Local History Around Ystradfellte - Hirwaun Ironworks
The site of the ironworks (OS Map No 160 Grid Ref 956058) is well worth a visit as it is unspoilt, there being no new development as yet. It is situated some distance behind the clocktower.
You can still see the route of the tramway with stone blocks in position. It is now a footpath well used by locals. The ironworks buildings have gone long ago but the remains of the furnaces can be seen surrounded by slag heaps.
The ironworks were leased to Anthony Bacon in 1780. Cannon balls were manufactured for the American War of Independance. Demand slumped in 1815 and the works eventually closed as Merthyr Tydfil became the main centre for the production of iron and steel.
The Truth About Valley Entrance
For thirty years I have lived with a terrible secret that I can keep no longer. It is time to tell the truth about Valley Entrance.
Before the entrance was opened, the only way to visit the Kingsdale Master Cave was to descend and return by one of the routes now popular as pull-throughs. We - three of us - wanted to go in through Simpsons and down the big pitch in Slit Pot. In those days that normally meant taking a great weight of ladders and making long tiring climbs on them, but SRT was just coming in and we decided that that was the way we would do it. You cannot now imagine how liberated we felt carrying only a bag of rope each up onto the moor.
The descent was uneventful. We reached the Master Cave in a couple of hours and looked around for a while. I climbed a short pitch to the passage that is now Valley Entrance and noticed roots and soil in one or two places, suggesting it was close to the surface.
After another hour we started on our return. There was a lot of mud about in Slit Pot then. I do not know where it all went. Our old-fashioned rope was wet and muddy and our primitive jammers soon failed completely. We attempted the climb in turn, becoming increasingly desperate, but every time a climber got half-way up, his jammers would lose their grip and he would come crashing back to the bottom.
It was several hours before we accepted that our situation was hopeless and that we must wait for rescue. I do not know why, but at that stage I did not think of the place where I had seen the roots and soil. Fortunately, we had a good supply of carbide, as we had been building up a reserve dump over the preceeding weeks for just such an emergency, and there was plenty of water. We could live for a week or two without food if we really had to, but even in the sixties we thought someone would be along sooner than that.
The first few days passed slowly as we tried to entertain each other and keep our spirits up by telling stories and reciting sections of the Bible, the Koran, and Lady Chatterley's Lover from memory. The next few days were harder. Strangely, we felt no hunger after the first week, only an aching boredom. After two weeks had passed we lost count of the days because we became confused and forgot to wind up our watches.
Hallucinations were the worst problem, and the curious auditory imaginings that came as we sat in the darkness (we had agreed not to use the carbide until it was absolutely essential). We saw goblins and orcs, and giant blind pink rabbits so large that they filled the passage. The distant chatter of voices never ceased until we believed they were carried through the rocks from some faraway bustling place - Cross Street in Manchester, perhaps, or Skipton bus station.
By then we were becoming weak and we feared that soon we would die, one by one, of starvation. We made more attempts to climb the rope, but it was impossible in our enfeebled state. So we made that dreadful pact that we thought only came to people drifting in lifeboats in third-rate movies. One of us would have to die to feed the others. We drew lots by taking lumps of carbide from the stock. The man with the smallest lump would be sacrificed. Three times we drew, and the lumps were so nearly identical that we could not agree on the outcome. The fourth time there was no doubt. I thanked God that mine was not the smallest. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better to have been the sacrifice than to have lived with the agony of guilt that I have borne these years.
The victim took off his helmet and lowered his head for the fatal blow that would be delivered with the bolting hammer. As the holder of the largest piece of carbide, I was to be the executioner. But as I raised the hammer there was a little shower of stones from above us, and then a voice. Someone was coming. We could not believe it. We held our breaths and looked up. Sure enough, there was a faint light, and then a lamp appeared through the Slit. Together, we cried out joyously to whomever it was to come down. Quickly he did so.
Deliverance from starvation had come at the very last hour. As he reached the bottom of the rope, one of the others quickly snatched off his helmet, and I despatched the newcomer with a single blow of the hammer. Delighted, we stripped him, cut long slices from his thigh-muscles, and cooked them slowly over the flames of our carbide lamps. Food had never tasted so good.
For many weeks, this method of survival continued to work well. From time to time, another innocent passer-by would slide down the muddied one-way rope into our trap. Mostly, the parties that visited Kingsdale in those days were student groups who never noticed the disappearance of one novice member. Just as today, the novices were used as pack-animals, and they almost always carried spare carbide - the fuel for their own barbecues.
But then came the end of the acedemic year. Week after week passed without anyone coming to the cave. Once again we drew lots, agreeing that the loser must die the next day if no new food had dropped in. This time I lost. I argued that we should fix our choice on the lots we had drawn weeks before, but the others would not agree. I had long suspected a growing collusion between them against me.
We settled down for the night - my last night. When the others were both soundly asleep, I took the hammer and crept up on the first one, then the other. The first made not a sound. How fortunate that I had chosen to strike him first, for the other screamed and screamed, and the screams ring on in my ears even now. With great difficulty, I dragged the bodies down to the Master Cave and pushed them into the sump. Then, filled with remorse, I sat down beside the water to wait for my slow death.
But then I remembered the roots and soil along the passage just above me. I climbed up and went to the place where I had seen them. With my bare hands I started to scrabble through a mass of soil, roots, and small stones. There was a collapse, and I was half buried. I felt warm air on my face, and I could smell bracken, but still I saw no exit. Struggling free from the pile of soil, I realised suddenly that I was already outside - on a moonless starless night. I crept to a wall, climbed over, and found myself on the road through Kingsdale. Astonishingly, the motorbike on which I had arrived months ago was still there. It started, and I rode swiftly away into the night, leaving the new entrance for someone else to find.
From that day to this no-one has shared my dark secret. Those were hard days, when cavers were hard men. We did what we had to do - what anyone would have done in the circumstances. I do not expect the modern caver - electric-lighted, cacooned in warm clothing, and bouncing down a clean new Edelrid rope - to understand. I just want the caving archivists to know the truth, and to let this tale be a salutary warning to those who seek adventure merely for adventure's sake. Oh yes, and to remind student novices how important it is to stay close to the main party when you are underground.