For centuries Bridgend, lying in the valley where the Rivers Ogmore, Garw and Llynfi meet, was the market town for this part of the Vale of Glamorgan; now it is also an industrial centre. Three castles once dominated the area the ruined Norman New Castle on the wooded hill above Bridgend, Coity Castle to the north east, and Ogmore Castle to the south west.
Famous for its castle (the second largest in Britain after Windsor), Caerphilly was equally renowned for its cheese, which is still made, but not in any quantity in the town itself. Work began on the castle in 1268, under the direction of Gilbert de Clare, Lord of Glamorgan. It was only half completed in 1270, when Llwelyn ap Gruffydd arrived in force and demolished it. Building had to start all over again, and on its completion, the castle, with its 320yd-long curtain wall and intricate system of defences, was virtually impregnable until Cromwellian times. As a result of Cromwell’s destruction, it has a leaning tower, more steeply inclined than that of Pisa.
Cyfarthfa ironworks was founded in 1765.30 years later, the management was taken over by an ironmaster named Robert Thompson Crawshay. Crawshay was a remarkable man. He built a church with an impossibly Gothic tower, and then carried Victorian Gothic to the wildest extremes in the creation of his home, Cyfarthfa Castle. He was also an excellent photographer, who summoned his daughters with the blast of a whistle whenever he needed models. You can see his work in the castle’s museum. The epitaph on his gravestone, ‘God Forgive Me’, suggests that he was not above self criticism.
The remains of an Iron Age fort to the east of Llantrisant indicate that the potential of this site an easily defended ridge overlooking the Ely valley and the Vale of Glamorgan was recognized many centuries ago. There were native Welsh rulers here long before they were ousted by the Normans whose ruined castle keep can be seen today, overlooking an attractive little town with steep streets running down the hillside. The church, though much restored in the 19th century, is Norman; it has a 13th century font, and an ancient slab of stone bearing three crosses is set into the outside of the north wall.
The coming of the Royal Mint in 1967 led to the development of a virtually separate new town to the south of the old. The legality of cremation was established in a trial involving an inhabitant of Llantrisant: Dr William Price, a famous 19th-century eccentric who tried to live according to what he imagined would have been the teaching of the Druids, defended successfully his right to burn the body of his dead child, instead of having it buried as was customary at the time. When he himself died 10 years later, he too was cremated. A plaque commemorates this extraordinary figure.
Originally named after a martyred Christian princess, modern Merthyr Tydfil was created and then destroyed by the vagaries of the iron and coal industries. In 1804, the first steam locomotive the invention of the Cornish genius Richard Trevethick was built here. By 1831, Merthyr was the largest iron and steel manufacturing centre in the world and the largest town in Wales. Its population exceeded the sum of inhabitants of Swansea, Newport and Cardiff. A century later saw Merthyr Tydlil sadly reduced. A fifth of its people was unemployed: many had moved on to seek livelihoods elsewhere and the gates of the ironworks were closed. Keir Hardie, the pioneer of British Socialism, represented Merthyr in the House of Commons at the turn of the century. Cyfarthfa Castle, built by the ironmaster William Crawshay, is now used as a museum and art gallery. Train rides into the Brecon Beacons can be taken from Pant station (off A465) on the Brecon Mountain Railway. 10 miles south is Aberfan, the scene of an industrial tragedy in 1966, when a slagheap collapsed burying a school and killing114 people.
Anchor chains for Nelson’s Fleet, and, more recently for liners such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were made in this Rhondda Valley town. It is claimed that the 18th-century bridge over the River Taff was designed by a self-taught engineer, William Edwards. It is considered a masterpiece. On a house in Mill Street is a plaque commemorating Evan and James James, clothmakers who wrote Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, ‘Land of My Fathers’, the Welsh national anthem.
A chain of towns in two valleys, Rhondda Fawr (‘large’), and Rhondda Fach (‘small’), make up the densely populated Rhondda borough. The valleys are separated by the Cefu Rhondda ridge, which reaches 2000ft in places. In the 19th century these pleasant rural valleys were transformed by coal mines and miners’ cottages, but the Rhondda’s industries have been decimated. The hardships of life in the Rhondda have been vividlydescribed in Richard Llewelyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley.
In Cldach, just south of the Rhondda is a staute of the chemist Ludwig Mond, whose technique for refining nickel formed the basis of the Mond Industries fortunes including ICI.
The town is famous fortits Royal Male Voice Choir, the oldest in Wales, given its title by Queen Victoria after its Command performance at Windsor in 1885. Treorchy contributed to the history of Rhondda’s diversification, by the establishment of the clothing factory in 1939.