Grey Britain: life at the margins

Thursday and I thought that my optimism of a return to winter had been well founded.  After the second night of temperatures below zero (-7.7 and -3.4oC) the forecast was for it to continue close to freezing all day with the prospect of rain which I thought might well fall as snow over the mountains.

So having discharged my grandfatherly duties by collecting my elder grandson from school I hopped on a bus which took me up to the top edge of the South Wales Coalfield, a small village at the top end of the valley from Pontypool called Garn-yr-Erw, Garnaroo as it is known locally, at 400 metres the highest village in Wales.

It might sound like a wild claim but it is not an exaggeration to say that this area played a major role in world history.  Together with a similarly positioned area above MerthyrTydfil it was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  The close proximity of extensive outcrops of iron ore, dense woodland for charcoal and a thin band of limestone for flux brought entrepreneurs, capitalist backers and large numbers of workers from other parts of Britain and Ireland who got on their bikes and flocked to this booming economy.  The iron, smelted here for the first time on an industrial scale, was moved by tram and then train and ship to markets all over Britain and the world.  When the trees were finally all felled, coal was exploited first for smelting the iron and then for other purposes, most notably for raising steam in ships, trains and factories.

This is all well documented and the area is now designated as a World Heritage Site with archaeological evidence of mineral extraction more or less continuously since Roman times.  Already hit by the general decline in South Wales coal output after its peak in the mid-1920s, the area went into steep economic decline after the end of WW2 when coal was mined by opencast methods under emergency measures.  Coal production came to an end; the station and then the railway line closed; churches and shops closed; many people left the area and unfit houses were demolished.  But the village is still there.

Before the Industrial Revolution this was an area of marginal hill farming, marginal because of the altitude and being at the foot of a North facing scarp.

I have a long-time affection for this area going back to my involvement in the planning inquiry in the early 1990s into the application for a massive opencast coalmining operation which would have obliterated the archaeology beneath 635 hectares of extraction and spoil tipping.  Running for 6 months, the longest public inquiry into opencast mining in Britain, it made a deep impression.  Every so often I go back for a nostalgic look.

Not that I went back for that reason on Thursday but, rather, because it is the highest part of the coalfield and therefore the probability of finding the vestiges of winter would be greater.

The bus dropped me off at the junction with the road leading to the Whistle Inn and as I set off to follow the track it struck me that now this was very much at the margins of modern Britain rather than the hub of an Empire.  It’s marginal in the sense that the economic tide has long since retreated leaving an air not so much of desolation or depression but simply of abandonment.  In an area once thriving with a railway station, industry, shops as well as houses and a pub, now only the pub and one farmhouse are occupied.  A short section of the rail line has been re-opened for tourists coming to see “the ‘eritage”.   It has an atmosphere not of antiquity but certainly of rich history.

But on Thursday it struck me as marginal also in that it was at the margins of winter.  Lower down in the valley temperatures were a few degrees above freezing and the ground was softening but up here the only melting was on ground angled towards the weak sun.  The difference between 3o and 5oC is barely discernible but a drop from 3o to 1oC means any precipitation is likely to fall as snow and below zero the ground becomes hard, the mud is frozen.  Rising up to 400 metres in the village and then climbing the 150 or so metres to the top of the mountain meant that the ground was still frozen and there was a fair amount of patchy snow left behind.

The snow persisted where it had been deepest: the remnant cornice around the rim of the cliffed edge; in the sunken parts of tracks and paths; in folds in the ground; and in ditches, gullies and stream beds.  The sun is at its warmest when it strikes the ground at right angles, that’s why it feels warmer when you’re standing up than lying down at this time of year.  Where the ground slopes away from the sun it thaws more slowly than when it’s angled towards it.  Subtle things but they make a big difference.  On the macro scale there is more snow left on the North scarp than on the Southern slopes of the mountain.  On the micro scale here is more snow left in features angled northwards.

Snow lying in the sunken path and along the rim of the scarp.

Undulations in the ground and shallow gullies collect the snow as it blows across the mountain

Because of repeated thawing and refreezing over recent days the snow had a firm crust on top making it easier to walk across the top of it rather than sinking in which is inevitable when it is fresh and soft.  Less tiring and very pleasant.  But also potentially deadly.

Many years ago I went walking in the Peak District in just such conditions.  Heading up towards Kinder Scout from Glossop I followed a ribbon of snow, I have always loved walking in snow, it gets me buzzing.  The snow was firm and easy to walk on.  Until it gave way and within a micro second I found myself up to my waist in the plunge-pool of a waterfall with a roof of snow about 20 feet above me with a small hole over the centre of the pool and water cascading down onto my head.  The snow had drifted across to give a smooth gradient on the surface completely hiding the waterfall beneath.   I climbed up the side of the waterfall and, standing with my back to the rock, swung my rucksack repeatedly upwards, using the aluminium frame to enlarge the hole.  It was slow work but at least it warmed me up.  When the hole got closer to me I swung the rucksack over the top one-handed for extra reach and, getting the frame to dig into the crust of snow, I managed to use it to belay me as I climbed out.  Always being one to push myself to the limits I completed the walk as my train ticket was for a return from Hayfield on the other side of the mountain and I had no money to waste on buying another one.  The outside of my old-fashioned anorak was frozen stiff until I got on the train and I didn’t dry our properly until I got home.  A memorable day.

And a lesson learned.  Ever since then I have been more careful about ribbons of snow which I choose to follow.  The ones on Coity Mountain on Thursday were quite safe.  Just good fun.  Unfortunately the temperature was rising slightly and so as the grey sky became ever darker and started to leak it fell as rain rather than snow.  But by then I was on the bus and on my way home.

Close to civilisation at the end of the walk, remnants of snow stand out starkly against the black of colliery spoil dumped half a century ago and too acid to revegetate.

See Garn-yr-Erw at:

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