Glynneath, gateway to the Beacons

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The village of Glynneath in the western part of Glamorgan is one of many communities in Wales that seem to sit in sleepy and peaceful solemnity. Yet look below the surface and a whole range of fascinating events and facts begin to emerge, events and facts that make Glynneath a far from typical quiet backwater.

Glynneath village – town might be a better description as the current population is around 4,300 - sits on the right bank of the River Neath, 10 miles north of Neath itself and almost within a stone's throw of the Brecon Beacons.

This area is sometimes known as Waterfall Country as there are a series of dramatic and quite beautiful waterfalls in the surrounding countryside.

In the days before industrialisation these waterfalls and the rivers that fed them provided fresh water for the farms and villages. Now they provide an ideal venue or location for canoeists, gorge walkers and hikers who flock to the Neath Valley in their hundreds. Tourism is certainly the new industry of Glynneath and the surrounding area.

However, Glynneath was, for many years, a tiny village with farming as its main function. Then in 1793 coal mining began in the immediate area. The coming of the coal industry revolutionised the village, bringing in new people and providing much needed employment for the locals.

When the Neath Canal was built in 1775, the waterway passing through Glynneath itself, it brought further development and the community that we see today began to take shape.

Many features of the old canal remain, including stretches of the canal itself and an inclined plane that dates from 1805 and which was used to connect the canal to nearby Aberdare Ironworks. A railway line eventually replaced the canal, operating for many years before being decommissioned in 1965.

The coal mines and almost all traces of heavy industry have gone now and Glynneath has returned to its rural idyll. But its sense of history remains.

Aberpergwm House in Glynneath is now derelict but this grand and palatial building was once owned by Rhys ap Siancyn, perhaps the most prominent and famous patron of Welsh bards and poets in the 15th century. In the 17th century the house and estate were taken over by the Williams family.

The Williamses were renowned in Glamorgan as one of the last gentry families in the county to remain faithful to the Welsh language. The last of the great Welsh household bards, Dafydd Nicolas, who died in 1774, was a member of the Williams family, as was the renowned folk song collector Maria Jane Williams.

The Williams family may have gone but their presence remains as their motto, "A ddioddefws a orfu" - which translates as "He who suffers triumphs" - was taken as a motto by the Glamorgan County Council.

Aberpergwm House might now be in a state of disrepair but it is still renowned for housing St Cadoc's Church in its grounds. The church dates from 1809, when industrialisation was really beginning to bite in Glynneath.

Sadly, the church is something of a rare beast as many other old and interesting buildings in the village – places such as the Miners Welfare Hall – have been demolished. However, a rare half timbered building – rare in Glamorgan at any rate - still stands in the main street.

Rheola House is another interesting building. It was extended and restored in 1812 by the renowned London architect John Nash for his partner John Edwards-Vaughan, one of several houses that Nash worked on in south Wales.

Glynneath is certainly the gateway to the Brecon Beacons and the dense forestry that surrounds the village gives the place an atmosphere all of its own. This, you feel, was how the place would have looked before industry, in the shape of coal mines and canal, arrived to spoil it all.

Within striking distance of the village are several places of considerable historical interest. Included in these are the now defunct Tower Colliery – the workers co-operative that gave jobs and a future to men from the mining industry after the Coal Board closed the mine - and the Penderyn Distillery. Penderyn opened its doors to the public in 2008, the first legal distillery in Wales for over 100 years.

Glynneath can claim many notable residents over the years. These include singer and comedian Max Boyce, actress Ruth Madoc and TV producer Julie Gardner who was responsible for bringing a revamped Doctor Who back to the television screens.

There is a wealth of history to the village of Glynneath and is a classic case of a rural community that was taken over by industry only to return to its rural roots in the late 20th century.

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