An August 2006 trip
to Merthyr Tydfil by MichaelJM
Quote: Starting at the Big Pit, we drove down the valley towards Nelson to visit a 16th-century manor house during a packed but interesting day.
Attraction | "A Trip to Llancaiach Fawr Manor"
We went to Blaenafon, an industrial town that was developed in the heart of rural Wales out of the riches of mined Ironstone and coal. Somehow it seems to have hung onto its rurality, but nowadays that sad bleakness about the place...it kind of lacks vitality. It's hard to explain, but you’d feel it if you visited this and other similar pit villages in Wales. Passing through Merthyr Tydfil, we travelled south to Nelson, stopping off at the small pit village of Aberfan. This has a tragic history embellished in my memory, as I recall as a young man, in October 1966, seeing the news of hundreds of children being buried alive as a landslip engulfed their school. Today, a memorial garden on the site of the school serves as a poignant reminder of this village’s loss.
The manor was built back in 1530 as the home for the Prichard family, but with extra-thick walls to provide it with fortress-like features in the likelihood of attack (these were turbulent times and forced possession was highly likely). The family prospered, and although the house was altered and extended, the family preferred to extend its land ownership rather than spending exorbitant amounts of their wealth on the manor. Our visit was timed in 1645, a few weeks after King Charles had visited Colonel Edward Prichard and attempted to bring him back into line as a staunch royalist supporter. Edward, having raised money and men to support the king in the civil war, now preferred to be neutral and so the King left without a confirmation of Prichard’s loyalty. He would have been gutted!
When we arrived at the manor, we were initially a little non-plussed, as the majority of the site seemed to be quite modern, and it firstly appeared that the old building was set apart from the visitors centre. However, an open gate to the walled garden confirmed that the old house, in its limited grounds, was the main attraction. Admission charge is £4.95 per adult, and we were advised to make sure that we entered the manor no later than 4pm (the servants leave the building promptly at 5pm and the doors are then firmly locked). The receptionist told me that the staff is "firmly in role" and will not be drawn out of their 17th-century existence (now that was a challenge!), and then she handed us a written letter of commendation "to ensure that us gentlefolk" would be given "proper hospitality" from the Colonel’s staff.
Leaving the 21st century, we checked out the small formal gardens and, to the rear of the house, the period vegetable and herb garden.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 21, 2006
Llancaiach Fawr Manor
Nelson, Treharris, Wales CF46 6ER
Attraction | "Back to the Future!"
Fortunately, my aristocratic upbringing was recognised without having to undergo the assessment ordeal! And, although we were shown around these lowly quarters, we "did not tarry too long." Just long enough to appreciate the rich patina on the dark oak utilitarian furniture, the large welcoming "working" fire (this would have provided warmth in winter, but was the only means of cooking, so it would be sweltering in summer), and the "back stairs" for the servants to rapidly respond to the shouts of their master.
Upstairs was "more befitting of our status", and we were delivered directly into "the master’s grand hall," where he would receive and entertain all his important guests. Upstairs, considering the wealth of Colonel Prichard, is fairly compact, and leading from the grand hall is the house’s withdrawing room where guests would relax between the sumptuous courses or where the ladies would retire whilst the men folk enjoyed the pleasures of imbibing post-dinner liqueurs. Next door to the parlour/withdrawing room was Prichard’s bedroom; after all, he wouldn’t wish to stagger far after a rich and opulent meal! A main’s privy was sited, behind an oak panel in the corner of his room, so for a country residence, this place was well kitted out to pander to the needs of its wealthy owner. From the windows there are fine views of the surrounding countryside and good, solid walls gave sound protection from any marauding troops who might think that the house offered rich pickings. They would get a real shock because Colonel Prichard had over 30 living-in servants (and another 15 or so working out on the estate), who were all ready to protect him and his property.
There was an intricate network of back stairs and hidden corridors for the use of servants, and although it was felt unbecoming for the family to use these, I am sure in the event of an emergency, they would swallow their pride and use them to move silent around the manor. I was intrigued to note that there wasn’t a servant’s-call bell system installed, but I was assured that "the master has a fine bellowing."
Attraction | "Llancaiach Fawr Manor – the Upper Residence"
We left the children’s room with it period furniture to her lady’s room, and then to the main guest room with its attached servant’s room. It was explained that visiting dignitaries would always want their own servants close at hand to respond to their needs and to check out any messages that might be delivered in the wee small hours. It would be their decision, having read the message, to decided whether or not to wake their masters or leave the delivery until the morning. "You be rest assured," we were told, "they would soon be fully aware if the made an erroneous assumption." In this small room with no external windows was a privy unconnected to the mains system and a hatch way to the upper landing. It was through this hatch that any messages would be delivered, "lest the visitor be disturbed."
An important room at the end of the corridor was the "master’s collection room." Here the tenants on the estate would bring their rental and taxes, "for," it was explained, "my master is a high ranking government official responsible for his majesty’s taxation of the district." In this room, connected by a narrow flight of stairs to the ground floor, was a small cupboard entrance to the pigeon coup. Here, pigeons tagged with different colours, depending on where they were raised, were cared for until ready to be dispatched (from a special release window) with a message from the Prichard household. The servant reckoned that a message with a reply could be sent to Cardiff within the hour, whereas it would have taken 8 hours by horse and over 16 hours by foot!
There’s a fully restored privy on this floor, and it was explained that in the unlikely event of this becoming blocked, a "specially selected young boy" would be "roped by the ankles and lowered gently headfirst" until he reached the blockage. Not the most prestigious job on the estate!
This was an interesting and informative visit made livelier by the wit of the servants, our guides for the visit. Attached to the visitors centre was a small informative exhibition showing the history, up to the present day, of the Manor. Interesting to see the state of the building before renovation started and to, therefore, appreciate the current building even more.
Attraction | "Mining in Wales Big Pit (on the surface)"
Having obtained our admission ticket for the princely sum of £0.00, we joined the queue of tourists to enter the pit. The museum staff have attempted to make this wait fairly painless with a variety of old photos adorning the wall, some information plaques, and a basic video. I read that Blaenafon is "remarkable because everything required to make iron was here and easy to mine." Coal has been mined here since Medieval times, and to begin with, it was easily picked from the surface. However, the area came into its own in 1789, when the iron ore had been discovered and three furnaces built. This made it the largest ironworks in the world! By the early 1800s, Blaenafon was a bustling town, and it continued to prosper until, by the mid-19th century, it was one of a handful of towns that was able to produce steel. It’s hard to think that this was the heart of Welsh industrialisation, but by the 1920s, and the Great Depression, the writing was on the wall and the last furnace was closed by 1937.
Having sorted the historical context of the Big Pit, we were now on route for our "tour of down under." We were kitted out with headgear, batteries, and lights; handed in all our cameras, phones, and watches (no batteries are allowed down), and then piled into the lift cage that was to take us down. It was a slower descent than miners would have been used to, and the depth of the shaft was only 90m – a baby by mining standards – but it gave us a great flavour of how things were for the miner.
Our guide was a ex-miner, and his incredible humour and stories made the trip live for us.
Big Pit: National Coal Museum
M4 at Junction 26
Blaenafon, Torfaen NP4 9XP
(029) 2057 3650
Attraction | "Mining in Wales - Big Pit (down below)"
Having obtained our admission ticket for the princely sum of £0.00 we joined the queue of tourists to enter the pit. The museum staff have attempted to make this wait fairly painless with a variety of old photos adorning the wall, some information plaques and a basic video. I read that Blaenafon is "remarkable because everything required to make iron was here and easy to mine". Coal has been mined here since Medieval times and to begin with it was easily picked from the surface. However, the area came into its own in 1789 when the iron ore had been discovered and three furnaces built. This made it the largest ironworks in the world! By the early 1800’s Blaenafon was a bustling town and it continued to prosper until by the mid 19th Century it was one of a handful of towns that was able to produce steel. It’s hard to think that this was the heart of Welsh industrialisation but by the 1920’s, and the great depression, the writing was on the wall and the last furnace was closed by 1937.
Having sorted the historical context of the Big Pit we were now on route for our "tour of down under". We were kitted out with headgear, batteries and lights and handed in all our cameras, phones and watches (no batteries are allowed down) and then piled into the lift cage that was to take us down. It was a slower descent than miners would have been used to and the depth of the shaft was only 90 metres – a baby by mining standards – but it gave us a great flavour of how things were for the miner.
As we went round the pit we could understand when collieries were such tight communities – the miners were always looking out for each other, working and playing hard. The landscape of the pit was varied with broad "roads-ways" and then narrow low ceilings with buckled supports. We were told to stoop down and watch our heads on the beans and then I heard a load bang as someone had hit their head on the roof. Shortly after the crack I felt the pain. That someone was me! Just as well I was wearing the pit helmet.
We saw the pit pony stables, wooden shafts (collars and arms) eaten into by albino worms, running water, and even today in this non working pit you can feel the tension in this unfriendly environment. We experienced pitch black as all lights were turned off and we could not see our hands in front of our faces. "Your eyes never get used to this darkness", explained our guide. He was an ex-miner and his incredible humour and stories made the trip alive for us.