Sunday, 24 February 2013

Navigating to a 'high forcing chamber of history'

The Chartist Cave:
Image from 
"The union met in secret on the dark side of the hill, by the light of a thousand candles" Ironmasters, The Men They Couldn't Hang

Participation in a day-into-night navigation course on the edge of the Brecon Beacons has got me ruminating on two unrelated topics, both stimulated by spending a cold Friday night on a moor looking for a cave: the understated value of moving through terrain using the basic disciplines of route-finding with compass and map; and a visceral piece of radical landscape history. 

The session was part of on-going training for the Black Mountains Upland Volunteers scheme that I have previously posted about.  At 4pm our small group ascended a track above the village of Trefil, just north of Tredegar on the high ground of Mynydd Llangynidr above the heads of the Ebbw and Sirhowy valleys; an area known with etymological accuracy as Blaenau, meaning 'heights, uplands, headwaters'. Before us stretched what would normally be a boggy morass of rough limestone moorland, but the ground was bone-hard on account of a lack of recent precipitation and the chill wind that whipped into our faces, like a perpetual slap. The temperature had remained resolutely low all day and, in R.S. Thomas' words, "the cold landscape returned my stare".

Jan Morris aptly describes the unusual feeling and topography of this transitional space between the, once mighty now post-industrial, valleys of Gwent and Glamorgan to the south and the majestic hill country of the Brecon Beacons National Park to the north:

"This is country unlike any other in Wales, partly because of its terrain, partly because of its fateful associations, and coming to it is like entering some high forcing chamber of history. Up your road goes, up the steep limestone ridge, pocked with caves and old workings and the remains of tramways, until crossing the ridge of the escarpment you find the harsh expanse of the Blaenau stretching there before you. Across it runs the cruel Heads of the Valleys highway, cars, trucks and motor-bikes crawling through the wind, and there are the remains of long-abandoned workings, and half-obliterated tips. It is colourless but compelling - the air rasping, the moorland glowering, and on the south side of the road the industrial valleys suddenly plunging away with their mines and chapels and railway tracks jam-packed and canyon-like towards the sea."

At first sight, our surroundings seemed unpromising country for navigating around: sink holes, cairns, springs, small pools and narrow water-courses the only features amongst the washed-out winter monotony of heather, course grass and sedge; the lazy meanders of the contours on the map mirroring the relative lack of variation in elevation on the ground. Slowly but surely we found our 'bearings', becoming accustomed to the coming dusky gloom; the relative sparseness of features actually sharpening our ability to match map with fact. And realising that small sink hole symbols on paper translate into mightily deep depressions in reality, literally swallowing up the ground. We were soon in our stride, communicating in the vocabulary of navigation, which has to be learnt like an esoteric code: magnetic North, back bearings, catch-points, hand rails, aiming off, Eastings and Northings.

Image from
And so, like a team of worker ants, and repeating our mantra of calculations -  bearing, distance and estimated time - we worked our way from feature to feature to the half way point, a limestone cavern known as the Chartist Cave. With a bit of help from our instructor to locate the entrance to the cave in the now pitch darkness, we encamped in the chamber to refuel before plotting a course back to our start point. 

And the cave is also the entry point to the second theme of this post. It is named for its use, according to local folklore, as a secret meeting place and arms factory for Chartists from the area in the 1830's. Chartism was "...the first independent working-class movement in the world, a snow-ball movement of social protest..." (Briggs). Although some Chartists took a moral stance against violence others were less idealistic, including those who used the caves around Blaenau to help prepare for a semi-military campaign of social disobedience and insurrection.   

In  1839 several thousand working men marched on Newport from the area and other locations across the South Wales valleys in protest at the imprisonment in Monmouth of a number of prominent English Chartists. On the morning of 5th November the 'Battle of Newport' took place, but it was an inglorious defeat for the by now undisciplined and drunken Chartist 'army' who were no match for the professional soldiery who had been stationed in the town to quell the uprising. Nine of the protesters were killed, most quickly fled back to their valley communities and their ring-leaders received predictably harsh sentences for their crimes of treason; reprieved from execution but transported to Australia for life.

On returning home, and with thoughts of this piece of history  brought vividly to life on a chill winters night, I was reminded of a lustily sung favourite song of old, Ironmasters by The Men They Couldn't Hang; a hymn to the radical uprisings of the era against the ironmasters and coal magnets of South Wales, "...from the smoky stacks of Merthyr to the hills of Ebbw Vale".

Although the Chartists ultimately failed in their own time, the rights for which they protested, including universal suffrage, would later become corner-stones of democratic systems around the world. In the words of E.P. Thompson, "we may thank them for these years of heroic culture". And yet, pondering the ruthless, exploitative industrialists of mid-nineteenth century South Wales and the modern day hegemony of global capitalism, I can't help thinking that The Men They Couldn't Hang were right: "Ironmasters, they always get their way".


Birkett, Bill, 2002. The Hillwalker's Manual. Milnthorpe: Cicerone.

Briggs, Asa, 1991. A Social History of England. London: Penguin.

Morris, Jan, 1998. Wales: Epic views of a small country. London: Penguin. 

Owen, Hywel Wyn, 1998. A Pocket Guide to the Place-Names of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Thomas, R.S., 1996. Amen in Selected Poems. London: Dent.

Thompson, E.P., 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.

Blaenau-Gwent County Borough Council web site:

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