On this Sunday Feast of St Peter and St Paul, I breakfasted and then left at eight thirty for Blaenavon to join the Parish Eucharist in St Peter's Church there at which Father Rufus would be presiding for the first time. To get me in the mood, Roman Catholic Sunday Morning Prayer from Bradford sung Cathedral style by two youth choirs was on Radio Four as I ate, then as I drove, a fourth day in a row on the M4 towards Newport, though this time, turning off at Bassaleg for the journey through the Eastern Valleys, past Risca and Newbridge towards Brynmawr. I missed my turning to Blaenafon at Abertillery, so had to go right through Brynmawr and find the high moorland road which descends into the village from the north. I had just enough time to do this and enjoy this remarkable route
By the time I found the church and parked nearby, I was walking in during the first hymn. The congregation of about fifty were cheerful and welcoming, and there was a feast of food and drink afterwards. Rufus' Italian in-laws came over for the weekend to celebrate a new priest the family, and took a full part, including Daria's uncle who is a Benedictine priest living in Assisi, and still working in retirement. I chatted with them a little in Italian, but the Spanish kept on interfering, but they tolerated this with good humour.
I drove home on a different route, which took me past Hengoed and Ystrad Mynach, where I grew up. With time to spare, I stopped to take a walk over Hengoed railway viaduct, now part of the national network of cycle trails. When I was travelling to school at Pengam Grammar, our train, on Cardiff - Rhymney line would stop and wait at the Hengoed Low Level station to connect with a Pontypool - Swansea train on the High Level station, bringing pupils from the Eastern Valleys to join us on the third of a three stage train journey of over an hour they'd make each day to get to school. A quarter of an hour by car would suffice nowadays, but there were very few cars doing the school run in those days The transport infrastructure was good enough and sustainable, also free to scholars.
After inspecting the bridge, I drove over to the Graig which overlooks Ystrad Mynach, and noticed that since my last visit there had been some interesting looking changes to the buildings of Ty Isaf farmhouse on the hillside above Penallta Road. It overlooked Glen View, the street in which I grew up, and was an important part of the view from my bedroom window as a child, especially on full moon, or when the night mail train would hurry past, emitting sparks and steam. I had to go over and take a proper look.
But first, a quick visit to the Penallta Colliery site, where the huge buildings adjacent to the derelict main engine house and pit headgear have been revived, restored and occupied, I believe as part of a business development park, although I can't find much information about it. The old pithead baths built in my childhood are ruinous. Are they scheduled for conservation? Or awaiting funding for demolition? Must find out.
Then, down the hill for a peek at Ty Isaf farmhouse, now surrounded by a new handsome pennant dry stone wall, since the road outside it was improved. A small collie dog came to greet me with tail wagging, barking enthusiastically. His owner soon followed, and asked who I was looking for. I said that I'd noticed the new wall and interesting changes to the farmhouse exterior, albeit in the usual traditional local pennant stonework matching the walls. I mentioned that seeing the farmhouse from Glen View below was a favourite childhood memory. "Are you the Reverend Kimber?" she asked.
It was Carol Thomas, sister in law of Nesta Thomas, who'd been in the same class as me in Ystrad Mynach Junior school, brought up on the farm, still living locally. Nesta and I met when I visited Holy Trinity Ystrad Mynach working for U.S.P.G., and she was church warden, thirty years ago, and on another occasion when they'd been at St John's for a Côr Meibion concert. I was amazed!
We talked about the remarkable stylish barn conversion into two houses gracing the east side of the 1740s farmhouse house, and I was allowed to take some photographs. The land is now rented out and worked by a neighour, and the sounds of sheep are as close as they ever were, but cattle there are no more, nor the muddy yard they traipsed through to milking, once upon a time. Carol's husband died eight years ago. He's buried down in the front garden, with a weeping willow behind his headstone. Fitting, for the last generation to keep animals on this rich Valleys pastureland.
So many things have changed in the valley I knew and left behind fifty years ago for University, never to return, make a home here. It's tidier, cleaner, less polluted than it has been for a couple of centuries, at least on the surface- It's no longer a place of heavy industry, though still some upland farming, and many if not most people travel away from here to work - it's been suburbanised. And it would be an attractive place to live if we hadn't long ago settled for Pontcanna.