grandfather, Isaac, had died in 1920 before my birth. My grandmother, Jennett, however, lived to the good age of 92, dying in 1937. She spoke only Welsh.
My Griffiths grandfather, Abraham, though born in Cwmamman, above present day Garnant, lived for all of his married life at Tonyrefail. He and my Rees grandmother, Jennett, were brother and sister; my parents therefore, were first cousins though brought up many miles apart and had only occasionally met before their marriage.
As far back as the family records go to the mid 1700s the Griffiths had lived at Cwmamman, my great great great grandfather, Richard Griffith, if it be he who is recorded as being registered at St Peter's, Carmarthen on Dec 21st, 1739, being shown in the family records as living at Gwndwngwyn.
The Reeses seem to have originated on the other side of the valley upon the foothills of the Black Mountain in farmsteads with the suffix 'pedol' [horse-shoe] - Cwmpedol, Aberpedol and Brynpedol. They were an extensive clan and, I believe, much intermarriage between them and the Griffithses had taken place.
My grandmother, Jennett, lived alone on the opposite side of the valley to the village in a villa called 'Heulwen Deg' which had a large, well-stocked garden. It contained several apple-trees, both eaters and cookers, a conference pear tree, several varieties of gooseberry bushes and all three forms of currants - black, red and white.
Four of her sons lived locally with their families and her garden supplied them, in season, with much of their fruit. She had always, also, kept chickens which were a source of eggs for the family. In the appropriate seasons, she made rhubarb wine which she used to dispense to the family and me and my cousins in pint tankards ! One had be cautious about imbibing too much or the journey back to the village became fraught with danger. On one occasion, one of my cousins, Cecil, imbibed too freely and to my grandmother's consternation collapsed on the floor.
The surrounding countryside also supplied us abundantly with its crops if we chose to harvest them. The mountain above Nant Melyn farm was covered in bilberry shrubs. When the berries had ripened, as a family, we would garner several pounds and finish with a picnic before returning home, laden with nature's bounty, when my mother would then bake a succulent, much appreciated pie.
In the autumn, the brambles and hazels would offer-up their gifts, and with our intimate knowledge of the countryside, passed on, in part, by my father, we knew the places where the yields were heaviest. In the valley below Cwm Nant Watkin farm and adjacent to several decaying giant oaks felled in a tornado which had narrowly missed the village as it tore across the valley in 1910, we knew of a cob-nut tree.
Although my Griffiths grandfather had been brought up speaking Welsh and his wife, Mary, was the daughter of one of the famous preachers of South Wales, who was also a prize-winning Welsh bard, the Rev. James Thomas Jones, they made the considered decision to bring up their family speaking English in the home. This decision was, I think, influenced in part by the fact that Tonyrefail was far from being the monoglot village that Garnant and Cwmgors had been in my grandfather's childhood.
So, although my mother had taken matric in Welsh, and understood it well, she never spoke it fluently and always claimed to us that she could not twist her tongue round some of the more difficult words.
Unlike most of the village homes in Cwmgors, therefore, we spoke English as a family and it was only when I began school and mixed with the children of the village that I learnt Welsh. I cannot recall to what extent I could communicate with my grandmother up to that point. Certainly by Standard 2 - the second year of the junior school - I was reasonably fluent in Welsh but always tended to find the various mutations rather difficult even after also passing it with a credit in the School Certificate Examination.
When I worked at the County Hall in Cardiff for the first two and a half years of the War, one of our aldermen, who was also M.P for Port Talbot, was Sir William Jenkins, Richard Burton's uncle. He was also Welsh-speaking and we would converse in Welsh which tended to sound rather alien in the largely English-speaking surrounds of Cardiff. I believe that may no longer be so.
At this time, one of our middle-ranking councillors was Llewellyn Heycock, later Lord Heycock of Taibach, a locomotive-driver on the G.W.R line to Paddington. He became chairman of the education committee and , though unable to speak Welsh himself, was instrumental in introducing the Welsh-only schools.
Of course, during my early childhood years, the Great War, as it was called, was only a few years away, though that was not obvious to children whose evaluation of time is different from that of adults. To the men and women of the village the war, in all its terrible aspects, misery and sad bereavements was still a vivid memory and a frequent topic of conversation.
Momentoes of life in the trenches, such as polished shell cases, binoculars, and the medals that had been won, still adorned the mantelpieces of many homes in the village. One of my friends, whose father had been an officer, showed us his gas-mask on one occasion, a very rudimentary piece of equipment compared with those of the last war.
Near the Welfare Hall in the Waun was the War Memorial, the bronze figure of a soldier leaning sombrely , with downcast face, upon his rifle pointing downwards, with beneath him upon the marble the names of the many who had perished.
The district around Cwmgors had several coal-mines. Cwmgors itself had three, the main one in the centre of the village, the Duke at the southern end of the village, and the Cawdor up on the mountain to the west of the village from where we could see its considerable slag-heap and some of its buildings. Parts of its slag-heap had spontaneously combusted turning the slag in that part into a pleasing pink colour ; this was used in the neighbourhood to cover driveways and paths in place of gravel.
Around Tairgwaith [three works] were another three collieries, the East Pit, Maerdy and Steer collieries. When the wind was from the north, lying in bed in the early morning as a very young child, I would hear a strange sound emanating from one of these collieries which had puzzled me for a long time until I realised , as I grew older, that it had been a locomotive puffing into life.
The Cwmgors collieries were drift-mines where the tram-lines sloped down into the earth to the coal seams.
The Abernant colliery which was sunk after the war near the old Duke colliery was a shaft-mine, necessitating the use of a lift and cages in which the trams and the men descended to work.
An attempt had been made to set up such a mine on the field of the "new bungalows" near the school. The shaft was contained within a strong fortress-like stone structure which, during my childhood, had had its entrance closed off with a solid wooden barrier. I never learnt when the abortive attempt had been made nor by whom.
Alongside it was another stone structure which had risen to no more than three or four feet and gathered water within it in the winter. In very cold weather, this would freeze making an excellent ice-rink for us local children.
One colliery had an escape-tunnel which came out in one of the fields south of the village and to the west of the railway line; and on a field between the 'park', the local recreation ground, and my grandmother's estate was another tunnel and a small stone building which my father told me had contained a ventilation fan for the colliery. Many of these local points of interest, including my grandmother's house and the recreation ground, were demolished when the floor of the valley was open-cast coal-mined twice after the war. Clearly, the district was very rich in coal seams of the anthracite variety. Even the local hills contained their coal seams for both the Duke and the Cawdor worked into the hills.
The majority of the men in the village worked in the coal-mines. During the war, and for a while later, mining had been quite a well-paid job but, then, I believe, on the recommendation of some economist their wages were halved. It was generally known in the village who were the highest paid miners. There was, I think, a piece-work element to their wages depending upon how much they had mined; chalk marks on their trams indicated who had mined the coal therein, I believe.
The miners were entitled to concessionary loads of coal which were carried through the village by horse and cart before being tipped in the street in front of their houses. Often, the wives and children would then cart the coal in buckets round to the coal-shed at the back. The load would often contain quite large chunks of coal. All of it would be put to good use, even the 'small' coal, which after the war became known as 'nutty slack'.
Using a strange little tool, which most households had, the 'small' coal would be mixed with a small proportion of wet clay to make what were called 'pelau' [pellets] which looked like squared-off doughnuts with a hole in the middle.
These would be used to eke out the coal-supply and were often used to bank-up the fire during the night. They would burn well and looked quite attractive at the front of the fire.
The mines had drawn in men from many parts of the country as was testified by the great variety of surnames in the village. In one of the terraces, Avon Terrace, which was later integrated postally into the High Street, these were some of the surnames - Glasgow, Carver, Smith, Rawlings, Shaw, Finlay, Bar, Cole, Newland and Berry.
The migration away from the village of the natives was not confined to South Wales. Sons and daughters of the village would migrate not only across South Wales but also to London. My elder sister trained at Pitman's College in Southampton Row and then worked in London as a secretary until war broke out.
My father had worked as an accountant in Lewis's, Oxford Street earlier in the century. The two Howell brothers had trained as tailors in Saville Row, one as a cutter and the other as a trouser-maker. So some of the men in the village could wear very good suits as long as they were prepared to pay the high price which was charged for what was a very good product. My father paid 14 guineas for a suit from one of them a few months before he died in 1938.
In the late nineteenth century, the movement away from the farmsteads of the village had been even more adventurous, leading to many of the sons and daughters of the district emigrating to America. Three of my grandfather Griffiths's brothers had gone to America where two of them became what the family called 'dollar millionaires'.
The beautiful grand-daughter of one of them, a Helen Griffiths [from Seattle] visited us one afternoon when I had just returned from school at Pontardawe. Her picture taken at the National Eisteddfod later appeared in the 'Western Mail'.
One of the disadvantages of working anthracite seams was the prevalence of silica in the seams which led to the workers contracting silicosis, a nasty complaint, when the silica built up in their lungs leading to difficulty in breathing, finally making it impossible for the sufferer to work. He would then, having been medically examined and certified to be suffering from it to a degree which made it impossible for him to work, be granted 'compo' as it was known to the miners. I assume this was paid by the mining companies.
Most of our shopping was done in the village, or in neighbouring villages which were all well-served with a variety of shops. Most of our groceries came from the Rock shop, owned by the Williams family. There would be very little packaging to the goods then. Sugar was bought loose and then packaged in thick blue kitchen paper, biscuits were contained in large, square tins, often with glass tops so that their contents could be seen; butter would be cut from a large slab and then slapped into a neat shape, sometimes with a pretty design on it, with flat wooden beaters ; and cheese would also be cut from large slabs with a piece of wire with a wooden handle on each end.
The Williams family built a handsome, stuccoed villa in Llwyn Road.
Across the road from Rock Shop was the post-office owned by Twm Howell [whose wife was a first cousin to my grandmother] who was also a tailor like his two sons. The shop also sold some drapery. There were several small confectionery and tobacconist shops dotted throughout the length of the village.
There were three butcher shops, Harris in Pontardawe Road, Hopkins, halfway through the village and the Co-op butcher.
Harris had his own slaughter-house at the bottom of the field adjoining his house and shop. One of his sons, my contemporary, would on occasion take us to view a slaughtering, usually of a pig rather than a larger animal. Harris, the butcher, had a large family but few of them, sadly, made old bones.
Further down the village, just past the opening to the colliery and the Star Inn, was the ironmonger's shop owned by Jenkins. Alongside it was a yard which stocked builders' material such as chimney pots. The shop itself was well-stocked and , though one seldom saw any customers there, Jenkins seemed to make a good living as his house next to the shop was substantial and well-built.
Almost on the border with the Waun and opposite the Gaiety Cinema and the R.A.O.B Club was Jack Owen's fruit shop, a small, strange little one storey edifice.
Jack had been the featherweight boxing champion of Wales as his broken nose and the scar tissue which disfigured his face testified, as did also the Lonsdale belt which was proudly displayed in a glass fronted case on the wall behind the counter. But what also fascinated us as children were his hands from which several parts of fingers were missing . After leaving the boxing ring Jack became a miner. In spite of many warnings from fellow miners to use the correct metal rod to ram home the gunpowder into the holes in the coal-face which had been made by the large drill, he persisted in ramming it home by hand with the consequence that, one day, the explosive had blown up depriving him of parts of several fingers.
My father used to tell the tale of returning one Saturday evening by train from Swansea in the same compartment as Jack Owen. Sitting opposite them were some youths who persisted in making offensive remarks about Jack's appearance. He stood it for a time without retaliating but finally lost his temper. There was a flurry of fists as he sprang up and within a second there were bleeding noses, black eyes and loose teeth.
To us from Cwmgors, the Waun with its more numerous shops seemed almost like a small town and Brynamman even more so. The Waun, as had most villages between the wars and later, had its Italian shop - Cresci where one could buy ice-cream and what is now known as cappuccino coffee. He would sell ice-cream to the furthest extremities of the village from a highly decorated box attached to a tricycle.
My mother would buy her hats from a milliner's shop at Brynamman owned by one of her George cousins. My grandfather's favourite sister, Mary, had married David George, a great-uncle to Sian Phillips. Their daughter lived in a house on the right just past the common and we would visit at regular intervals for she had a daughter who had been bed-ridden for thirteen years with the childhood form of arthritis.
In the Upper reaches of Brynamman, where the road had begun to slope up towards the Black Mountain, was Pegler's grocery shop which, I think, was one of the small chain-stores of those days. We would sometimes walk there to place a grocery order for they carried a wider range of goods than our village grocer. When the order was delivered on Friday evening, it would cause considerable excitement among us children as it contained items such as ginger biscuits which we had infrequently.
Another commercial feature of the village was the travelling salesmen. The chief of these was Jew Black, as he was called, from Swansea, who carried his wares in a large, doughnut-shaped pack of black oil-cloth, hence, presumably, the sobriquet 'Black'. He sold such goods as needles, cotton-reels, tapes and ribbons. His pack would be unfastened and laid flat at the door-step to display his wares. I suspect that the village housewives would buy something not from necessity but from kindly sympathy at his having to carry such a heavy burden.
My father was an accountant and one of his clients was a Griffiths, a butcher, from what we called "the country" which meant the "wilds" of Carmarthenshire around Llangadock. When my father had finished his accounts he would waive part of his fee in favour of being paid in kind, so we had a fairly regular supply of chickens.
As we had a car in the early thirties, one of the few in the village, we would sometimes shop at Swansea on a Saturday. When my father had returned from London, he had then worked at Lewis Lewis, the drapers , in Swansea, so that would usually be a port of call where he was still remembered by some of the older staff. As children, we were fascinated by their system of sending the bill and the money back to the cash-desk by a system of overhead wires and spring-activated containers which would then be returned with change and receipt. My father would buy an occasional made-to-measure suit from one of Swansea's outfitters called Sidney Heath which I believe is still in business although perhaps it doesn't now compare with its pre-war status.
As we drove into Swansea through Morriston and then Landore, we would see to our left acres of derelict industrial land in what was known as the Lower Swansea valley.
Amongst it, and much to our amusement, was a chimney-stack which had a distinct curve in its top portion.
My father used to pronounce proudly that at one time Swansea had been the chief copper-smelting centre of the world, the derelict factories and mills once having been the proud producers contributing to that distinction.
Back in the sixties, the whole area became the subject of a huge inter-disiplinary study into the recovery of such a much-polluted area under the directorship of a Kenneth Hudson.
When we wandered the hills above Cwmgors on our walks, looking towards the industrial complex of Port Talbot, Neath and Swansea, we would see a pall of smoke rising above them, in contrast to the pure air which we were breathing.
Once in Swansea itself, and this was, of course, the period of the depression, we would be shocked to see boys running about with nothing on their feet and gaping holes in their trousers. That was such a contrast to the neatness and correctness of dress of everybody in our village, contributed to, no doubt, by a scheme funded, I should think, by the Glamorgan County Council, which provided boots from the local Coop store for the very poorest who, perhaps, would otherwise have been unable to afford them.
Shortly after my fifth birthday, I started at the infants school and began to meet other boys from the village for the first time. Although the classes were mixed, the playgrounds were strictly segregated into girls and infants in the one and boys in the other separated by high railings. The headmistress was a Miss Evans who used to cycle from the Waun and neatly side step off the bike outside the school. She was referred to by my mother as the 'governess'.
Miss Williams from Tairgwaith was my first teacher and, I learnt later, was related to us.
I cannot recall making conscious efforts to learn Welsh from my fellow-pupils but must have done so at some point. However, the teaching was entirely in English and mixed in with the Welsh-speaking pupils were others, like me, from English-speaking homes which in their case had English parents - Saesneg, as they were known to the Welsh.
Welsh was the language of the homes of the long-term natives of the village.
One day, during morning play-time, we were playing at pretending to be aeroplanes, running around in pairs with our arms intertwined behind us. Suddenly, one of our playmates shouted " Aeroplane !" and pointed up into the sky to the south. We naturally thought he was pulling our legs because we were playing at aeroplanes and we also knew that no such object had ever appeared in our skies ; but there it was, a biplane chugging slowly towards us. Excitedly, we rushed to the southern boundary of the playground and gazed at it in wonder, and then followed it along the edge of the playground until the bell sounded and we reluctantly had to leave it somewhere over the Waun.
In due course, we moved up to the junior school and came into possession of the boys 'yard'. The headmaster was a Mr Rhys Evans, a dramatic figure and a bard and playwright. He had two sons, one a banker in Pontardawe, the other drowned while punting on the Isis at Oxford to the great shock of the village.
Of the ten teachers in the infants and junior school, four were related to my family in first or second cousin ships and two more were related by marriage. Such were the intertwining relationships within the older families of Cwmgors and the Waun.
Mr Edgar Howell, 'Eddie Polo' as he was known for some reason, son of Twm Howell, the post-office, and Mr Griffiths , who came from Ystalyfera, had both fought in the war, and it was said that Mr Griffiths had been shell shocked and still suffered the effects. Mr Howell had certainly been gassed and also suffered the after effects of that all his life. Mr Griffiths used to drive in each day in a rather handsome Renault which had the typical Renault bonnet of those early models.
Mr Howell became a Colonel in the Home Guard during the Second World War.
My eldest sister used to come home shocked with tales of Mr Howell and Mr Griffiths fighting in the corridor at playtime. It would, of course, merely have been a display of the jocular high spirits of the comparatively young, full of exuberant energy.
Mr Dan Davies who had taken Mr Griffiths's place by the time I had reached the 'scholarship class' had also been in the war. He had begun life as a collier and had probably trained as a teacher after the war. At times, he would wander off the topic of the lesson to regale us with war-time memories, not of its worst aspects which he might have experienced, but at his wonderment at the luxuriance of the Mediterranean, and we would listen, entranced.
I recall his description of ripe mulberries falling from the trees to be collected upon a cloth laid out to collect them ; and on one occasion, on a very slow train-journey up through Italy, being able to jump off to collect oranges from wayside trees and then running to catch up with the train.
He was a fine, intelligent teacher who left me with a life-long love of poetry. I can still recall many lines from 'Alun Mabon' which he read to us and Polonius's speech to Hamlet which he set me to learn. He later inherited the headship whilst Mr Howell became deputy head of the secondary school.
A feature of Welsh education of that period was its insistence upon the value of reciting in public, sometimes competitively. My first reciting in public began in the infants school during its St David's Day concert held in the morning in the school hall. We were then given the afternoon off. I still have a bible which I won at the age of seven for having recited the greatest number of psalms at Sunday school during the previous year at the Wesleyan Methodist chapel opposite my home in the High Street.
Rhys Evans had written a play in Welsh for children called 'Belling the Cat' which we performed in the Welfare Hall in the Waun at an Urdd eisteddfod. He rehearsed us for it and it was then , at his insistence, that I learnt how loudly one had to speak in a theatre to ensure that everyone in the audience heard one - a lesson that stood me in good stead in taking assemblies in large school halls.
The Urdd, or to give it its full name, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, was a youth organisation to which most of us children belonged and which was dedicated to keeping the Welsh language and culture alive. We proudly wore its badge, which was of a green and gold colour.
Compared with the abundance of books which are now available both in schools and for purchase, the village was rather poorly provided for. The 'elementary school' at Cwmgors was supplied with a box the size of half a tea chest of novels which could be borrowed by us when we were in Dan Davies's class. There were times when I would finish a novel in an evening. Apart from that provision, adults had the use of a small library, mostly of novels, in one of the rooms at the Welfare Hall in the Waun. My mother made good use of it, but I am sorry to say, for a type of novel which was the equivalent of those of Barbara Cartland today though she would supplement this with the reading of the 'classics' of which we had a ready supply in our home. She was still re-reading these in her nineties shortly before her death at age 94.
My father had been a voracious reader of catholic tastes as was testified by the several hundreds of books in our home, ranging from commentaries on the various gospels, the Everyman series both of novels such as 'The Three Muskateers', to non-fiction such as Ruskin's 'Stones of Venice', some of Emerson's works, and his professional books such as a large red tome entitled 'Company Stocks and Shares'. He had also contributed to a Harmsworth magazine pre-war which contained impressive pictures of some of our engines of war such as 'Dreadnought' whose width viewed from the bows never ceased to impress me.
At frequent intervals he would buy me books , some of which had been favourites of his in his younger days such as 'Peter the Whaler' or 'Martin Rattler'. Undoubtedly, my favourite among these was 'The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes' which he bought for me when I was ten. I would read that sometimes under the bed clothes by torch light.
Pontardawe had a small library in two cupboards in the hall which Miss Hoskins, the Latin teacher, dispensed. I had by then developed a taste for the novels of Dumas and Hugo in translation which has remained a life-long interest.
Again at Pontardawe Grammar School on St David's Day, as at the elementary school, we had an eisteddfod-type concert in which prizes in music, recitation and arts and crafts were competed for. Outside adjudicators were brought in.
A Mrs Davies, who was the wife of Mr Henry Davies the headmaster of the secondary school at the Waun, adjudicated the poetry recitation competition in which I competed. One of the criticisms of my rendering was 'rhuthro gormod' whose meaning I did not know until I asked my father upon arriving home , to be told that I had rushed it - a common fault among many present-day Tv presenters !
The 11 plus examination which we tried in March if 'passed' entitled one to go to either Pontardawe Secondary school or Ystalyfera - the secondary standing for grammar. The schools which competed for places ranged from Tairgwaith, Brynamman to as far away as Clydach.
My sister, Myfanwy, came top of the whole list of passes. I was merely the top of Cwmgors, the Waun, Tairgwaith and Brynamman.
We travelled there by coach hired from Twm Blaengarnant whose garage was on the left of the slope which followed the hollow marking the boundary between Cwmgors and the Waun. By the time it had picked up its full quota it was pretty full with some of us having to sit on the laps of others. In spite of its load, it still negotiated Gelligron Hill out of Pontardawe, a very steep hill indeed, without mishap which testified to its robust health !
The village had its own cinema, the 'Gaiety', and the Waun also had its cinema in the 'Welfare Hall', since, unfortunately, demolished. I seem to remember occasions when we had patronised the 'Public Hall' at Upper Brynamman too but cannot recall whether that was for concerts rather than films.
In my first memories of the 'Gaiety', we had seen films of the silent era which had to be accompanied by music of the appropriate tempo from a single piano.
Later films had progressed into the era of the 'talkies' as they were at first called. By the mid to late thirties, by which time the 'Gaiety' had closed, we patronised the cinema at the 'Welfare Hall', a much larger and smarter one, and an evening there watching classics such as 'The Great Dictator' or 'Modern Times', or 'The Werewolf of London' was quite a treat.
Compared with the many social and cultural activities of a modern comprehensive, Pontardawe Grammar School offered little in those respects, in part, I should think, because the majority of its students came in by bus daily from surrounding towns and villages. In so far as it could, it did make some effort to widen our cultural horizons. At regular intervals, the University Trio from Cardiff University would perform a concert for us in the school hall which the whole school would attend.
On one occasion, the Isis Players from Oxford descended upon us in two ancient Rolls Royces even at that time were twenty two and fourteen years old I learnt from one of the actresses. The whole of the small group were women who played several parts each including the male roles. They worked frantically throughout the lunch-hour rigging up a make-shift stage upon the plinth in the hall with long rods and black sheets in readiness for performing 'Julius Caesar' to the whole school in the afternoon. It was to be the first of Shakespeare's plays that most of us had seen and caused considerable excitement and discussion.
At the end of the summer term in the fifth year, we joined with the sixth form at a dance - again in the hall - which was also attended by the staff. I had several dances with Miss James, the French teacher, for whom I had a soft spot. It was also her last term as she was leaving in order to marry Mr Humphries, one of the Maths teachers, as married women, or even widows, were not allowed to teach in Glamorganshire pre-war.
A highly attractive feature of celebrations in the village was the way that New Year's Day was greeted. As soon as midnight had struck, the hooters of the many collieries in the district would sound. When the noise from these had subsided, the voices of individual singers and the odd choir would be heard out on the streets singing the special song composed for the occasion -
'Blwyddyn Newydd dda chi, gwelen llawen, dyma'r blwyddyn wedi dod, y flwyddyn gorau fu erioed'.
Gifts of money would change hands while the singing continued for perhaps an hour.
The following morning, whatever the weather, we children would continue where the adults of the night before had left off. Sometimes, the more adventurous would visit the neighbouring farms where the offerings were usually more generous in recognition of the enterprise shown in leaving the beaten track.
On one occasion, word went round that the son of the landlord of the Star Inn had sung to Mrs Jenkins of Cwmgors Farm, who was known to be very wealthy, and had been rewarded with 2 shillings and sixpence - half a crown - a fabulous amount !
Alas, such largesse was not repeated to those who followed him expectantly.
The opportunities for healthy recreational activities in the village and surrounding countryside were many. My mother and father's generation had grown accustomed to walking considerable distances. When my mother had lived at Tonyrefail as a girl, she had walked daily to the Higher Grade School at Porth, carrying heavy books, a distance of what must have been about three very difficult miles consisting of a long continuously steep climb out of the village up to Trebanog, then down an even steeper hill into the centre of Porth before again climbing half way up the other side of the valley ; all this regardless of the weather. If late, she would run part of the way. When she sat the matric at Cardiff University, out of the 600 who tried it only 26 got their matric of whom she was one. Three hundred and odd from South Wales sat it at Cardiff and the same number at Bangor - the early fruits of Welsh secondary education !
When my father had worked in the counting-house at Lewis Lewis at Swansea, having finished at midnight on Saturday, he would then walk the thirteen or so miles back to the village and up to his house near the Cawdor colliery.
Not surprisingly then, we were weaned on long, recreational walks even before the age of ten. As a family, we would walk to Pontardawe perhaps to shop or to watch their annual carnival - a tremendous spectacle. On the outward leg, we would mount the hill near the Duke colliery and come down on the Trebanos road at Pontardawe having in the latter stages passed through what, I think in retrospect, was an arboretum. One of the pine trees, which I have also seen elsewhere had a soft, brown, pulpy bark which one could punch quite hard without hurting one's fist.
We would usually walk back along the road which had regular milestones and little, if any, traffic. To while away the time , my father would time us between them, the aim being to cover each mile in fifteen minutes.
Our Sunday evening walks would cover several miles on the hills on either side of the valley though we tended to favour the western side. We would sometimes walk to within sight of the Barham chapel along what had probably been a drovers' track. On one occasion, we saw a farmer and his family in their dog-cart coming up out of the Garnant direction and probably heading for evening service at the chapel.
A tradition among the youngsters of the district was to walk to Carreg Cennen Castle on Whit Monday, a distance in total I seem to remember my father calculating to have been seventeen miles. I had already accomplished the walk once with him and on the way had had Llygad-Llwchwr, the source of the Loughor river, pointed out to me where it emerged from the mouth of a cave. It was thought by some that the water originated from Llyn-y-fan but it was most probably just a mountain spring.
In the summer, in early childhood, we would swim in the local stream where older boys would have dammed it to make a sizeable pool. As we grew older, however, we became more adventurous and crossed the hill to the west to the uninhabited - except for farms - valley to a place called Cwmbuarthcae [ a valley, yard and field] where, at some time, there had been a small farmstead, long ruined. Its remains, and that of its two or three small fields could be seen, then overgrown with grass, and its hedges long gone. My father told us that when he was a boy an old couple had lived there who had not spoken to each other for years !
Alongside the river was a spring of cool, sparkling water which we would clear of the moss and debris which had clogged it since the previous summer so that we then had a constant supply of lovely spring water which would nowadays be thought worthy of bottling.
We would dam the stream not far below its source, making a sizeable pool. It was there that we learnt to swim, first of all with a very rudimentary 'dog's paddle' stroke. My father claimed that as a boy he had swum round the pool fifty four times. I did not have his stamina.
Around us on the surrounding hills were the burial tumuli of our remote ancestors of the Bronze Age in considerable profusion and, a stone circle near the Baran in the distance further to the west, the mediaeval fort of Penlle'rcastell would beckon. We would sometimes abandon the joys of the swim to walk the extra distance to gaze in puzzlement at the origin of the moat and the remains of walls. I now know it to have been a castle guarding the northern boundary of the lordship of Gower against possible incursions by Rhys Fychan of Dynevor.
Not far from Penlle'rcastell we could see a somewhat mysterious grey wooden structure which we gathered was the laboratory of a scientist called Grenling Matthews who worked for the government trying to perfect, so it was claimed, a secret ray which would stop the enemy in his tracks. It was said that it had already worked on some of the sheep and cows that had wandered too close!
Nearer home, and easily accessible from the village, across the railway line was the 'Park' as we called it - a well equipped recreation-ground containing about seven or eight pieces of apparatus including a chute, swings, two roundabouts and other pieces.. I have never seen elsewhere such a well-equipped playground.
In addition the 'Park' contained a rugby pitch used in the winter which became a cricket pitch in the summer complete with pavilion. There, on a summer's evening, cricket matches would be played , all the players dressed in white, of course.
Alongside the Welfare Hall in the Waun were several tennis courts, and a handsome, well-tended bowling green. The team would travel quite far afield to matches. I have a vague memory of its playing against a Tonyrefail team after we had moved there.
Cwmgors and the Waun between them have a proud record in their contribution to international rugby, having produced in Gareth Edwards a player who is generally acclaimed to have been the best rugby player of all time.
On a recent visit to Cwmgors, I was greatly saddened to see that the recreation ground had ceased to exist having been destroyed when the valley floor was open-cast coal mined. Such a loss to the present generation of the children of the village.
I must say a few words about the railway line which provided a ready highway both to the south and to the north. When I first walked it with my parents , my stride was too short to stretch to the sleepers' width so that I needed two strides between each pair but, as I grew older, I did come to manage the requisite stride. As the Duke colliery was closed during the whole of my childhood, the railway lay virtually unused and could be traversed in safety ; and it was well utilised by us as a family, either to walk to Garnant, where we had friends, in one direction, or to friends at Nant Melyn farm and beyond in the other.
However, I believe that upon the opening of Abernant colliery and the coming of the National Coal Board and British Rail, it would have become an offence to trespass upon the line. So that yet another valuable amenity of my childhood ceased to exist.
A singular feature of the village throughout my childhood there was that, apart from the building of an extension to Tan-y-bryn, Dr Phillips's house, a bungalow , Plas-y-coed, built near my grandmother's house, and a small handful of houses between the end of the village and the 'Old Star Inn', no house-building had taken place to add to the existing stock. As much as anything, this was probably an indication of how stable a community the village remained during that period.
Surprisingly, one could walk the whole length of the village on occasion in my childhood without meeting another soul. If one assumed from this fact that the village lacked a strong community-spirit one would be wrong. It did have and I think I must attribute it to the strong loyalties to the local chapels. As I mentioned earlier, we had patronised a small Wesleyan Methodist chapel which existed opposite where we lived in the High Street. The pastor, a Rev. Massey, used to travel to us each Sunday from Ammanford bringing with him a young teacher from Ammanford Grammar School. They would sometimes lunch with us. When, for some reason, the chapel closed, the building became a shop.
We then gave our allegiance to the Tabernacle where the pastor was a fine and upright man, the Rev T M Roderick who lived in the Manse in Abernant Road. He was the father of four handsome sons. Sadly, Berwyn, the elder, died in rescuing his dog from the cliffs at Southerndown.
We children would attend Sunday school and would be under the tutelage of the Rev. Roderick himself in the main chapel rather than the vestry. At the Band of Hope on Monday evenings, however, we met for instruction of sorts in the vestry. Then on Sunday evenings we would attend the service as a family. It was an impressive and august occasion , all the ladies in their Sunday best, and the deacons, almost all in black, gathered on the deacons' bench below the pulpit.
Occasionally, the preacher would be from elsewhere and I do remember some working themselves up in the course of their sermons into what was termed 'hwyl', an almost trance-like state of delivery.
The village funerals were also impressive and solemn affairs. The mourning family would stipulate whether the funeral was to be an all male affair, or could include women. The mourners would meet in the road outside the house of the deceased. Their bowler hats would be gathered in tall piles and taken inside while the coffin on its trestle would be brought out from the 'parlour' where it would have reposed since the death and where the corpse could have been viewed by friends. Bare-headed, the men would participate in a road-side service.
Ex-service men would have their coffins draped in the Union Jack. On completion of the service the hats would be brought out and distributed to their owners. I recall that at the funeral of a Welsh rugby international the cap he had won was also brought out and placed on the coffin.
Friends of the deceased would then lift the trestle and coffin and the whole procession would move off for the cemetery at Old Carmel, a considerable distance away upon the hillside. I think the bearers must have changed around several times for the burden must have been great.
The bereaved would usually pay regular visits to the graves of the dear-departed to replace the flowers on their graves which were usually graced with handsome and costly marble headstones, and some, even more expensive, had carved marble figures of angels. A feature of some graves was a posy of porcelain flowers under a glass dome which was virtually indestructible unless vandalised.
A ritual enacted by the youths of the village was played out upon the occasion of weddings at Tabernacle chapel. The railed front had two double gates which would be tied with rope while the wedding ceremony was taking place within the chapel. Upon the newly-married couple coming out accompanied by their entourage, the groom would have to throw a handful of coins to the youths, eagerly assembled on the outside, before the ropes were untied and the coins were scrambled for. I still have vivid memories of the wedding of one of the daughters of Evans Llwynrhidiau , a local landowner, not only because of the groom's generosity but also because of the rich, crimson velvet dress of the bride which made her look like a Pre-Raphaelite Renaissance damsel.
My father died an untimely death at the age of fifty three from peritonitis in November 1938. My mother who had taught before marriage tried to get back into teaching but even as a widow was not acceptable to the Glamorgan Education Committee. She therefore decided to return to her native village of Tonyrefail to be with her numerous family.
The sad time came in August, 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war when my sister, Myfanwy, and I were torn away from our much-loved village with deep regret at the parting. To us, Cwmgors was a wonderfully idyllic village in which to have been brought up in complete freedom from restrictions of movement. In the village itself, we had such a variety of places in which to play ; the old railway-station and its out-buildings ; the disused brewery owned by my friend John Rees's family who had built the two handsome houses next door to it ; the farm behind it ; the brickworks where we could play among the huge piles of bricks; the colliery where we could slide down the slag-heap on corrugated iron toboggans or search for fossilised shells; and the 'Park' with its generous provision of equipment and its small pond where we could catch newts.
On the few occasions when we have returned, we have discovered that life there is now far more restrictive and the valley floor where we knew every tree and, where pee-wits nested on the tussocks of grass on the marshy meadow, is now a featureless prairie as a result of open-cast mining.
(Gordon Rees passed away in February 2004)
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