From coalmines to good times

Dedicated work by local people and government bodies has rehabilitated lifeless rivers in South Wales, restoring former industrial areas to places of beauty and recreation

During the coal boom years the valleys of South Wales were heavily industrialised. In 1913 alone no less than 11 million tons of coal were loaded at Barry Dock, which at that time was the busiest in the world.

In the mining villages poor working conditions prompted groundbreaking social movements. It was in Merthyr that the red flag was first flown as a symbol of workers’ organisation and in Tredegar that the forerunner of the modern NHS evolved. We’ve got a lot to thank South Wales miners for.

However, you can’t take tens of millions of tons of coal out of the hillsides without causing serious environmental damage. It’s thought that about 100,000 tons of coal dust made its way into the River Taff every year during the coal boom. The lowest 20 miles of the river became too toxic and too depleted in oxygen to support life.

River rehabilitation

Take a walk along the lower Taff now in the month of October and you might just see something fantastic. The salmon are back, and to see them leaping at Blackweir – about a mile from Cardiff City Centre – is just one of many signs of how the river has recovered. There are ducks, swans and herons, and the water is clear. Amphibians, insects, and freshwater vegetation are returning.

Other rivers in South Wales, such as the Rhondda, Rhymney, Ely, and Ebbw, also suffered during the coal years and are likewise being slowly cleaned up.

High up in the valleys, the stream that once flowed black with residue from Merthyr Vale colliery is being returned to a natural state. Wetlands have been introduced to provide habitat for local flora and fauna and help filter the water. The land that was once scarred by Taff Merthyr, Deep Navigation, and Trelewis drift coal pits is now Taf Bargoed Country Park.

Many different projects have contributed to the improving health of South Wales rivers and open spaces. The Environment Agency has made contributions, European projects have targeted specific areas, and local community groups have been involved at all levels.

Cardiff Rivers Group is one of the most active and its volunteers have been regularly pulling rubbish out of the waterways. Group member Ceri Hughes says: “It is great that so many people are able to enjoy walking, cycling, or running in the parks that access our rivers in Cardiff. The beauty of the sights and sounds of nature can never be ruined by the rubbish found in our rivers, but it can detract from that enjoyment. These rivers are owned by everyone in Cardiff and should be seen as assets to be nurtured and treasured.

Recreational use

Taf Bargoed Country Park, Parc Bryn Bach, Rhondda Heritage Park, Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, and Cwmcarn Forest Park were all industrial landscapes not so long ago. Now, they are all places where local people can get outside and enjoy themselves. Birdwatchers now sit in wait along the edge of the Taf Bargoed stream, mountain bikers explore Cwmcarn, and the flooded mine sites at Cosmeston and Parc Bryn Bach attract kayakers and other watersports enthusiasts. Tramways that were built for coal transport are now cycle paths.

Sandstone and limestone quarries still dot the hills around South Wales but they are seen less as eyesores and more as local landmarks. Rock climbers now come here from all over the UK. Some of the old quarries are listed among the best climbing venues south of the Peak District. They’ve been recycled into something new and valuable.

In a couple of places the artificial cliffs have even been colonised by peregrine falcons. At least two sites are known to support nesting pairs; rock climbing organisations were quick to impose seasonal bans to protect them.

Hope for the future

More than 700 of the 6114 English and Welsh rivers are considered to be in poor condition according to EU benchmarks. Serious concerns have been flagged up over the state of 117 watercourses, some of which are in a state similar to the Taff of the 1970s and 80s.

However, three decades ago the River Taff was dead and now it’s very much alive. It took new legislation, Environment Agency projects, European money, and the time and dedication of countless volunteers, community groups, and local sports clubs, but the result shows that no stream is beyond redemption.

The country parks and rehabilitated landscapes of South Wales also showcase the tremendous social benefits that can come with an unpolluted, ecologically rich environment. Everywhere you look old mine sites and quarries have been turned into sanctuaries for the community.