Pontypridd’s Coastal Connections

By Dave Gwyer, Assistant Curator

I recently spent the early May bank holiday walking with friends along the Welsh coastal path from Rhoose to Barry.  We were blessed with exceptionally good weather and, as we approached Barry, we could see hundreds of parked cars across the causeway on Barry Island, their windscreens glinting in the sunshine.  A queue of traffic lined up, bumper to bumper, waiting to cross to join them.  It reminded me of the enduring popularity of the Welsh coastal resorts and of chapel Sunday school trips I’d made decades earlier when I’d competed with other children to be ‘first to see the sea’.  It reminded me too that seaside towns like Barry Island and Porthcawl first grew as accessible playgrounds for the people of the South Wales Valleys, and they still flock there whenever the weather is favourable.

But the connections between the Valleys and the coastal fringe to their south go much deeper than this. Without the industry, particularly iron-making and coal mining, which came to dominate the Valleys in the 19th century, the history of the Welsh cities and towns along the Bristol Channel would be very different.  Without the millions of tons of coal transported from the Valleys to the coast along purpose-built railways and shipped around the world, would three-quarters of the population of Wales live in the south and would Cardiff be the capital city of Wales?  It’s fair to say that without the dictates of geology and geography, and the influence they’ve had on our history, we’d be looking at a very different Wales to the one we know today.

Pontypridd Museum’s current exhibition, entitled ‘Pontypridd’s Coastal Connections’, explores these fundamental factors and the effects they’ve had on transport, industry, leisure, social and natural history in Pontypridd, South Wales and further afield.

Some of the stories told are well known; others more quirky and obscure.  For instance, did you know that some of the ships of the German High Seas Fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow in Orkney after World War I had their anchor chains manufactured by Brown Lenox of Pontypridd?  Or that Francis Crawshay, who lived in Tŷ Crawshay (the original Georgian building at the heart of today’s University of South Wales in Treforest), actually owned Barry Island and frequently spent time there, sailing his steam yacht or shooting rabbits?

The exhibition shows how the people of the Valleys often looked to the coast to spend their leisure time.  It takes account of how people moved into Valleys in waves of immigration during the boom years, creating distinctive communities and legacies.   The flip side of this was emigration when times were hard, when many sought a better life in the New World.  Finally, the display highlights how the natural world suffered during the process of industrialisation and how rivers like the Taff and Rhondda have been brought back from the brink of desolation to form thriving wildlife habitats once more, often through the work of dedicated individuals.

The exhibition runs until the end of July 2018.  Come along and tell us about your experiences of these coastal connections.