The Hours of Our Lives: the Rhondda Heritage Project
At 3pm today, Rhondda Radio will be broadcasting the first Rhondda Heritage Hour, the start of year-long ‘festival’ celebrating the valley’s history – as John Geraint, Creative Director of the Rhondda Heritage Project explains…
It was an incredible coincidence. There we were in Treorchy Rugby Club, for the fourth of our Storytelling Workshops.
A couple of dozen Rhondda people with no previous experience of broadcasting had come together to record their experiences, their family memories, their neighbours’ stories.
From a standing start, they’d embarked on creating a dynamic audio portrait of Valley life. And this was the night it all began to come together.
In previous sessions, I’d shared with them my thoughts about the strengths of radio. How it’s an emotional medium. How we needed our stories to embody the three ‘In’s: “make it Inviting, Intriguing, Intimate,” I urged.
Now I talked about ‘a sense of place’ – how even in the studio, radio can get out and about, about how the ‘pictures’ are better than TV. And, with a quick wit and a nose for a story, they drew all of this together, and began to discuss ‘What Rhondda Heritage means to me’.
A discussion which caught fire with the passion and intelligence which Rhondda people bring to any consideration of their proud past.
Yes, that was the night that it all began to gel, alright. And the coincidence? The date was Thursday, 23rd November 2023. Exactly half a century to the very day that, in that very same venue, Max Boyce had recorded his iconic breakthrough album, ‘Live in Treorchy’. How about that for an omen!
If we can achieve just a smidgeon of the impact Max has made as a Voice of the Valleys, the Rhondda Heritage Project will have succeeded triumphantly.
What’s certain, now at the start of 2024, is that the stories we’ve recorded together will begin to get a wider audience. Today, at 3pm, the Rhondda Heritage Hour hits the airwaves. At the helm, my wonderful colleague and Rhondda Radio stalwart, David Arthur.
The song that opens our year-long festival of oral history, ‘Heart of the Valleys’, has the potential to become our country’s next big show-stopping anthem. I reckon it’ll be sung – like Max’s ‘Hymns and Arias’ – in stadiums and by choirs, and wherever Welsh people come together, for years to come.
It’s been composed, performed, recorded and mixed specially for our Project by students at Coleg y Cymoedd. It’s just beautiful.
Also in our first programme, Catherine Smith, one of that Rhondda Storytellers group, will be recounting the adventures of Katie, a campaigner a century ago for pit-head baths. Nine children and another a baby at her breast – but nothing was going to stop an Ynyshir woman!
Veteran Rhondda Leader reporter Dave Edwards has been poring over the paper’s archive. He’ll tell the story of two Rhondda boxers on their way to prize fights in the United States aboard the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic.
One of them, Dai Bowen, posted a letter home when the ship called at Queenstown, Co. Cork before heading across the Atlantic. Bowen urged his mother not to worry about him: “This is a lovely boat,” he wrote, “She is very near as big as Treherbert.”
Later in our programme, Alnashir Pabani will be making us think – and laugh – by recounting the unexpected croeso he got at Penrhys as a newly-arrived refugee from Uganda in the 1970s. Skinheads are involved, though not in the way you might imagine.
But the Rhondda Heritage Hour is not just a celebration of our astonishing industrial history, our global connections, and the warmth of our community spirit. It’s about the Rhondda now, and how the Valley’s past and its present can be the foundations on which we construct a thriving future.
That’s why it’s been important to involve the young. There’s speech as well as music from Coleg y Cymoedd – this afternoon’s show features student Zoe Brock telling us a tall tale from Porth about a man called Ken.
And we’ve been working with Ysgol Nantgwyn, the new superschool for 3-15 year-olds in Tonypandy.
Siôn Tomos Owen – author, caricaturist, illustrator, TV and radio presenter, and one-man Rhondda force of nature – has been doing his stuff there, inspiring the next generation of storytellers to record tales that express what their Valleys heritage means to them.
So in our first programme, young Lucy Wood will be enchanting us with a picture of communal life on the street where she lives.
There’s so much more to come, right across the year, thanks to a major grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded to Rhondda Radio. We’ve already got more than a hundred stories lined up to entertain you.
In the weeks to come, we’ll be hearing about professors and punks, libraries and choirs, first Rhondda homes, family Bibles, one-armed colliers, outings to the seaside, the Blitz in Cwmparc, what an ophthalmologist is and how to build a gambo…
The list goes on and on like some fantastic catalogue of shared history: Boys’ Clubs soccer teams, the Treorchy schoolteacher who lifted the Rugby World Cup, the hat that saved a sailor, the campaign that saved the Park and Dare Theatre, the long-forgotten diary that chronicles a Mid-Rhondda miners’ strike, and the man who fell in love with a mountain.
On top of all that, TV and radio gardener Terry Walton has been digging deep into the history of the valley’s allotments.
These are all Rhondda people telling it like it is. And their voice is worth listening to, because they’re talking about things that are really important to them, and what it means to them to belong to this community.
The Rhondda, it turns out, is about far more than coal.
It’s about a collective experience, a camaraderie which points the way to something that humanity has always been searching for – a nobler, better way of living that’s fair shares and fair do’s for us all.
You can catch Rhondda Radio off air in the Rhondda, as well as online from anywhere in the world. So put aside what you’ve planned, and join David Arthur at 3 o’clock today for the Rhondda Heritage Hour.
And please stay tuned, all year long, for the history of a Valley that fuelled the world, and the living legacy we can pass on to our children and grandchildren.
In David’s company, Wednesday afternoons in 2024 promise to be very special indeed.
Rhondda Radio is a not-for-profit community radio station, run entirely by volunteers, broadcasting on 106.1FM in the Rhondda Fawr and 97.5FM in the Rhondda Fach, and worldwide via its own app and online at: www.rhonddaradio.com
John Geraint is one of Wales’ most experienced documentary film-makers and author of Up The Rhondda! www.ylolfa.com/products/9781800994874/up-the-rhondda and The Great Welsh Auntie Novel www.cambriabooks.co.uk/product/the-great-welsh-auntie-novel
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.