Men of Steel (published on the 70th Anniversaryof the Hiroshima bomb)

Steel is on my mind just now. I am conscious of the fact that few of you will remember anything of which I write this week, fast fades the eventide …

The first item on the agenda is the commemoration of events 70 years ago (6th August 1945) when, at a few seconds after 8.15 in the morning, local time, a brilliant flash of light extinguished the lives of sixty thousand people.  A few seconds later a high decibel ‘bang’ deafened those that were left and this was quickly followed by frightening winds as the atomic wave swept outwards from the epicentre of the air burst.  Little Boy had exploded above the ancient – and mostly wooden – city of Hiroshima in Japan.  The men who had delivered the bomb were already some miles away when the flash occurred and soon they were to witness the sight which we all now immediately recognise, the great mushroom cloud.  Three days later Fat Boy exploded over Nagasaki, a different bomb but of almost greater enormity.  Those were the first and the last nuclear bombs exploded in anger that the world has ever had to endure.

Although those events of seventy years ago happened before I joined the human race, they have been influential in my life.  Firstly they framed the world of fear into which I was born, culminating in the (what seems today) unbelievable rehearsals for the ending of the world which accompanied the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1962.   How I remember the prayers at school assembly and the delicate way our Religious Education teacher tried to prepare us for the ending of the world !  Secondly the ‘safety net’ of our own ‘nuclear deterrent’ has given my lifetime an easiness which my forefathers never had.  Despite the awful wars and troubles that have pervaded the world since those terrible days in August 1945 we should all remember, absolutely with anguish, the events which secured that fear of all out total war, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as it became known.

It is certainly something which has been etched, for whatever reason, into my mind and a few years ago I stood in stunned silence, awe even, as I gazed down into the cockpit of the very aeroplane which had delivered the bomb to Hiroshima.  The B29 Enola Gay was named after the mother of the pilot who flew it the 1500 miles from the island of Timian to Japan on that fateful morning all those years ago.  Tibbets was the first man to bomb Tokyo in an audacious attack launched from an aircraft carrier in 1942 and he  dropped one of the bombs which ultimately ended the war against Japan.

Atomic Bomber - Enola Gay

The plane that delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 is now in the Uber-Hazy/Smisthsonian aeronautical museum at Dulles International airport outside Washington D.C.

Of all the historic items I have seen, looking down at that plane has had the most profound and lasting impact upon me.  It happened but a few years ago, a long long time after any conscious level of concern or thought on the matter occupied my mind.    As well as that shock which I felt at seeing that shining metal deliverer, for shock it was, I had another encounter with the reality of the dropping of the Atomic bombs.  Many years ago I met and talked with a man who witnessed the second bomb drop, a British pilot who went along as an observer.  Leonard Cheshire V.C. was an experienced bomber pilot himself and flew Pathfinder missions for the huge bombing raids that decimated German cities in the latter years of the war.  It is often written that such was the effect on him of seeing the Atomic explosion and the aftermath that he dedicated the rest of his life to helping disabled people.  In actuality that was not strictly the case; I had a chance encounter with him and another famous British war-time pilot, Douglas ‘Tin-legs’ Bader in the early 1970s and their thoughts on the matter of war as a means to ending conflict had a substantial effect on my subsequent view of the world. This week take a moment to remember an event that changed our world forever.

The ‘steel’ of men like Tibbets and Cheshire often comes to the fore in times of great need, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” and all that but there are other ‘men of steel’ whose lives are less notable.  I have been working in a place where such unsung heroes grafted their lives away.

The south Wales valleys are renowned as the centre of Britain’s industrial heritage.  Coal is the foremost of the great industries that ruled the region but iron and steel had their place.  The early pioneers of iron making, such as the Crawshays, came to the heads of the eastern valleys where limestone and iron ore were easily accessed and where coal and water were plentiful.  The valleys of Gwent in particular were hot-beds of iron and steel production for nigh on two hundred years.  One of those valleys is my current work station although my subject pre-dates by a few centuries, the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

Old mountain wall, Ebbw Vale

This old wall is getting some TLC, a bit of tidying up which is purely for aesthetic reasons ….

The valleys are an interesting place archaeologically, not merely for the industrial heritage.  The steepness of the valley sides and the very little flat land alongside the rivers which gouge out the valley bottoms meant that early agriculture took place on the higher open tops and small plateaus or ‘blaenau‘.  There are many prehistoric sites on the flat open ‘mynydd’ (moorlands used as grazing for the old farm townships) and several early Christian sites mark the coming of the Celtic Saints in the early years of that faith arriving on these shores.  The Romans have left their mark too with long roads and forts marking the route northwards from Cardiff, via Gelligaer, and onwards to Brecon.

There are many indicators of Early Medieval Welsh settlements with place-name evidence and boundary markers such as long ‘cross-dykes’ as well as yet more ancient ridgeline trackways.  All these exist above the steep valley sides which, along with the valley bottoms, were and still are in places, heavily wooded with deciduous native trees.

Thus it is not surprising that any field systems are also to be found on the higher ground and due to the harshness of the wind and the heavy rainfall, the boundaries of these fields are dry stone walls.  It is certain then that any walls, and there are many, which stand on the open inter-valley moors pre-date the coming of the industrial revolution.  Straight away therefore we know we are looking at walls that, at their latest, must have been built by 1800.  In fact in most cases the field systems and their walls are centuries earlier.  It is likely the one I am rebuilding is at least as old as the Acts of Union in 1536 when, together with Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries,  land ownership changed dramatically.  Prior to that date much of the area was farmed as Grange farms –Mynachdy – of the great Cistercian houses of Tintern, Llantarnam and Margam.  Indeed the very area in which this current wall sits was a heavily fought over landscape changing ownership between Margam and Llantarnam several times.

The industrialisation of the area saw the establishment of a large steel works owned by the firm Richard, Thomas and Baldwins or RTB to everyone who lived in the valleys.  The very site of that great works lies just below my work station and right next to me is a now (thankfully) disused tip which is undergoing ‘greening’ following years of dumping.  But that tip itself was created from waste land which once was the site of a great slag tip, waste from the Bessemer process in the blast furnesses below.  The route of the old tram-way sits directly below me, marking the route down to what was a huge smoke and pollution belching Dante’s inferno.

Over six thousand men worked there and it provided much needed and highly paid (relatively) employment to the community.  With its closure back in the 1980s dereliction and depression was the lot of those who lived on in the old lines of workers cottages.  In the early 1990s Michael Heseltine came up with the idea of Garden Festivals in several of the bigger ‘depressed areas’ and Ebbw Vale was chosen as one of those sites.  It was a short-lived piece of theatre and included some upgrading of the old derelict industrial sites and, in my opinion anyway (but then I didn’t live there !), it was a fun event and provided a much needed lift to the whole of the valleys.

Today the old steel-works site is no more, replaced by light industry, offices and social amenities.  The Garden Festival site is now a retail area and nice new houses – occupied by commuters who drive to Newport and Cardiff to their high paid office jobs.  On a part of the old works site sits the offices of my current hosts, Gwent Wildlife Trust and through them the wall is being renovated for the local Blaenau Gwent Council.  I just wish somehow we could tell the story of the wall and what it represents in the different layers, the palimpsest, of the valleys.  I was left pretty speechless the other day when two old men came walking up to see what I was doing.  They told me the story of their lives, of the years spent in nearby Graig colliery for one of them and a similar duration spent on the rolling mill of the Steelworks for the other.  They thought what I did seemed like a “hard way to make a living”.  Men of steel think I have it hard !!  What could I say…

I mentioned in my previous post an enjoyable event at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse Lake.  150 years ago, on the 28th July 1865 a bunch of Welsh folk landed on the shores of Patagonia to establish their very own Welsh community in Argentina.  Whilst the first arrivals came mainly from the South Wales valleys, indeed four were from the very steelworks town I mention above, the original drive came from America.  A non-conformist preacher, Prof. Michael D. Jones, was concerned at the disappearing Welsh culture in the New England states as America evolved out of the multi-cultural nation it once was.  He persuaded 153 settlers(28 married couples, 33 single men, 12 single women and 52 children) to pay the £12 fare (£6 for children) and sail with him in the converted Tea Clipper the Mimosa.  It was not a comfortable journey that they undertook from Liverpool in the summer of 1865.  Nor was it a comfortable place they arrived in, a lack of farming skills was just one of their problems.  After some time on the coast the settlers pushed inland to the high plateau area of the Chibutt valley.  They endured a hard winter with little food and things looked very bleak for the survival of the colony.  Rachel Jenkins came up with the idea of cutting irrigation channels from the river in order to bring some fertility to the land and by 1885 the 50 mile stretch of the river had become the finest wheat growing land in all of Argentina, producing some 6000 tons of wheat in that year.  The twenty years in between were very hard but the colony survived and prospered and the Welsh language prevailed.  Today Welsh is still spoken and it is reckoned there are over fifty thousand descendants of those first settlers.  Y Wladfa Gymreig (Y Wladychfa) stands as a great tribute to those early pioneers who braved all to ensure the survival of their language and their culture.  Men and women of steel indeed.

My own ‘Man of Steel’ was enduring his own hardship and fight for survival 100 years ago. Great Uncle Dick was finding it increasingly hard to write and even harder to write anything cheery:

Sunday 1st August 1915.  Working at night with engineers.

2nd (Bank Holiday – ha ha) Easy day and night.

3rd.  Stand-to at 2 o’clock.  Digging party till 2 o’clock pm .  Tiring

4th.  Working party in afternoon.

5th.  Working party taking roofs off houses.

6th.  Working party digging in shell holes.  Happy as Rasputin.  (A very funny phrase indeed !)

7th.  Widening track for a patrol and rations at night.

8th.  Working party carrying Tank R.E.

9th.  Working party clearing roadway with R.E.

10th.  Working with R.E.

11th.  Learning trenches

12th.  Working party laying road.

13th.  Back at  Loneville.  14 mile route march.  Col. Jenkins commander

14th.  Working party with R.E. Route march to (?) at night 7.30

August is come, and cold windy days remind me of typical school holidays.  Soon Welshwaller will finish the repair at the Ebbw Vale site and begin walking the not so long and winding road that leads me to a quietier time, yes folks, Welshwaller is approaching retirement !!  Whether that means I won’t have any more walling tales to tell you is questionable, apparently there are several jobs I have forgotten about …

For now, I’m looking forward to another day of Steel, it’s the Steam fair at Three Cocks Vintage…. watch this space !!

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