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Y Filltir Sgwâr/The Square Mile: Serendipity

03 Mar 2024 6 minute read
Mike Smith at Castle Rock

In a year long series Tom Maloney, from Abersychan, shows how you can love a place so well it becomes a part of you.

Serendipity

Chance plays so much a part of our lives. A chance conversation, a chance meeting or just seeing something by chance can be such happy moments and there is so much serendipity in this little feature.

I suppose it starts around forty years ago when I was an art student. I was just beginning to get interested in black and white photography and the joy of seeing a new image appear in a developing tray was just magical.

On a break at home from college one day my Dad dropped me off at Abersychan, because he had thought I would find it interesting. I think he knew me better than I knew myself back then!

A chance moment, you might say, and I only took a few photographs.

Little did I know then that I would come to spend so much of life living in the area and to become so engaged by the industrial legacy of the landscape and the stories that lie within it.

York Place, The British, Abersychan c. 1981

Looking back at my old negatives I discovered that one of the images that I took on that day was of the derelict ruins of York Place at The British.

This little terraced row was located very close to Cwmbyrgwm Stack, which was featured last week.

In truth, looking at the image now, I so wish that I had done a better job, but as I think about it today, it was still a lucky moment!

At the time, I did not realise this was just one of a number of terraced rows that formed part of a forgotten village.

The cottages had some very grand names like King’s Parade and Queen’s Parade, but my two favourites are Big Edgehill and Little Edgehill, they seem just perfect to me.

Elisabeth Row is the only remaining terrace that is inhabited today. I began to wonder about the people who had once lived in these cottages on the hillside.

From The Family Album – Mike Smith as a young child at St Johns Row when he was a young child. Photos by kind permission of Mike Smith

Let’s meet Mike Smith, who is my next-door neighbour and the little boy featured in this set of  charming photos from his family album.

The next little bit of serendipity is a chance conversation with Mike about The British and a whole new story opens.

Mike was brought up at The British and spent his younger years living at John’s Row, leaving when he was about eight years of age. All of the photographs in this little selection were taken at John’s Row in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Mike agreed to show me around the hillside where the cottages were once located and we spent several very pleasant hours walking and together there just this week.

Mike Smith stood at No 1 Johns Row

It’s difficult to believe looking at the site today there was ever a row of houses here, but Mike is stood where he used to live in No. 1 John’s Row.

The houses were two up and two down and were known as Collier’s Cottages.

At the time when Mike lived here his father was a miner at Blaenserchan Colliery.

The End of the Shift – Imagining Colliers making their way home to John’s Row

In all there were seven cottages. Each of the houses had water and electricity, but there was no bathroom! Mikes’ recollection is such important social history.

“I remember we used to have long, narrow tin bath and the toilet was at the bottom of the garden. I can’t remember if we shared the toilet with next door. It was a proper Ty Bach with brick walls, a corrugated iron roof and you sat on a plank of wood. Throughout the winter there was an oil lamp and the paper we used was ‘The News of The World’ cut into squares hanging on a nail, on the wall. Although we had running water at No. 1 I think that some of the other rows may not have had a water supply in their houses because I remember people fetching water from our outside water spout.”

Mike Smith & his mother at John’s Row Water Spout

Mike’s grandparents lived at No. 6. It was like a second home and sometimes he would stay overnight. He has very fond memories of these times as well.

“My grandparents house had electricity, but not in the upstairs back bedroom. There was a gas lamp here and my grandmother would light the lamp for me at bedtime so that I could read comic books before going to sleep. I always had a hot orange squash or Ribena as well!”

York Place, The British – as it is today

In Welsh, yn Cymraeg, the word ‘hiraeth’ comes to mind, it is such an evocative word that gives expression to a longing for something important that has past.

I felt a keen sense of hiraeth as Mike talked about the good times he had playing with his friends, friendships that have stood the test of time.

“We all used to play on the hillside behind the cottages. It was different then and we called it ‘the bank’. In the summer we would slide down the slippery. grassy slopes on bits of cardboard. We played hide and seek and flew our homemade kites. One time I cut my head badly riding someone else’s bike – he was riding mine! The centre of all our play was the big rock at the top of the bank and this could be anything that we wanted it to be when we were kids. This was our castle, but it looks so small now!”

It was a great walk with Mike and my thoughts turned again to York Place and what it is like now.

York Place
Place of dwellings and memories,
Sheltered island mounds
Wrapped in moss and scattered stones,
In a sea of copper brown bracken,
Fallen and withered by the wear of winter.

Diolch yn fawr iawn Mike, chatting with you as we walked your words was like keys unlocking the stories and memories held with the scattered ruins at The British.

Next time, another story in the landscape, but this one goes back hundreds of years in time.

Read the earlier installments of Y Filltir Sgwâr/The Square Mile by Tom Maloney


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Mike Smith
Mike Smith
1 month ago

I really enjoyed my day out with you Tom and this article is a credit to you. Well done

Tom Maloney
Tom Maloney
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Smith

It was a lovely walk Mike. The places that we visited were places that I had been to before and I thought that I knew them quite well. It turned out there was so much more to learn. Thank you so much for sharing your memories and your knowledge.

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson
1 month ago

What a great article Tom! A pleasure to read. I look forward to reading more of your work

Tom Maloney
Tom Maloney
1 month ago
Reply to  Emma Thompson

Diolch yn fawr iawn Emma – this article was such a pleasure and I learned so much from Mike. Sometimes you think you know a landscape well and then you find out that there is so much more that is hidden. Mike’s memories really brought the landscape to life!

Trudie Smith
Trudie Smith
1 month ago

A sentimental journey back in time! Well done Tom; a beautifully written article

Tom Maloney
Tom Maloney
1 month ago
Reply to  Trudie Smith

Many thanks Trudie. We had a good afternoon walking and chatting about life at The British. There were so many rows of houses, but knowing where each row was is hard now. I have walked over John’s Row in the past without knowing! I have to thank Mike for giving me a new understanding of the site.

Gail Johnson
Gail Johnson
1 month ago

A lovely article. I realise I know nothing of the area I was born into. You have made me want to get on my walking boots and visit my history. Many thanks for such a wonderful account.

Tom Maloney
Tom Maloney
1 month ago
Reply to  Gail Johnson

Many thanks Gail. It is such a lovely area, with so much that is interesting. Watch out for the paths just now though, many of the local paths are very muddy after all the rain we have had!

Charlotte
Charlotte
1 month ago

What an interesting article. Thanks for sharing your memories Mike, how lovely to be part of the history books.

Linda Barnes
Linda Barnes
1 month ago

Very interesting article.

Chris tew
Chris tew
1 month ago

Brilliant article thanks Tom

Wendy Short
Wendy Short
1 month ago

Great story Tom…heard a lot of stories about The British when I worked in Pontypool…

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