Monday 4 December 2017

135 Lliw Valley reservoirs

Lliw Valley reservoirs
Constructing reservoirs in Wales can be an emotive subject, especially when villages in Welsh-speaking areas are flooded to provide water for English cities.  
Despite high-profile protests, the Llyn Celyn reservoir north of Bala was opened in 1965, which had entailed flooding the Tryweryn Valley, with the loss of Capel Celyn village with 12 farms, a school, Post Office and chapel, to provide water for Liverpool.  Previously that city had relied on Lake Vyrnwy in Powys, opened in 1888 after 10 farms and the village of Llanwddyn were flooded: at the time it was Britain’s largest masonry dam.
Birmingham benefited from the Elan Valley reservoirs, opened in 1904, after 18 cottages and farmhouses, a school, church and two manor houses (one with links to the poet Shelley) had been flooded.   
By contrast the two reservoirs near Felindre in upland Gower, set amid the mountain scenery of the Mawr region, were built to provide water for Swansea and the surrounding area.  The Lower Lliw reservoir (also called the Felindre reservoir) was opened in 1863, at a cost of £160,000.  But it took reconstruction between 1976-78, with a new rockfill dam, overflow spillway and pumping station, to make the dam completely watertight.  To the north 233 men used stone from Darren-fawr quarry to construct a 25m-high dam, so the Upper Lliw reservoir was opened in 1894 at a cost of £116,000.  Yet that reservoir may hold a sinister secret.
Ioan Richard, Mawr ward councillor for over forty years, grew up after the war on the seven-acre smallholding Ty’r Darren, beneath the Upper Lliw reservoir’s quarry.  He was fascinated to hear older neighbours speak about the building of the Upper Lliw reservoir in the 1890s, a boom time for local cottages and farms, who took in construction workers on the site as paying lodgers.  That thinly-populated Welsh-speaking area became a bustling community of navvies during the construction of the Lliw Valley reservoirs. 
Last year this paper reported a tale passed down that during the construction of the Upper Lliw reservoir a navvy had died following a bare-knuckle fight around 1890 - and been buried in the dam.  This oral account was backed up by a book published in Australia by Stuart Morgan, many of whose ancestors had lived around the village of Craig-cefn-parc.  An ancestor Hannah Jones owned and ran the Colliers Arms, a pub with a small brewery in the village.  When a construction workers’ camp had been established for the navvies at the Upper Lliw between 1886 and 1894, she enterprisingly set up a pub on the site, in a shack called the "Black Slant", to quench their thirst.  The 1891 census for the Mawr area of Glamorgan lists many itinerant navvies from Ireland and England who swelled the size of the local population.  Hannah Jones’s sons worked in local coal mines, but would bring beer to the site by horse and cart in barrels from the Colliers Arms brewery in Craig-cefn-parc.  Harsh working conditions and alcohol could lead to violence, and bare-knuckle fist-fights were frequent.  Hannah's son Thomas was sent to deal with one particular navvy who had been causing repeated trouble at the shack.  An ensuing bare-knuckle fight led to the troublemaker’s death, and his body was hastily concealed amid the construction of the dam.  As with navvies working on Brunel’s railway projects, with so many transient labourers one man’s disappearance might not cause comment, for it would be assumed that he had moved on to seek work elsewhere. 
Nonetheless Thomas Jones left the village the next day and sailed to North America, where he settled without ever returning to Wales.  Stuart Morgan was a descendant who, after retiring from business in Western Australia, donated to the Swansea Valley chapels where his ancestors had worshipped, and undertook the family research that supports the oral tale of that fatal fight from the 1890s. 
Not as controversial as Tryweryn, but Upper Lliw reservoir has its dark side.      

Friday 1 December 2017

134 Severn Princess

134 Severn Princess
In June 1999 a vessel called the Severn Princess being towed from the west coast of Ireland to Chepstow needed to shelter in Swansea Bay.  The significance concerns the alternative route from South Wales to southern England for drivers to avoid the detour around Gloucester before the Severn Bridge was built: this was the Aust car ferry, the last of which was the Severn Princess.
The Beachley to Aust ferries in Gloucestershire were revived by Newport architect Enoch Williams, who formed The Old Passage Severn Ferry Company in 1931.   Passengers with bicycles and motorbikes were transported on a 40ft wooden ferry, until two larger steel ferries were added in 1934 and 1935, each able to carry 17 cars.  Each car had to turn sharply off the ramp onto the ferry, and then be turned by a manually operated turntable before being parked: the process was reversed for unloading.  By 1959 a third ship was ordered from the Yorkshire Dry Dock Company of Hull, and launched as the Severn Princess on 23rd May 1959.  She was slightly larger than the other car ferries at 77ft x 28ft, with twin Leyland diesel engines to give a better performance.  With three vessels operating, the frequency of ferries was increased from every 30 to every 20 minutes, and it was estimated that up to 25,000 cars could be carried each month.
This could, however, be a challenging undertaking, with a 40ft tidal range and fierce currents, and the ferry could not operate at low tide or very high tides.  Occasionally a car might slither down the muddy slipways into the swirling waters of the Severn, but there were no serious injuries to passengers.  The end for the Aust ferries came with the construction of the first Severn Bridge, opened by the Queen on 8th September 1966, whereupon the three ferries were laid up on their moorings on the River Wye, and later moved to Cardiff docks.  West of Ireland fisheries bought the Severn Princess, intending to use her as a ferry on the west coast of Ireland, but she was laid up at Limerick until sold in 1975.  She was then used for salvage purposes, carrying cargo across Galway Bay to the Aran Islands, and for engineering projects. 
By the 1990s the ferry was having frequent breakdowns, and when laid up in harbour in Galway in 1994 she was grounded by a severe Boxing Day gale.  Five years later she was discovered wrecked and abandoned by Dr. Richard Jones, grandson of Enoch Williams.  The Severn Princess Restoration Group was formed, and some enthusiasts travelled from Chepstow to the west coast of Ireland to set about cleaning and repairing the ship, and purchased her for a nominal guinea (one pound and one shilling) before the vessel could be scrapped. 
On 21st June 1999 a tug from Penarth was towing her across the Irish Sea when they encountered conditions bad enough to cause the Fishguard to Rosslare ferry to be cancelled.  With difficulty they managed to reach Mumbles, where the Severn Princess was pumped dry before being towed up the Bristol Channel to Chepstow, and moored on the west bank of the River Wye.  Of course her home-coming was a considerably more low-key event than the 1970 return of SS Great Britain from the Falklands to Bristol!  With a Chepstow shipbuilding yard available, the Severn Princess was floated onto the slipway for a complete survey.  The first phase of restoration was completed in September 2014, with the aim to site the vessel as a permanent heritage display beneath Brunel’s 1852 tubular railway bridge.
The Aust ferry terminal can be seen in the background of a May 1966 photo of Bob Dylan, used as a promotional shot for Martin Scorsese’s film “No Direction Home”, about Dylan’s controversial 1966 tour.  The Nobel prizewinner might comment of the ferry that once sheltered in Swansea Bay “You ain’t goin’ nowhere”.