The Hidden Truths of the South Wales Valleys

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The Mary at Penhrys shrine sits atop a green hillside overlooking the cities of the Rhonda Valley. According to the Society of Our Lady of Penrhys, the shrine was raised in the spot where an image of Mary was discovered by a Cistercian monk in an oak tree. On Wednesday, the eight of us visited the area of the shrine on our way over to Brecon Beacon National Park to get a good overview of where some of the old coal mine collieries used to be situated in the valley. Hidden behind the lush green overgrowth however, is a much more dismal story about the rise and fall of industry in the South Wales Valleys region.

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Looking 180 degrees from the viewpoint of where the first photograph was taken is the Penrhys Estates. The relatively new development provides a convenient facade that masks the reality of what life inside the Estates are really like. People living in Penrhys Estates are currently facing a 90% unemployment rate, the highest in the region. There are households who have not seen anyone in the house employed legally for generations. The European Union also considers many regions within the Rhonda Valleys like the Estates to be some of the most deprived in Europe.

“The story is that in the heyday of crime in the Estates cops would come up here in pairs or in vans because they were afraid to go in alone,” our instructor Bill explained to us.

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At a 90 degree direction from the first photo you can also see the largest remaining coal tip in the South Wales Valleys. What looks like a large hill on the top of the plateau is actually small, unwanted pieces of coal that have now been covered somewhat by greenery. After the catastrophic collapse of a coal tip dumped over 40,000 cubic feet of sludge and coal dust on a Junior School killing 114 school children in 1966, they took the cone-like head off the top of the pile. Coal tips present a number of environmental consequences, though all of them are now mostly safe from collapse. During heavy rains, coal can seep in deep beneath the soil, affecting growth and farming in the areas. Nothing has really been done to dispose of the coal tips because their environmental threat to the inhabitants of the Valleys region remains low compared to the threats mineral mining has posed to the water table.

While our trip to the South Wales Valleys was full of breathtaking views of the natural scenery that has been shaped by the changes in climate over the centuries, the hidden issues of poverty, unemployment, crime and environmental degradation from industrialization, where equally breathtaking in the worst of ways. It was a stark juxtaposition unlike anything I’ve seen before.

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