British History has been covered in many ways, on podcasts, documentaries, and blogs. But I want to look at things differently. I want to take the villages, towns and cities of Britain and Ireland, and talk about history through the eyes of the people living there. Who were they? What impact did each place have on these islands? What events happened in their streets?
In the old days, before Google Maps, you had to figure out your directions from a paper map. In the back of the map was an index with all the place names from A to Z, and you’d need to plan your route carefully as the map wouldn’t give you a time estimate or three different routes to get there. I’ve got my own road map of Britain, the AA 2014 Great Britain and Ireland map, from whose index of place names I will be working. Not every settlement in Britain is listed – a few small hamlets will be missed out, sadly, but there is plenty to be getting on with.
It was back in August that we first arrived in the Cynon valley. Here in the mining village of Aberaman we learned about how the industrial revolution transformed the Welsh valleys from a rural farmland to a bustling working-class area. Since then, we’ve travelled further downriver to Abercwmboi and Abercynon.
All of these villages share a similarity – before the industrial revolution, they didn’t exist. But Aberdare is different. Long before anyone thought to dig up the ground to get to the coal and iron beneath, Aberdare – or Aberdâr – was the largest settlement in the valley. After industry arrived, it grew rapidly, and is still the biggest town. It has absorbed a lot of the smaller villages around as suburbs.
Because most of Aberdare’s history is fairly recent, I’ll still be filling in a lot of detail, but not as much as I would for a small village. If I took everything I found about the town then we’d be staying here until Christmas. As it is, this will still be a two-part episode, so let’s get going!
We’re returning to Perth for a third time today; our tour stop Aberdalgie is a few miles north west of Abbots Deuglie and Aberargie. Aberdalgie and the neighbouring parish of Dupplin were united in 1618, and the history of the two is so intertwined that we ought to consider them together. Dupplin doesn’t appear on my map, so don’t worry that I’m sneaking in somewhere early.
Something that I am sneaking in, and you might think it’s cheating, is some BREAKING NEWS! It’s not about a particular settlement, but it’s close to Perth and Aberdalgie so I think I can get away with it. The A85 and A9 roads meet west of the town, and the junction is currently being upgraded. Work was halted upon discovery of a Pictish carving, dating back 1,500 years. It depicts a warrior with a big nose, and carrying a spear.
This type of carving has never been seen before in the area, and might mean there was a Pictish noble living nearby. Other similar stones have only been found much further north, at Aberdeen, in the Highlands, and in the Shetland Islands. Hopefully archaeologists will be able to tell us much more about this stone in the next few months.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog.
The story of today’s village is all about mining. We’ve already visited a number of settlements up the Cynon valley, whose remarkable transformation from rural idyll to industrial heartland occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abercynon, as you might gather, is at the end of this valley, where Afon Cynon arrives at the Taf.
Abercynon did not come about as a direct result of mining, but rather thanks to this confluence of rivers and infrastructure. We have already spoken a little about the canals that were built in the early mining period to ship mined goods down to Cardiff. Being man-made, they were much more reliable and safe than using the river for transport. One of the first was the Glamorganshire Canal, opened in 1795 and running from Cardiff up to Merthyr Tydfil. In 1812 a second branch was added up the Cynon to Aberdare.
Mine owners were soon running horse drawn carriageways down the sides of the mountains to the canal. Here they would dock the barges, load them with coal, and then ship them downstream.
Today we return to Pembrokeshire, Wales’s most south-westerly county. We were last here for Abercastle, a beautiful small seaside village. This week we move inland to Abercych, where the borders of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire meet.
Like so many borders throughout history, for well over a thousand years the people of this area have used the natural courses of their rivers – Afon Teifi and Afon Cych – to decide the ownership of the land.
In the 7th Century, the kingdom of Dyfed (or Dyved) stretched across Pembrokeshire and the western part of Carmarthenshire. Its northern boundary with the kingdom of Ceredigion was marked by the west-flowing Teifi, and even though Ceredigion is no longer a kingdom, it retains the same border here. The Teifi continues onwards to the sea at Aberteifi, or as it’s more commonly known in English, Cardigan.
Dyfed was divided into seven smaller regions, or cantref, which means ‘hundred towns’. The most north-easterly of these was Cantref Emlyn, whose land lay both east and west of Afon Cych. The river formed the border between Emlyn’s two cymydau, or ‘commodes’. The eastern commode was Emlyn Uwch Cuch, and the western was Emlyn Is Cuch. ‘Cuch’ is just a different way of writing ‘Cych’.
Before we get into this week’s episode, some of you might have noticed that we’ve been missing a few places on our epic alphabetical adventure. Today is no exception, as we pass from Abercregan to Abercwmboi completely ignoring the village of Abercrombie in Fife.
It is a minor failing of the atlas I am using that sometimes it doesn’t list the smallest villages. Conversely, for more remote places it lists locations that are actually just individual houses or landmarks as if they were settlements, such as Aberchalder Lodge in the Highlands, or Abberley Common at Abberley, Worcestershire.
Abercrombie being such a common surname and place name around the world makes this more obvious for having been skipped, but I feel like it would be cheating to include somewhere my map doesn’t tell me about.
Ultimately, if my map lists it and Google Maps considers it to be a real place on its own, I’ll go with it. I’m not sure exactly where Aberavon falls in this classification, now being a smaller suburb of Port Talbot, but my blog, my arbitrarily defined rules.
I’ll also be making an exception for British overseas territories, so look forward to Akrotiri when it comes.
If I ever get to the letter S – there are many thousands of villages before that distant date – and we reach the village of St. Monans, we’ll come back to Abercrombie. But for now, let’s continue our tour of Wales
This week we return to Wales and the mining industry. Industrialisation completely transformed the country between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and as we shall soon see, some places are still getting back to their feet in the post-industrial era.
Abercraf, or Abercrave in its English form, is on the edge of the South Wales coal field. To the north is the Brecon Beacons National Park. Here the small River Craf (which means ‘garlic’) meets the southbound River Tawe. The Tawe will eventually pour into the sea at Swansea, whose Welsh name is Abertawe.
It is a long, thin village, running east to west along the Tawe. At the west end is the rugby pitch, and at the east is the Wales Ape & Monkey Sanctuary. The nearest town is Ystradgynlais, a couple of miles downriver.
A thousand years ago, Abercraf was in the Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog, from which the region’s name of ‘Brecknockshire’, and eventually ‘Brecon’, originates. The more powerful kingdom of Deheubarth lay to the south west, and England was to the east.
Welcome back to the blog. I hope you’ve all had a good week. Our tour stop today is quite unlike Abercastle or Abercergir, in that it’s not too hard to find sources about the history of the village.
Many of Britain’s small villages only have a line or two for their Wikipedia entry, but Aberchirder has several paragraphs thanks to its involvement in nineteenth century religious change in Scotland. Not that I use Wikipedia as a source, but it’s a good starting point. The village also has a fantastically decked-out website with all kinds of information on the lives and history of the people there.
So shall we begin?
There’s some unusual things about Aberchirder than you, as a discerning reader of this blog, will soon notice. First, despite the ‘Aber’ part of the name, there’s no river. Second, the streets are laid out in an orderly grid fashion, suggesting planned rather than organic growth. Third, everyone keeps calling the place ‘Foggieloan’. And finally, despite this being the biggest settlement in the area, the church parish is not called Aberchirder, but Marnoch.
Episode 40 – Abercastle, Pembrokeshire
Hello everyone, I hope you’ve all had a good week and have come back feeling refreshed and ready for some more history. Either that, or you’re exhausted from a hard week’s work and are coming here to chill out. Whatever brings you here, thank you so much. Alphabetical order is certainly stranger than chronological or regional order, but we’ve already been to so many interesting places.
From today, I’ve set up a new Twitter account @BritainAlphabet just for the blog. I’ll be sharing photos, videos and articles about the places we visit and the people we meet, starting with Abercastle and Abercegir.
This week we’ll be heading back in time to the neolithic, then travelling all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from the USA to the small village of Abercastle.
It seems incredible to think, but this blog has now been going for over six months. It’s been an amazing experience so far, and I can’t believe how many interesting and obscure pieces of British history I have discovered.
The week before last, my proofreader Alan and I were on holiday in London, and we noticed a few places linked to earlier episodes. Westminster Abbey is home to a memorial by Frances Norton of Abbots Leigh, installed for her sisters, and there’s another memorial for Ramsay MacDonald – former Aberavon MP and British Prime Minister. Of course London is also home to the Palace of Westminster, which is right next door to the abbey, where many of the people we’ve already met have served as MPs and in the House of Lords.
It was a fantastic holiday and we learned so much. You can’t go ten metres in London without seeing some sort of statue or plaque. On the way home, our train went up the East Coast Main Line, past the site of the Abbots Ripton train accident.
This Friday’s shocking terrorist attack in London happened quite close to where we had been staying. I’m glad to hear nobody was seriously hurt, and I hope those who were hurt will get well soon.
Returning to our regular schedule, we’re still in Wales as we head south east from Abercanaid, across the valleys, to Abercarn. This Caerphilly town lies on the Ebbw river, which flows south through the Ebbw valley to Cardiff. Abercarn has a direct connection to one of London’s most famous landmarks, as we will soon see.
By now, you have probably realised that mining is at the heart of Wales. Since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has shaped the people and their lives. Abercanaid is no exception.
It is a small village, just to the south of one of Wales’s largest towns – Merthyr Tydfil. Aberaman is just a few miles to the south-west, but there are large hills in-between. There’s a good reason this region is known as ‘the valleys’.
The village is named for the Nant Canaid, the ‘white stream’. Here it enters the River Taf, one of the three rivers that gives name to the Rhondda Cynon Taf region.
The earliest, brief record is from 1449, in connection with the manor of Senghenydd, one of ten manors under the Norman Lordship of Glamorgan. There was some sort of farmstead here, and it would have been an isolated rural location before men decided to dig minerals out of the ground.