When our tour guide, a former miner, tells us that we’ll be descending 90 metres into the earth, no one in the group seems anxious. When we strap on headlamps – necessary accoutrements for navigating the lightless caverns far below – everyone takes it in stride.
But when he tells us we have to empty our pockets of anything with a battery, a few of us look surprised. “Sparks can come off watches or batteries because of the gases down there,” he explains. “You can’t bring anything like that down there.”
Depositing my mobile phone in the bag he offers, I think to myself: Gases? What did I sign up for?
On the surface, much of this part of southern Wales is what you would expect, and hope, from a Welsh landscape: rolling hills and wild moors, market towns and crumbling castles. The area is dominated by Brecon Beacons, a 1,350-square-kilometre national park that twists with 225 km of rivers and peaks with mountains up to 886 metres tall. Sheep amble across bright-green hills, their coats splashed with blue and red.
But the area isn’t just another postcard from Britain. It’s far more interesting. That’s because the landscape wasn’t just shaped by the glaciers that carved its lakes and screes; it was shaped by its inhabitants. Prehistoric stone circles and burial cairns, nearly eight millenniums old, dot the landscape. So do medieval castles, farmhouses and abbeys.
And, of course, mines. When the Industrial Revolution hit, it didn’t take long to realize that this corner of Wales was more than pretty hills: From limestone to coal, it had all of the raw materials needed for industry. Today, the Brecon Beacons park overlaps with a 33-square-km section of land called the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The first ironworks were built here – in the town of Blaenavon, right on the boundary of the Brecon Beacons park – in 1789. They were among the world’s largest. A canal was dug soon after, taking iron to Newport, 24 kilometre due south, and on across the sea. By 1800, South Wales was the leading iron-producing region in the world. The population boomed.
Then came coal. The “Big Pit,” a coal mine, was dug in 1860. By 1913, one-third of the world’s coal exports were produced by 250,000 Welsh miners.
Although industry – smoke-belching, working-class, loud, dirty industry – isn’t always seen as a part of heritage worth protecting, this area, for which it has been so crucial, saw it differently.
Today, the 18th-century ironworks, the area’s economic engine for decades, still stand, carefully protected as part of the industrial landscape. The 44-metre-tall chimney towers above; the workers’ houses, each furnished to look frozen in time from different eras, crouch a stone’s throw away. (It must have been hard to get a night’s sleep: The ironworks ran 24 hours a day.)
At the old furnace, a laser light and audio show recreates what it would have looked and sounded like – the shouts of men, the crackling fire, the molten metal. But, thankfully, not what it would have felt like: In the ovens, the temperature would have reached about 760 C.
The ironworks closed in 1904, though locals remained in the houses until 1971. Although much of that was from the shift to coal, the coal industry, of course, wouldn’t last forever, either.
Now, our group crowds into a rattling elevator, descending the 90-metre-deep mine shaft that was sunk in 1860. Once, it carried up 1,000 carts of coal each day, our guide says. Now, it carries only tourists.
After 120 years of work, the mine was shut in 1980, part of the massive, extremely controversial, Britain-wide closings enacted by Margaret Thatcher.
But the Big Pit, like the ironworks, has been preserved. “The only thing missing now is the noise and dust,” says our guide, Gavin. He should know: He worked here for 18 years. “Everything else was left as it was.”
Which seems, to put it bluntly, somewhat frightening. At the deepest point in our tour, 130 metres of rock push on the wood slats above our heads. The ceiling here used to be 3.5 metres high; now, it’s 1.5 metres. It could collapse altogether. “It could last another second, or another 30 years. We do not know,” Gavin says cheerfully. That’s why wood is used: If there’s a shift in the weight above – never a good sign – you can hear timber groaning.
And do collapses happen? Yes, Gavin tells me. There are five roof falls in the mine each year. In a working mine, though, he says, it’s once a week. “This is why you have to be an ex-miner to be a tour guide,” he says. At one point, he pulls me aside, with a whisper: “I don’t want the others to hear,” he says. “But that’s a fresh crack from last month.”
That’s not to mention the danger of the gases: Highly explosive methane gas comes from coal; at one point, Gavin puts a knife to metal to show us how easy it is to make sparks.
Or the dark: At one point, when we flip all of our headlamps off, I’m plunged into the deepest, most velvety black I’ve ever (not) seen. Or the smell: Hundreds of men, plus horses, spent all day down there, without any facilities.
And yet, Gavin says, there’s no question that “if I had the chance to go back to mining, I’d go back tomorrow.” His father, brother, uncle and friends were all miners. His father died last year, at the age of 91, of black lung, the classic and all-too-descriptive coal miner’s disease.
Later, once we have ascended, I breathe in fresh countryside air and feel thankful that my life is here, back on the surface. And, for the rest of my time in this corner of Wales, I explore the other offerings of Brecon Beacons.
I poke into lovely old bookshops at the hippie town of Hay-on-Wye, home to one of Britain’s best-known literary festivals. I bite into thick pieces of bara brith, the traditional Welsh spiced bread, at Talgarth Mill, where an 18th-century flour mill ran for decades with the power of the River Ellywe. I scramble up the hillside to Carreg Cennen, a 12th-century castle; used by an English lord to defeat the Welsh, today it is the grey ghost of the stronghold it once was.
I career around country roads in a little Twizys, the single-person electric car that is tiny enough to be laughable – until I wind up on a main road with lorries whizzing past.
I learn that lambs – and there are many of them in the Brecon Beacons in March – really do skip.
And it is all lovely. But for some reason, throughout my stay, my mind keeps returning to the least-pleasant place I’ve been: A place 90 metres underground, pitch-dark and a little scary, a place where the spirit of this part of Wales really seems to be – and one that in many ways, unlike the farms and the mills and market towns, no longer exists at all.
If you go
KLM and Delta run flights from Toronto to Cardiff (with stopovers in Amsterdam), while several carriers, including Lufthansa, Air Canada, British Airways, Iberia and American Airlines, run non-stop Toronto-to-London flights. From Cardiff, it’s a 45-minute, 40-kilometre drive to the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons. You can take trains to the area from London, coming into Abergavenny station via Newport (about 21/2 hours), but once there, taxi services and buses are limited. Renting a car is preferable.
Where to stay
I stayed at the 23-room Gliffaes Country House Hotel, a rambling stone hideaway in the countryside that is exactly what one pictures from an elegant Welsh country home: massive fireplaces and antique furniture, lush draperies and a glassed-in tea room – even a mounted moose head. Just double-check your extras while you’re there; that lovely afternoon tea and morning newspaper will cost you. From $240 a night; gliffaeshotel.com
Opened last year, the four-star Lion Hotel is a welcome addition to Blaenavon. Its 12 rooms are contemporary chic, with leather headboards, statement wallpaper and splashes of aqua blue or burgundy; there is a steam room, sauna and very good restaurant on site. From $175 a night; thelionhotelblaenavon.co.uk
Where to eat
In 2011, the 18th-century Talgarth Mill, a flour mill on the River Ellywe that hadn’t been used since the 1940s, got a £750,000 ($1.5-million) facelift. Today, it’s one of the area’s most beloved bakeries and cafés. All the bread is made on site and all the food is sourced locally. Those who want to learn how to make their own bara brith or bara havard (white and rye bread) at home, or who want to try milling flour from scratch, can take classes taught by its in-house bakers. talgarthmill.com
The Shoemakers Arms is a country pub at its best, with real ales, a log fire, friendly staff and fresh, amply portioned foods. That it’s relatively off the beaten path, about 15 kilometres from the town of Brecon, makes it all the more telling that it’s so popular with locals. theshoemakersarms.webs.com
Afternoon tea at the 19th-century Angel Hotel is considered to be a must, and with reason: The tea selection is overwhelming, as are the fresh, miniature sandwiches and toothsome pastries – remember to save room for the warm scones with clotted cream and jam. The elegant rooms fill up with tea-takers on weekend afternoons, so book in advance. angelabergavenny.com
What to do
One of the best ways to take in the varied Brecon Beacons landscape? With a walk, of course – of which there are innumerable options. Hike through the gorges, caves and cascades of “Waterfall Country”; with everything from 315-million-year-old fossils to a 14th-century ruined corn mill and a former 19th-century tramway, the Sgwd Gwladus Waterfall Walk gives an idea of the area’s sweeping history – and comes complete with an audio tour that you can download online. Or enjoy a gentle walk through lush Welsh countryside and rolling hills by following the River Usk, passing kingfisher-rich meadows and the 11th-century Abergavenny Castle. More walks and hikes are available at breconbeacons.org/explore/things_to_do/walking/where_to_walk
There are about a dozen castles in or near the Brecon Beacons national park. The most romantic, though, may be Carreg Cennen Castle, a 12th- or 13th-century hilltop fortress linked by legend to the era of King Arthur, and which inspired numerous artists over the years, including Turner. Bring a flashlight so you can explore the damp, pitch-black tunnel that weaves underground beneath the castle, a previous storeroom … and dungeon. breconbeacons.org/carreg-cennen-castle
Avid readers can’t miss the market town of Hay-on-Wye, which has a bizarre and bookish history: The town’s castle was bought by a man named Richard Booth in the 1960s, and he declared the town an independent kingdom – that would be devoted to books. Today, it has dozens of bookstores in its pretty, cobblestone streets, and each summer is the host of the famous Hay Festival devoted to literature.
Lovely Llanthony Priory dates to the 12th century; today, it is a haunting, crumbling ruin set against bright-green hills. The priory sometimes hosts events – on Aug. 15 there are outdoor yoga and meditation sessions – and, for those who don’t want to leave, even a charming pub and hotel.
The Blaenavon World Heritage Site and Brecon Beacons park are full of ways to explore the area’s industrial heritage. The Big Pit Museum and Blaenavon Ironworks mentioned in the story are two of the most interactive and interesting, but others include riding the Brecon Mountain Railway – a vintage steam train – from Pant to Pontsticill, bicycling the towpaths along the 203-year-old Monmouthshire and Beacon Canal or taking a four-kilometre ramble on Black Mountain from the former mining town of Brynamman, past the Nant Melyn quarry and through wild forest and open moor to an open-cast mine.
The writer was a guest of Visit Wales. It did not review or approve this article.