When rainwater lands on the Brecon Beacons, it must drop 2,500 feet to get to the Severn Estuary, 20 miles away. Over the course of millennia, the force of water running off the mountain range has combed the land between into deep, parallel valleys.
The towns and villages in these channels, with their blue-green forests and steely rapids, are now rural outposts compared to the thriving cities to the south. It is hard to believe that one of them, Pontypool in the Torfaen valley, now a town of 38,000 people, was once larger than Newport and the capital city of Cardiff.
A DYNASTY OF IRONMASTERS
‘When most people think of industrial Wales, they think of coal mines in the Victorian times,’ says Lauren Speed, writer of this Discovering Britain trail, ‘but Pontypool prospered around iron.’ In fact, there were iron forges in this area as early as 1425. Since then, the region became world-renowned for its iron expertise. ‘Allegedly, the first iron forge in America was made by emigrants from Pontypool,’ she says.
The trail begins at the gate to Pontypool Park, through some suitably iron-wrought gates, where the path opens up into playing fields. Here, at the base of the valley, is where one of the first forges was built by entrepreneur Richard Hanbury. ‘Hanbury is thought to have been a goldsmith or banker from London, who built a forge here in 1577,’ says Speed. ‘He was the first of a long line of Hanburys that created an iron dynasty lasting 300 years.’ The family are often accredited with the town of Pontypool itself: ‘it probably wouldn’t have existed without them,’ Speed explains.
Making iron would have required year-round labour, and thus attracted a steady population. The Hanburys built a manor house and a park for the ironworks, which rolled up the east side of the valley. In the 1920s, the park became 150 acres of public land and has been central to the community every since.
The Torfaen valley had both the material and the energy needed to produce iron. The ore could be found relatively easily in the soil and did not require the deep mines we tend to associate with Welsh coal. By means of energy it had lots of water and the trail itself passes a decorative collection of ponds surrounded by sweet chestnuts. ‘The Hanburys were quick to recognise the free source of energy,’ says Speed, ‘from both the water and the trees.’
In fact, these ponds were originally one large pool, which could build up a store of water to funnel at high pressure through the mill. The sweet chestnut trees are 400 years old and were harvested as a source of charcoal to keep the forge fires going.
It was with new inventions that the Hanburys revolutionised Pontypool. In the early 1700s, John Hanbury built the world’s first iron rolling mill, which allowed the molten iron to be rolled – instead of hammered – into sheets. Later he pioneered a process of dipping the iron in tin to strengthen it. ‘Pontypool became synonymous with superior quality iron,’ says Speed. Before the industrial revolution arrived here in the mid-18th century, the iron mills would have been the dominant sign of industry in these valleys. When it came, the region became the most important centre for iron production in the whole world.
The trail changes from open fields to close woods. The trees give a sense of what the area might have looked like before the industrialists moved in. ‘Actually it’s crafted to look this way,’ says Speed. ‘In the 18th century, it became more fashionable to have wilder looking gardens, instead of the traditional, neat lawns.’
The Hanbury’s hired renowned landscape artist, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to create illusions of wilder, continuous landscape, while retaining the principle purpose of the trees – a ready source of charcoal for the forges. The path continues as a steep hike through the branches, patches of open sky visible through the trunks announcing the top of the hill.
It’s worth the climb. At the top, the land falls away to the east, giving a panoramic view across the Severn Estuary. All across, the landscape is studded with signs of industry and engineering. Factory chimneys intersperse pale green slabs of winter fields, spidery cranes hang over Newport’s shipping bay, and beyond them, the Severn Bridge stretches to England.
There are artificial features even closer to hand, if for a more romantic purpose. At one viewpoint is a bizarre structure called the Shell Grotto. Squat and made of stone, it resembles a giant geode rock, though instead of gemstones, its insides are covered with thousands of shells, gnarled wood and animal bones. It’s cute, if a little creepy. ‘It’s not as old as it looks,’ says Speed. ‘It was built in the 18th century when it was fashionable to make old-looking curiosities, or “follies”, as points of interest on big estates.’ Unlike the chestnut trees and the mill ponds, follies had no use at all. It was purely their leisure aspect that made them desirable to the upper classes.
A more prominent folly can be found at the end of the walk. The trail maintains its height across the exposed, grassy hilltop until it reaches a watchtower. The grey, 40-foot ‘Folly Tower’ commands a view from the mountains to the estuary and locals say that on a clear day it’s possible to see seven counties from here.
It is not, in fact, the original Folly Tower, which is a little ironic. The first Folly Tower was built by the Hanburys in the 1760s but had to be dismantled during the Second World War for fears it could be recognised and direct the enemy to munitions factories in nearby Glascoed. The hilltop was bare for half a century, ‘but the Folly tower was never forgotten,’ Speed explains. A local campaign had it rebuilt in 1995 – a folly of a folly.
The tower is likely the most cherished part of the trail. ‘Most people talk fondly about walking to the tower and looking out from the top,’ says Speed. It is understandable. The walk up here passes through all the elements that allowed the valley to have been a cradle to modern industry. The tower itself is memory to a family that had a 300-year ambition to master and sculpt the landscapes around them.
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.