Wednesday, 9 September 2009

finding Alabaster Thomas

Of course, and never mind what RS Thomas says, you can't live in the past: but every now and then you can take a day trip there, if only to worry the carcase of an old song. Saturday afternoon found me heading for the Valleys in, let's say, 1974 or so . So of course I couldn't use the Second Severn Crossing to get there, which suited me just fine. The old Severn Bridge feels much more bridge-like, if in a slightly alarming way; there was a decided breeze blowing in from the Irish Sea, and I had to keep a firm hand on the wheel as I bounced over the sagging box-sections - the bridge is showing signs of wear after forty years of big lorries - and I kept a bit of port helm on, to avoid drifting leewards into the fast lane. From Chepstow, I took the small road to Usk, winding its way through wooded hills and orchards and little fields of sheep, and every now and then, from hilltops, revealing the Sugarloaf and the Skirrid off to the north. There was a glider off up that way too, circling and swooping and glinting in the sun.

After Usk, I headed for Pontypool, where the big hills of western Monmouthshire loomed above me; the long, bare ridges of Mynydd Maen and Garnclochdy, running away to the Blorenge in the north, lapped with beechwoods and purple with heather. I avoided the broad and fast new road to Crumlin, winding instead on the potholed old road through Pontypool and Old Furnace. This valley of Cwm y Glyn was once a beauty spot, where people came to admire the lakes and the wildfowl; but they were engulfed by slagheaps, or at least the lakes were. Now the collieries are closed and the slagheaps are landscaped, green but still recognisable. And the beech woods are pretty much as they always were at this time of the year, just turning autumnal and very nice too.

Down the long, long hill into Crumlin, hoping I'd get to the bottom before the brakes faded to nothing; and past a great clutter of motorbikes; the Patriot Motorcycle Club was partying in a pub they call their own, formerly the New Inn, now The Patriot. They're ex-service people, hence the name. A few of them watched as I drove by; I nodded distantly. Always best to keep your distance with bikers, patriotic or otherwise.

In Newbridge I parked up on Tynewydd Terrace and took a walk around the town. Small children were playing tag around the bus shelter while their parents sat, drinking and smoking, outside the Newbridge Hotel. Hughes the Newsagent had disappeared. It was for Mr Hughes that I once delivered newspapers, for £1.30 a week. He once told me about his brother, an RAF pilot who took delivery of one of the first English Electric Lightning fighters. His shop always seemed very convenient for sweets, magazines, books ....and model aeroplanes; and it was sad to see it replaced by a convenience store that looked fairly inconvenient unless you wanted to get drunk economically.

A Landrover Discovery parked up on the double yellow lines outside the charity shop that had been the Co-op, and a fat man in shorts and trainers sauntered over to the cashpoint. Boys with skateboards loafed on the platform at the re-opened railway station. Passenger services have only recently been re-established up the valley; b
ack in the 70s, there were only long trains of coal wagons, under which we sometimes sneaked when taking an unofficial shortcut to school. Gareth had described to me his first trip on the new rail bus; everyone cheered whenever they went under a bridge. I should like to have been on that trip.

A man on Ebbw View Terrace was busily sawing timber. The terraced houses looked very spick and span; they used to be democratically shabby, with soot-stained walls and un
iform dark green Coal Board issue front doors. Then came the 70s, and a wave of home improvements. There was a riot of different styles; mock leaded windows, frosted glasss front doors with inconvenient letterboxes ( I used to have to try to get the newspapers through them), sandblasted stonework, or pebbledashing, or mock stone cladding. The Valleys folk always showed a lamentable reluctance to live picturesquely. Maybe they hadn't watched enough old movies.

I walked under the railway bridge past the Beaufort Arms, where the sixth form used to do their drinking while listening to The Jam on the jukebox. It's now called The Goldmine and advertises POKER AND KARAOKE. I looked at the school roof for any lingering evidence of BELSEN, painted there in huge letters in 1968 by a disaffected pupil, and still discernible years later through the attempts to mask it. It has finally disappeared without trace.

I sat in the park looking down on the town, and down the valley. A flock or thirty or so jackdaws wheeled over the town, then dropped onto the roof of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, where they strutted up and down impiously. Down the valley I could see the new housing development that covered the place where the South Celynen Colliery had been, and where the jackdaws used to hang out.

It was still quite early, so I went up the mountain. Whinberry bushes grew at the side of the road; I picked some and ate them. They were a bit mushy and dull. Perhaps it was late in the season for them; I remember them being juicy, tart, full of flavour. Maybe my memory was being charitable.

Up on Mynydd Islwyn, I came round a steep corner and saw something quite remarkable.

It was a monument in the tiny graveyard of New Bethel chapel, and it was actually taller than the chapel. It stood glowing white in the evening. I was reminded of a lighthouse. It was the most striking thing I'd seen all day, and I had to stop. I'm still working on a poem about it; at the moment it starts like this:

Startlingly luminous there in the setting sun,
Alabaster Thomas towers high above the tombs
Unblinking, staring northward up to distant Pen y Fan

Across New Bethel's rooftop cast in crepuscular gloom...

(to be continued) (actually, the complete version is here )