PUBLISHED: 16:06 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013
Chris Poole looks at how the industrial heritage of Abergavenny and its environs is shaping its modern-day businesses and visitor attractions.
When we think of Abergavenny today we picture a bustling market town well-suited to the needs of shoppers and visitors alike. We might think of its active, though controversial, livestock market close to the town centre. But few would think of the industrial heritage that has played such an important part in shaping Abergavennys fortunes.
The town once had light industries. These included periwig-making, tanning and weaving Welsh flannel. Nothing of these now remains although there are reminders for example, Flannel Street in the town centre. The tannery buildings still exist but are part of a retirement home complex, a sign of changed social needs. Although none can claim their roots in these early industries the town, today, does have some fine specialist shops and businesses in the textiles sector. Alison Tod millinery is one. Born in Abergavenny Alison has become one of the countrys leading milliners. Her new logo demonstrates commitment to her birthplace, depicting the mountain peaks that surround the town.
Another is Charles and Patricia Lester. Couturiers, fashion and textile artists, their customers include stars, celebrities and royalty. With a studio and showrooms in what was the towns workhouse Patricia says: We are Welsh by choice rather than by an accident of birth. We came to live and work here 46 years ago and wouldnt want to live anywhere else.
But you have to travel a little outside Abergavenny to find the heart of the areas industrial heritage.
To the west and south of Abergavenny is the Clydach Gorge. An area with stunning walks and scenery, the valley hides some very special remains of industries now long gone. In 1842 Samuel Lewis said of the area: In the mountains which enclose the small but picturesque vale of Clydach, coal, iron ore, limestone and fire clay are found in great profusion.
He went on to describe the complex workings at many different levels with ingenious inclined planes, tramways and railways supplying either local facilities such as the ironworks at Clydach or for transport further afield on the Brecknock and Abergavenny canal.
In more recent times the important Heads of the Valley road was driven through Clydach gorge. Just below it, as the road climbs away towards Bryn Mawr and traffic thunders up and down, the eerie remains of the Clydach ironworks stand as a testament to the valleys industrial past. In their heyday these works resounded with the noise and drama of three blast furnaces, engines and a waterwheel to produce several hundred tons of iron each week. Thousands of people worked here. Some, to the shame of our forebears, were children. But it brought comparative prosperity to the otherwise sparse living provided by the more traditional agriculture of the region. Viewing the derelict buildings and structures that were the ironworks on a cold, frosty morning you cannot help but wonder what ghosts inhabit them today and what stories they will now never give up.
A short drive over Abergavennys distinctive Blorenge mountain brings you to the site that has won acclaim from no less a body than UNESCO for its contribution to preserving and celebrating our industrial heritage Blaenavon.
The Blorenge, a popular destination for walking and rambling, is riddled with the reminders of its industrial past. Long before the mineral wealth of the hills had been realised the place was described as the upland wastes of the Lordship of Abergavenny. It is, in a way, regaining its former reputation. The quarries and slag heaps that came with exploitation of the minerals are all now slowly disappearing as nature resumes command but leaving skylines that somehow slightly disturb the eye. They may be green and lush, with sheep quietly grazing, but the lumps and bumps somehow have an unnatural appearance mans industry proving difficult to conceal.
Blaenavon, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000, is home to The Big Pit. Here visitors can experience life underground in authentic workings some 300 feet below ground. It is an award-winning museum documenting and revealing not just the engineering feats and skills that provided the nation with coal but the hardships and the dangers faced by the mining communities. This place was a cornerstone in Britains Industrial Revolution helping to meet the nations energy and heat demands.
Nearby, the Blaenavon ironworks have been preserved and put on show. Iron from here was exported to all corners of the world until the development of steel-making sent the iron industry into inexorable decline.
With its UNESCO status secured, Blaenavon can fairly claim to be the worlds best-preserved industrial town. Apart from the major sites of the colliery and the ironworks Blaenavon has workers cottages, a school, church, Workmens Hall, railway and tramway all preserved as a living museum.
Peter Walker, manager of the Big Pit, talks of the links between Abergavenny and Blaenavon. There were two economies and they were interlinked. The more that coal-mining here flourished, the more employment there was for people from Abergavenny and the more money there was to support its shops and markets. Some of these links are evident on the Millennium Mural in the centre of Abergavenny. The artists depict tramways for transporting iron from Blaenavon and the Ironmasters House which eventually became Nevill Hall Hospital.
Working in the heavy and often dangerous industries of the area once dominated the local economy. Those same industries, no longer quenching our thirst for climate-changing energy, still contribute to the regions fortunes but in a very different way. Around three million people have visited the Big Pit since it opened as a museum in 1983. Visitor numbers now run at more than 160,000 each year.Others pursue the heritage trail in Clydach. Many more take advantage of all that Abergavenny and the scenic delights on its doorstep can offer.
With care and foresight this winning combination will keep Abergavenny at the forefront of the region for the generations to come.