Sounding its whistle, setting off from the just about out of sight Baglan Halt, wobbling around the distant shimmering bend on the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Line, chugging contentedly along the straightaway, at long last our magical little train came shuffling towards Aberavon Seaside Station and the two of us would-be young prodigals. With pockets full of piggybank pennies, aunties’ Oh! You lovely boy shillings and odd job thrupenny bits, with the fresh young morning air and jubilant summer songbirds seemingly affirming our immunity to be boys, (not forgetting our parents copious and remember to’s), Nipper and I waited on tiptoe. We could hardly stay in our shoes long enough for the little black steam engine, as familiar with carrying Welsh coal as Welsh schoolboys, to mechanically hiss to a well-oiled stop; for our parent and teacherless jaunt to unconditionally get under way.
Even with only two carriages we easily found an empty compartment, away from any and every possible adult oversight and took up our sentry posts at the instantly opened pull-down windows. There we would stand at rapt attention for the whole delicious trip; every sound, sight and smell ingredients in a steaming train-travel soup. With a wave of his pea-green flag, a shrill blast on his official whistle, the train guard nimbly jumped back into his guards van, and slammed the door shut. His head and rakishly worn flat peaked hat re-immerged from the window for a final check on the emptied platform and along the tidy symmetry of firmly shut carriage doors. With a great pistoned hiss and an exultant chuff of grey-white smoke, our little mechanical Cob eased under Beach Hill, past Victoria Road gas works, ‘round the bend and across the River Afan for a short ride to Aberafan Town.
The railway crossing gates were closed in anticipation of our unannounced princely arrival in the borough. The ever and always line of shopping humanity, steel workers, tradesmen, delivery boys on stout bikes, Swansea-bound lorries and almost uniformly black early 60’s passenger cars, (suitable for doctors and detectives), smoked, rattled, idly ticked and whiled away a half hour at a perennial holdup on this, the ancient and still annoying old Roman road. As we passed, we waved enthusiastically, though except for a stray dog wagging its tail energetically, (just because someone had noticed it), all were in no mood to be lighthearted; their daily business still in the balance; lives for ransom behind these unsympathetic and adamant crossing gates. At the station, there was some getting on and off the train, but mercifully we were soon heads-out the windows again inhaling the crisp moving air and whiffs of trailing cloud-grey smoke. Mesmerized by the metronomic rhythm of the rails, we began to climb the easy grade towards Cwmafan, another mile or two along the silver river. I just about remembered that Granddad had led me hand-in-hand across the tracks to the signal box, at the end of the village platform, when I was just a little dwt and too small to pull the great brass levers that operated the gates and signals. The signalman had eventually come to the rescue, as a tired slow old freight train shuffled by, the overalled engine driver waving an oily hand as he’d done on this run for decades, and to my indelible delight, with his other hand, pulling on the cord that set the magic whistle to sing its rudimentary song.
“And look Nipper, there’s grandma Cressandra pegging out the washing in her back garden”. We called out “Nana …Nana!”and waved with both hands, but she was absorbed in unraveling the riddles of the knavish weather, in keeping watch on the morning sky for any sleight of hand of the trickster rain. All the while, the easily excitable jackdaws, magpies and a Greek chorus of crows argued the daily toss, strutting through galleries of horsechesnuts.
The tangled village of Pontrhydyfen was next on the R&SB Line; a Romanesque cat’s cradle of towering grey stone aqueduct and bridge, sleepy interweaving road, riverside walk and the tumbling, eddying weir, holding its promise of an elusive rainbow trout. The steady incline and journeyman speed of our sleepy branch line train made for a slow-motion, eye-spying wonderscape for kids; then as now timeless, carefree and without fault. And what would we grown, accomplished and harried adults give for an hour when just being alive was impulse enough to trigger bliss?
Up, up and away climbing the inclines, our strong little pit pony crisscrossed the river and feeder streams, squeezing through cuts and embankments dotted with less familiar villages now, with their clustered rows of terraced houses, cheerily smoking chimneys, chapels, colliers’ pubs, and hillside rugby pitches nestled into scant and eternally muddy meadows. Up, up and on we go past the omnipresent, once and forever brambled over remnants of mine workings, scattered brick, tin and copper works, reedy canals, broken water wheels, railway sheds and sidings that vanguarded a once youthful industrial revolution. Less familiar villages now, but environs with typical - sometimes almost ghostly - industrial bygones. There we boys ran, climbed, rhymed, day-dreaming our effervescent school-days away, and where the patient hills, gorse, blackberries and sleepless woodland were well advanced in silently recovering their once lost and stolen innocence.
Eventually we arrived at Blaengwynfi, a stone’s throw from the approaching tunnel, as utterly black inside as the coal it was constructed to carry. Our compartment full of smoke and 3,000 yards of hewn night behind us, we were back out into the fresh mountain air and finally approaching our destination; Cwm Rhondda, the storied Rhondda Valley. Still vibrant with red brick schools, verdant back gardens, pigeon lofts and workingmen’s clubs, blissfully unaware of the changes soon to take the heart out of these valley communities, when the life-giving anthracite pits would close for ever and a day. But for now the old miners, with the aid of a deftly handled walking stick and the ubiquitous flat “Dai” cap, happily followed their Jack Russells, Whippets and Corgis over stubbornly greening coal tips, past the couldn’t-be-more-disinterested sheep and under the spreading boughs of mountain ash trees. They were heading for no place in particular, with plenty of time to spare, and only their intimate local knowledge and lifetime of memories to keep them company.
A little before the train had finished its mechanical rhyme and hissed to a final stop, we were out of that carriage at a run, across the platform flagstones, through the ticket-collector’s gate and were skipping up the hill to Nipper mamgu’s front door. All the terraced houses in the town were built sometime in the last hundred years or so, with locally quarried grey stone and near-blue Llanberis slate roofs. Hastily finished for the incoming high tide of mineworkers and their teeming families, row upon row of near identical homes hung cozily to the hillsides and nestled shoulder to shoulder along the valley floor; their neatly dressed stone slowly humanized, softened with window flower boxes, lace curtains, immaculately swept front steps and generations of coming, going, marrying, growing, living and loss. Nipper’s grandparents couldn’t have been more delighted to see the both of us and I immediately felt a deep sense of home-coming.
Many years later I would realize that these diminutive valley elders, who had eye-witnessed world wars, grim mine disasters, bitter and violent strikes, had known impossibly long and withering working years for their feather bed and daily bread, would gladly share what little they had with others, even strangers in need. Still widely smiling, they were full of light, thoroughly good and completely loving people. They had turned long adversity into virtue, and sitting in their Lilliputian snug kitchen, the sound and smell of the hiss-singing chip pan, the taste of the thick cwlffyns of fresh baked bread and very yellow salt butter, I can never forget.
With extra copper halfpennies and silver sixpenny bits taken from a mantelpiece tin, right next to the anniversary clock and china cat, and pressed into outstretched, thankful hands, a final smile from granddad, warm grandmotherly hug and kiss, and we were eagerly off again down the valley side, impatient for the games to begin. Now, being the reason for all the miles on the rhyming line, all the parental remember to’s, all the pocket money saved and weeks in waiting, we were ripe and ready to race along the terraces, skipping down the connecting steps two at a time, to pay the shilling that tripped the lever that unlatched the turnstile and let us in.
Remaining coins and return train tickets squirreled away in socks inside shoes, sandwiched between shorts and shirts, hidden below a brightly striped beach towel, locker latched, we paddle through the shallow foot bath and out into the platinum sunshine glare and inquisitive stare of the local girls and boys. Nipper knew a couple of these curious urchins from his mamgu’s street and with hi-yas! … ‘aven’t seen ew for frages … Ew’s ee with ew? out of the way , we ran for the glittering quicksilver- grey-blue pool and dived our very best dive into the deep end, all 6 feet or so of it. Open air public swimming baths in the foothills of Wales are heated by nature, and nature alone, and with the shock of 30-something degree water this young summer day on our scrawny pre-teen bodies, doing our best Australian crawl, we made it to the shallow end in Olympic qualifying time.
Teeth chattering, we were shivering back out and around for the second chlorinated trip when an old clothe-capped gentleman stepped out in front of us, holding his hand policeman-like aloft. “Now young gents, these yer swimming bathes ‘as a few rooles that ew boys from away needs to remember, see? No runnin’ an’ no divin’ at any time or ew’ll be out on yer ear. See? “But we were only …” I started to say, when he gently but firmly cut across with “An’ last but not least, no cheek!! Em’s the rooles an nen we’ll all ‘ave a tidy afternoon an’ noo one’ll come to ‘arm. See?” “Yes sir, we see” we chorused and ran away trying to make it look like we were walking fast. The old gentleman was a longtime-retired, coal face miner and had strong, work-weathered hands, a grandfatherly ancient face and a heart of pure Welsh gold, as I would find out later that afternoon. After a lifetime working underground, he cherished every second of his remaining days gratefully spent in sunlight and fresh, dust-free air, making sure of course that the youngsters in his care had fun, grew up with respect and went home in one piece.
As the shadows lengthened on the softening, purple-green hills, the rooles relaxed a little and a game of touch you’re on it went chatteringly along. I’d just tagged Nipper, had dived head first into the shallow end and was making my escape underwater, when I realized I had breath to spare and could stay down longer than usual. Having swum below the surface for what seemed like an age, I made my way up towards the light. It was further than I remembered but shortly, I reemerged into the air.
Have you ever woken from sleep in a place that for at least a short while is completely strange and seemingly unknown to you? Then you remember you’re away from home. Well, when I broke the plane of the water that late afternoon, that’s how I felt, but the feeling didn’t go away. Gone were the jumping, tumbling school kids, wet pool deck, Nipper, and the weathered old man; gone were the town buildings, surrounding hills and rows of grey stone homes; gone was the sweet mountain air and youthful sunshine, and in their place was a kind of brilliant white, sandy beach, and a not too distant sky-high chiffon curtain of heavy hazing mist encircling my oasis.
It wasn’t hot or cold. I wasn’t scared or at ease. It wasn’t early or late, and as I pulled myself up onto the salt-white bank I had the easy feeling that time didn’t matter at all. The misty veil around the pool was fascinating. In a slow and graceful opaque dance, it waltzed, pavaned, advanced and receded forming ever-new almost shapes, and watching it slowly swirl, spindrift, rise and fall, for a time I forgot how exotic a world I found myself in, and it took all my muddled concentration to pull away and convince myself that I was really asleep and dreaming after a long summer’s day play. Looking down at the whiter than white sand, I picked up a handful and let the lucent grains run through my fingers onto my legs and bathing suit, and as they cascaded back to ground, they too evoked shapes: Starfish, sea grass, fins and shells.
This was surely a dream to remember, if only I would. But how to wake, when you don’t really want to? I pushed the thought aside but the translucent shroud was quickly thickening –darkening – and increasingly claiming my attention and I knew I would soon have to make my way back, but how? I started to feel uneasy but at last it came to me. I stood up as the swirling overcast now covered everything in sight but the pool; coiling around faster now and brushing up against my legs, and with one prodigious effort I head-first leapt back into the shimmer of the welcoming water.
“Oh! Look, he’s opened his eyes!” I heard someone say. Lying on my back on the cold wet poolside flagstones, the old man was bending over me, obviously concerned. “Diolch Duw! Thank God! Ew’ve come to. Ee’s awake! Yewr goin’ to ‘ave a hellofa clais on yewr ‘ed t’morrow.” I smiled and immediately fell back into dreamless sleep. Well, after a trip to the local hospital where, as they bandaged, the nurses told me I was lucky to be in the land of the living, I was taken in an ambulance all the way over the owl and eventide hills, and down the singing river valleys to our lamp-lit seaside home. My parents, being good parents, were both very grateful and very, very annoyed though I told no one, not even Nipper, about the oasis and radiant dancing mist.
Next day, my mother came in from washing clothes in the kitchen, to where I was lying propped up on the sofa, enjoying being a wounded and pampered local celebrity. Drying her hands with her apron, with a curious and quizzical look on her face, she asked me if the day before we’d swam in the open-air swimming pool. Still dazed and somewhat confused, of course I answered yes. “Well why is there sand in your bathing suit?”
updated by @john-good-sioni-dda: 02/13/16 01:26:42AM