Review: When Men and Mountain Meet – The Story of the Black Mountain Road

Background picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

Jon Gower

It’s astonishing what a little bit of history-sleuthing can reveal about a place.  At a funeral in Rhosaman in 2012, Aldwyth Rees Davies, the author of this fine little book was asked by her daughter who were all the people filling Bethania Chapel?

The fact that all four of her daughter’s grandparents came from the area provoked Davies – normally a social worker –  into full-on research mode.  The chance discovery of a gravestone belonging to one of the area’s main characters, hidden under drapes of ivy, made her decide to pen a volume about the area.

It involved discoveries aplenty in map rooms and county archives as well as some frustrations, not least the disappearance of the Jones family Bible which listed early names and dates in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

It is in part the story of a father and son, both named John Jones ­– as if there was a name shortage in the area – who built what is nowadays the A4069, snaking its way as a series of hairpins and sweeping bends between Brynaman, which lies to the south of the road and Gwynfe in the Brecon Beacons National Park, skirting the dark peatbogs which probably gave the Black Mountain its name.

The road replaced horse and mule trains which originally slogged over the hills, taking coal sourced from surface outcrops to use in slaking lime in local kilns.  Interestingly, in the 17th century tenants in the area held mineral rights over land rather than the land owners, so different from later on, when buying a farm meant owning the black diamonds under its earth.

This period explains the wealth of John Jones Senior and Junior, who owned a suite of farms such as Hendreforgan, Penal Farm, Cefn Garth and Cilybebyll, all with seams of coal beneath them.

So it was the industrial revolution and the dizzy growth of collieries that made the Jones’ road happen, a solid piece of engineering coupled with seven years’ worth of hard labour and toil, often by local men who had to supply their own wheelbarrows, pickaxes and spades.

One of the most significant pioneers and overseers of road building at the time, John McAdam would later lend his name to a less back-breaking road building technique and material called tarmacadam, or tarmac.

Violence

The history of roads and ways in the Black Mountain area includes the era of those Welsh gauchos, the drovers, driving cattle and sheep both to pasture and to market and also a period when turnpike trusts took their toll, quite literally, on farmers and their carts.

This, in turn, spawned the cross-dressing insurrections of the Rebecca Rioters who put on their best frocks and burned down toll booths and smashed their gates.  The fact that there might be a toll gate every three miles – with an Act of Parliament necessary for the construction of each and every mile – underlines how costly the business of taking goods to market might be, especially when some of the local lime from Brynaman was travelling as far as the Ceredigion coast.  Little wonder it led to frustration and violence.

‘When Men and Mountain Meet’ is studded with interesting facts such as the geological stratum beyond which the coal disappeared which was thus known as “Farewell Rock.”  It tells of local instances of the tŷ unnos, a house built between sunset and sunrise where a family was allowed to live as long as smoke came out of the chimney before the sun rose.  But it also describes the tŷ to cawn, a house with a roof made of rushes, a very slightly more sophisticated erection.

The book also chronicles cholera outbreaks and the dawn of railwaymania, which changed the fortunes of roads and cost John Jones Junior a fortune as a cutting from the ‘London Gazette’ in 1859 confirmed, when it stated ‘John Jones, late of Brynbrain, out of business – in the gaol of Carmarthen.’

The creation of the road led to industrial growth and social mobility as local trade and tradesmen increased.  Twm o’r Gat opened the first shop in Brynaman in the late 1820s to be followed by versatile tradesmen such as David Francis, who operated a smithy but also pulled teeth, cut hair and ran a Sunday school for children.

At its peak the village had no fewer than 150 businesses from ‘patent medicine vendors’ to professors of music.  Other enterprises mixed different goods and skills, such as blacksmith Evan Williams who both ran a school and sold beer at the same place.  And the availability of work drew in workers from much further away, with both Yorkshiremen and traditionally rival Lancastrians working cheek by jowl and all eventually speaking Welsh.

In this way a hamlet called Gwter Fawr, the Big Gutter transmuted into Brynaman, a village with pretty much all of the appurtenances of a town, other than a town hall and council.

Diligent

But plentiful if hard work also brought injustice, from the iniquities of the company store, the only place workers could spend their payment tokens to child labour and long hours which led to strikes, such as the one that started on St David’s day in 1880 and ended a year later.  Unions consolidated as workers took up the cudgel, or, perhaps in the case of the collier, the mandrel.

Meanwhile organised religion took its place alongside the business of extracting anthracite and at its peak Wales saw a chapel being built every nine days.  The more secural side of culture was well represented too in Brynaman, where an eisteddfod in 1884 attracted no fewer than 3,000 people.

‘When Men and Mountain Meet’ offers ample evidence of what diligent research and enthusiastic investigation can reveal and pull together.

A road described by the ‘Top Gear’ TV team as ‘five of the most memorable miles you can drive in any country’ has hereby gained its historian.

When Men and Mountain Meet: The Story of the Black Mountain Road by Aldwyth Rees Davies is published by Y Lolfa and costs £ 7.99. You can buy it here.

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Bryn Colion

What is the native Welsh name for that road? Black mountain sounds like a theme park in Surrey 😀