Once described as the ‘Wild West‘, Pontypridd has had a turbulent past. A small, dirty, market town, run down after years of under funding and mismanagement by the local and regional councils, situated 12 miles north of Cardiff along the A470, ‘Ponty’ is the gateway to the famous south Wales valleys and has a rich cultural and historic past: The Welsh National Anthem, Tom Jones, the Old Bridge, Brown Lenox, Sir Geraint Evans, Neil Jenkins, William Price and Stuart Burrows all hail from Ponty or close by.
The name may come from a contraction of Pont-y-ty-pridd, bridge of the earthen house in Welsh, or the Welsh for ‘bridge of earth’, since in earlier centuries, people took advantage of the shallowness of the River Taff here to cross it. Pontypridd marks the confluence of the rivers Taff and Rhondda and at the junction of the Cardiff to Rhondda and Merthyr railway lines and thus has a fascinating historical and cultural background. The development of Treforest and Pontypridd as commercial centres began with the opening in 1795 of the 25 mile long Glamorganshire canal, between Cardiff docks and Merthyr. At the same time, William Crawshay opened a new forge and nail works and coal was discovered by Dr. Richard Griffiths in Gyfeillion in 1790.
Another new industry which thrived with the excellent transport now available was the original Newbridge Chain Cable and Anchor Works founded in 1818 – later to become Brown Lenox. Later, collieries were opened in the areas of Graig, Hopkinstown, Trehafod and Cilfynydd. Treforest, with Francis Crawshay’s tin works and Roland Fothergill’s railworks became important. Francis Crawshay lived in Forest House now part of the site of the new University of Glamorgan and Roland Fothergill in Hensol Castle.
Rhydyfelin and Upper Boat both grew because of the connection with the canal. Evan James and his son James James lived in Ty’r Factory, next to their cloth factory – and they composed the words and music of the Welsh National Anthem ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’. A commemorative plaque marks the site of the factory and statues, representing Poetry and Music designed by the architect Sir Goscombe John were unveiled in 1930 in Ynysangharad Park.
Mill Street derived its name from various mills in the vicinity, such as the Rhondda Flour Mill. An important landmark in Mill Street is the stone railway viaduct, the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Taff Vale Railway. Nearby St. Catherine’s Church with its fine spire was built in 1868, the Town Hall and Market Buildings in 1885, the Public Library and the Town Hall Theatre in 1890, and in 1905 the Municipal Building with its fine Council Chamber.
In the middle of town is a charming Victorian Fountain erected in 1895 for Sir Alfred Thomas MP, who later became Lord Pontypridd. Many of the old buildings in Pontypridd are decorated with fine stonework and constructed mainly from locally quarried stone. One quarry – the Graig Yr Hesg Quarry – still produces the distinctive blue pennant stone, which, with its granite-like hardness, will ensure that many of our best buildings will survive for many years to come as long as the developers don’t decide to pull them down to replace with bland new builds.
‘Ponty’ as it’s known to the locals, is famous for its old bridge, which was, when built, the longest single spanning bridge in the world. The bridge, built in 1750 by William Edwards (a self taught mason) was so long (45m / 140 feet span) that it took three attempts to get it right. The first, a wooden bridge was washed away by floods, the second, of stone, collapsed during construction because of its weight. The third design was also stone, but much lighter because it had 6 large holes in it… 3 on each side, of diameter 9, 6 and 3 feet. Edwards was paid 50 pounds to maintain it for seven years. In 1857, a three-arch bridge was built alongside to make it easier for traffic to cross the river (the old bridge was a bit too steep).
A market has stood on the site of the present Market since 1805. The present Market was built in the late 1870’s following the incorporation of the Pontypridd Markets Company. In spite of the savage economic decline experienced by Pontypridd and the Valleys in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Market has survived in very much its original format. The Market Company still owns many of the properties in town. Since 1985, the Market has undergone considerable change. The Lesser Town Hall (now known as the Clothes Market) was refurbished and opened as a Market Hall in 1988, and the Outdoor Market was extended in 1988 onto a site adjoining Church Street and St. Catherine’s Street.
One of the town’s treasures lies to the east side of the River Taff – Ynysangharad Park. It was opened in 1923 as a War Memorial for the town, and purchased by public subscription. It is an area of extensive and beautiful parkland with avenues of mature trees and colourful flower gardens as well as many amenities, although Pontypridd still doesn’t have an indoor swimming pool, incredible when you think that Pontypridd is supposed to be the ‘county town’ and has the largest population in RCT. There are other attractions though: miniature golf, tennis courts, a children’s play area, bowling greens, a band stand and a new open air lido. Local bands used to play on a Sunday at the bandstand but not anymore.
Pontypridd Common from which there are fine views over the town is a natural open space on which can be seen many glacial boulders remaining from the Ice Age. One boulder, known as the Rocking Stone, is the central point for the Druid’s Circle of smaller stones which was constructed in the 19th Century by Dr. William Price (the famous pioneer of cremation) and other like minded men who performed druidic rites there.
Famous Welsh poet and forger Iolo Morgannwg created the vision of a Celtic Druidic order in the 18th century. His first meeting of the bards was on Primrose Hill in London, where he had erected twelve stones called the Great Circle in 1792. Iolo constructed an ‘elaborate mystical philosophy’ which he claimed represented a direct continuation of ancient Druidic practice.
In 1795, a gorsedd meeting took place at the Pontypridd Rocking Stone. This was a huge slab of natural slate stone (the Maen Chwyf), and this stone became a meeting place, though the circles were put up later.
The word gorsedd, which in Welsh means throne, but is also loosely used as a coming together of bards. Julian Cope in his book The Modern Antiquarian says of this rocking stone ‘that it stands high on the ground overlooking the confluence of the two great sacred rivers Rhondda and Taff,’ and that this gorsedd stone must have had great significance in prehistoric times. The stone is surrounded by two circles plus an avenue.
Above the Common, towards Glyntaff, are the white washed Round Houses erected by Dr. Price who, with his colourful dress, long hair and cap of a whole fox’s skin, was one of the great characters of Pontypridd (indeed his ghost still walks around the Common to this day!) He is best remembered for cremating the body of his 5 month old son in 1884. He was brought to trial at the Glamorgan Assizes, and the case established the legality of cremation.
Situated centrally near the Old Bridge, the Pontypridd Museum offers the visitor a comprehensive glimpse into the historical and cultural past of the area. The Museum is housed in the former Tabernacl Chapel built in 1861 and magnificently refurbished in 1910. Since ceasing as a place of worship in 1983 and being taken over by the Town Council, the building has been restored. The ceiling, pulpit and organ are wonderful examples of the best chapel interiors. The Museum is open Mondays to Saturdays 10am – 5pm and further information is available from the Curator, Pontypridd Museum, 133 Berw Road, Pontypridd. Tel. Pontypridd (44) (0)1443 402077.
Within 3-4 miles of the town there used to be half a dozen or so coal mines, all of which have since closed. Coal used to pass through Ponty en-route to Cardiff; initially by road, then by canal, then by rail. Sadly, you’re more likely to see coal being transported up the valleys instead of down. The Glamorganshire canal has long since vanished, with only a few lock gates visible along a section of the Taff Trail.
Pontypridd has produced many fine singers, although none are really from the town itself – Tom ‘The Voice’ Jones is from Treforest while Sir Geraint Evans and Stuart Burrows are both from Cilfynydd.
Pontypridd RFC have always been one of Wales’ top teams. Of special interest to rugby fans, Ponty is home to the internationally known Grogg Shop, owned by John Hughes. The man who has made a fortune out of selling lumps of clay!
Gwyn Thomas speaks about Pontypridd (1960’s) – click here.
What is Ponty like today though and what are we going to leave for our children?
As we approach 2017 things are certainly very different to Victorian Pontypridd. The traffic situation in Pontypridd is still diabolical. Millions of pounds of tax-payers money have been wasted on a new road system that has only made matters worse! A slip road to Glyntaf, Treforest, Rhydyfelin and Hawthorn has been closed but no-one knows why? Although on a positive note a new ‘short-cut’ cycle route now exists on the northbound section which is useful in avoiding Yummy Kitchen, drunken students and the ‘rickety bridge’ in Trefforest as you ride south.
They’ve also spent loads of money on a new road system at Glyntaf which is dangerous to cars and cyclists due to the narrowing of the road and non-existant / downright dangerous ‘cycle’ lanes. Madness on a bigger scale is seen at the new roundabout on the A470 which has been built at the southern end of town which provides no access to the Merthyr or Cynon Valleys. Numerous sets of traffic lights all over town have made traffic jams longer, especially at rush hour, although it must be said those on the old roundabout have eased traffic outside busy times.
Taff Street still has some kind of weird, dangerous, ‘limited’ pedestrianisation, although this doesn’t seem to apply to the Cardiff taxis (that are taking over the town), delivery lorries and buses (all of whom can run you over and kill you at will). Millions of pounds have now been wasted on new pavements which damaged businesses at the most difficult time in the UK since Thatcher. The town does look better for it but the challenge now is to decide where the road ends and pavement begins.
Forcing property developers, like the Market Company and Oxford University, to sell off their empty units might encourage inward investment by local people and would go a long way to revitalise the town, but seeing as the major property owner is ‘chummy’ with the leaders of the council and local politicians then this seems unlikely unless there is a serious wad of cash in a brown paper envelope in it for them all.
The new development at St. Catherine’s corner is ugly and higher than originally thought, has caused more traffic chaos (another excuse for traffic lights I guess) on Gelliwastad Road (which still doesn’t have its trees back on it) and amazingly in this day and age doesn’t have solar panels to produce power for the office workers during the day. The car park is always empty as they charge too much.
The eyesore precinct has been partly demolished and the rubble boarded up so we can still remember it. A new phoenix rising from the ashes has been delayed for a few hundred years but will no doubt turn into ‘Precinct II – the return of Beirut’ when someone gets round to Mary Portas’ ing it. I wonder if this new development will have solar panels on it? Will they ever replace the Everest? Will the new pub/bar be better than ‘Champs’ that was there before? Time will tell I guess…
The YMCA proposed development has collapsed as not enough money was raised to match-fund the building work so now the building is just falling down.
The old Brown Lenox site has been turned into a giant Sainsburys, which has taken masses of trade away from Tesco at Upper Boat and the town centre. And yes, you guessed it, no solar panels there either, nor have they cleaned up the canal as Morrisons promised to do.
There are some positive things happening in and around Ponty (mostly individuals and local groups, like CYB, ‘Positively Ponty’ doing their own thing) but unfortunately the lack of basic amenities; like a sports centre and decent shops will always take the edge off them. People used to joke about ‘Ponty’ being full of charity shops, shoe shops and estate agents. I think this is unfair as there are plenty of ‘vapour’ shops, ‘pound’ shops and mobile phone shops here now as well. They probably replaced the shoe shops?
The new, environmentally ‘unfriendly’, outdoor pool has been a great success though! The lido is smaller than it needs to be and is actually quite cold (seeing as it is supposed to be heated) but the overall development is fantastic! Yes it could have been better but praise where it’s due, it’s probably the best thing to happen to the town for many, many years!
The old (free to use) children’s paddling pool has been filled in with concrete and a new ‘TellyTubbies’ state of the art playground installed, which has also divided opinion.
It’s great that the Taff Trail runs through Ponty but there are no safe cycle lanes on our roads, no bunkhouse and no secure lock up for bikes anywhere in town! Yet another reason for cyclists to just carry on cycling.
After a number of deaths and numerous serious accidents we finally have new crossings on both sides of the A470 slip roads. Shame it had to come to that when the people had been crying out for them for many years. But then again, maybe valley folk’s lives are cheap?
Ponty’s train station was once able to claim to have the longest station platform in the world. After millions spent on it by Arriva Trains it’s now finally a clean, train station again.
Situated at the confluence of the rivers Taff and Rhondda, Pontypridd was the business and administrative centre of the Taff Ely Borough, and thus has become the largest town in RCT with a population of 33,500, however neglect first from Labour run Taff Ely and RCT, then Plaid Cymru run RCT and now further neglect from Labour run RCT have resulted in Pontypridd becoming run-down and backward. An obvious move might be to re-locate the council offices (the major employer in RCT) to Pontypridd thus kick-starting the local economy, hopefully the new precinct development will do this.
Pontypridd should be south Wales’ fourth city but years of Tory government, austerity, mismanagement by local councils coupled with lack of investment, greed by property owners and lack of vision has all led to its downfall.
The neglected ‘Taff Walk’, that should be such a pleasant area, now only attracts cider drinking schoolchildren, drug addicts and graffiti artists. The CCTV camera that was there has also vanished, but no-one knows why it hasn’t been replaced or repaired. Police are rarely seen in the Park or town (probably because they’re under-staffed, busy filling in pointless paperwork or guarding golf courses for Nato) and crime seems to be on the increase especially on weekends as a result of under-age (and within-age) binge drinking.
The beautiful River Taff which flows through the town has recovered from over a century of coal mine pollution and quite large fish (trout and salmon) are now caught in the Taff. Sightings of otters are also on the increase although we suspect that most of these will have been mink. Having said this pollution from household rubbish and plastic carrier bags are still a problem even after the 5p charge from Cardiff Bay.
Along the riverbank is one of the success stories of modern Pontypridd and that is the Taff Trail. From Brecon to Cardiff an excellent cycle route offers an escape from the pollution and social deprivation that is so common in many South Wales’ valley towns. The trail has just recently been altered to run through the Park which is good move and there is also a new section from Cilfynydd to Abercynon. More money is also being spent on further cycle routes which is excellent, although a few decades too late.
It’s easy to criticise of course but the people of Ponty have offered solutions to the town’s problems. In fact, we have continually campaigned for over 20 years, but nothing much has changed. RCT even removed the link to our web site from their site, thus decreasing hits to their own site (the silly billies!).
Pontypridd does command a stunning location, with mountains, trails, the river and Park. The secret to future success must be to incorporate these positives into any development undertaken and time will tell whether money grabbing developers or the wishes of the people will win through. After all, we have to live here after they have squandered the EU money, made their profit and moved on.
What the future holds for our children is unclear. Most will probably leave the town to find a better life elsewhere and leave the inertia that governs us behind. There’s a famous saying though which is particularly erudite:
‘You get what you settle for’. Over to you – the people – to try and change things then…
Daniel Hayman’s modern take on the town – click here.