LifeTrail(tm) Station #3

View the photos of The Lost LifeTrail(tm) Stations as part of my Merthyr Road project on Flickr.

It isn’t just the wealth of South Wales that has declined since the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal, the iron works, the coal mines, and most of our railways. There has also been a dramatic turn for the worst in the health of South Wales. The nation as a whole is facing an ever-increasing burden of folks who are overweight and who just aren’t doing enough physical activity to maintain their health as they get older. When coupled with the rising average age of the working population, the UK as a whole is facing extra demand on its state-funded health care services coinciding with less people footing the bill.

The Welsh Assembly Government is trying to plan ahead with the twenty year Climbing Higher national strategy for sport and active recreation. Under this initiative, a number of Welsh councils have been buying the LifeTrail(tm) outdoor activity solution from US company Playworld Systems and installing them in local parks. Comprising of ten separate Wellness Stations, the LifeTrail system is aimed at getting the aging population to perform simple but effective exercises that will contribute towards their overall health.

And there just happens to be a few of these hidden away along an old railway line in Pontypridd …

Thoughts On The Day

This might seem like an odd topic for my Merthyr Road project, which to date has focused on the more historical locations between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, but please indulge me. The LifeTrail(tm) stations have been placed along the route of the former Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway, which opened in 1884 and was taken out of use in 1967. The Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway connected the coal mines at Merthyr with the docks at Newport, running along the Taff Vale Railway to Pontypridd before crossing the River Taff just south of Ynysangharad Park, down the eastern side of the valley to Penhros Junction, and then east through Caerphilly, Machen and Basseleg and so down to the Newport Docks. To the best of my knowledge, some of the P.C. & N. Railway has been converted to form the Taff Trail route between Nantgarw and Glyntaff, whilst some of it has been lost under the A470 along with the Glamorganshire Canal. A third section, between the Treforest Ironworks Bridge over the Taff at Glyntaff and Ynysangharad Park, has recently been turned into a pleasant riverside walk, and it is here that the LifeTrail(tm) stations have appeared.

To be honest, I had no idea that the LifeTrail(tm) stations were there – I was actually heading out of Pontypridd for a walk down to Taffs Well to gather more photos for a second article about Cardiff Railway. The first station can be found at the south-western corner of Ynysangharad War Memorial Park, and I found a total of five more stations along the route of the old railway line to Treforest. It’s difficult to describe what they are; the best thing to do is to look at the photos of the individual stations. Without trying to do them down, they’re basically simple but effective exercise equipment purpose-built for placing outdoors in parks. Online articles I’ve read since I took the photos suggest that they are aimed at the older adult population (by which I mean the over 40’s!), and that’s also backed up by the promotional material available on the manufacturer’s website.

I walked along the set of exercise stations with an adult couple who were probably in their mid-forties (my apologies to you if I’ve gotten that wrong 🙂 ), looking at each of the exercises on offer and talking about the concept. We all expressed surprise at where the stations have been placed, and wondered whether they would have been more accessible and easier to find if they’d been placed in a trail around Ynysangharad War Memorial Park instead. I’m sorry to say that, at Station #2, we couldn’t work out whether the contractors hadn’t finished installing this station yet, or whether someone had already stolen the pedals from the exercise bike built into this station! We also all noticed that these stations are labelled for Tredegar Park and are branded for Newport City Council, an unfortunate oversight on someone’s part that gave me the title of this article 🙂

My overall feelings on these installations are mixed. On the one hand, anything that gets the under-active to do more healthy exercise is a GoodThing(tm). The UK in general, and Wales in particular, is heading towards a health crisis caused in part by folks doing less physical activity, and that’s not going to be fun for anyone – not the folks who will be (or are) suffering, and not for my generation who will also be footing the tax bill for it. On the other, it’s a shame to see Welsh tax money being used to buy an off-the-shelf solution from the US. This could have been a good opportunity for Welsh business and the various Welsh teaching centres, including the Welsh Institute of Chiropractic at the University of Glamorgan (who I’m personally indebted to for excellent treatment following a car accident some years ago).

I’m wondering where the other four LifeTrail(tm) stations will be built. There are six stations at the moment in Pontypridd (one of which is purely informational), leaving four additional stations if RCT are going to take the standard complement of ten stations. Station #6 is at the end of the track; it wasn’t obvious to me where any additional stations could be built. I’ll have to go back out to the site once work has been completed to see where RCT has placed the other four units.

On the day I didn’t know any better, but after researching the LifeTrail(tm) stations, I’m disappointed to find that RCT’s stations don’t appear at first glance to include the panels for disabled people. Just to explain – each station has three sides to it, or three panels. Each panel hosts a single exercise for folks to do. According to Playworld System’s website, normally two of the panels would have exercises for the able-bodied, whilst the third panel would either be used for information / sponsor purposes, or for exercises for folks in wheelchairs. RCT appear to have opted for a different configuration, using all three panels for exercises for able-bodied folks. In this post-DDA world, that might prove to be a bold move on RCT’s part.

(As a footnote, it will be interesting to go down to Tredegar Park one weekend to see how their LifeTrail(tm) stations compare to those installed in Pontypridd).

Post Production

The main job since taking the photos has been to try and find out more about the LifeTrail stations. Talking to a few locals who regularly use the path between Treforest and Ynysangharad Park, they’re as much a surprise to them as they were to me on the day!

Unfortunately, this has been easier said than done. There’s plenty of information online from other councils in Wales about the Climbing Higher initiative, and how they are spending tax payers’ money – but there’s precious little information available online from Rhondda Cynon Taff Council itself. Unfortunately, the online search on the RCT website appears to have been having a bad day, as even searches for basic terms like ‘Ynysangharad’ produce no results, and searches for ‘Climbing Higher’ list PDFs that don’t mention the WAG initiative at all 🙁

At the time of writing, I’m assuming that RCT is still in the process of installing the LifeTrail(tm) stations. That’s based mainly on the state of the six stations that I came across during this shoot, and that there’s been no launch of the stations to match the work that Newport City Council did when their stations were setup in Tredegar Park.

I’ve found it a little weird writing an article about a modern-day attraction. This is the very first one, and it certainly won’t be the last! Regular readers of my blog might be forgiven for thinking that the route between Cardiff and Merthyr consists of nothing other than a post-industrial wilderness littered with abandoned canals, railways and industrial workings. As well as celebrating what used to be here, I believe that my Merthyr Road project should also be playing a positive role in documenting what has taken the place of the industrial landscape of the 1800’s and 1900’s. There’s so little about this part of the world online, so anything that I or anyone else can do to chip away at that problem can only be a good thing!

Sources / See Also

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Whilst exploring the banks of the River Taff at Hawthorn, near Upper Boat, I spotted this soggy piece of cardboard clinging onto a rock in the river for dear life.

I love the colour of this shot, and the energy injected into the water by the little weir just out of frame on the right. After all the black and white shots I’ve been posting these last few weeks, it’s almost a relief to come up with a stunning colour shot for a change!

Whilst I was there, I took the individual frames that I’ll need to make a panoramic shot of the River Taff. At some point, I’ll get the shots stitched together and uploaded to Flickr as part of a new ‘Panoramic Shots’ series for my Merthyr Road project.

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In Memory Of Richard Trevithick

View all the photos from this set as part of my Merthyr Road collection on Flickr.

On 21st February, 1804, Cornishman Richard Trevithick successfully brought 10 tons of iron, and 70 men, down from the Penydaren Iron Works in Merthyr Tydfil to the Glamorganshire Canal’s wharves at Navigation by pulling the wagons along an existing tramroad using a steam-powered engine.

It was the first time, anywhere in the world, that a steam engine had been used to pull anything along a railed track.

The Penydaren Mining Railway, also known as the Penydaren Tramroad, or the Penydaren Tramway, or the Merthyr Tramroad, was the setting for this historical event. (Penydaren is also often spelt as Penydarren, and the tramroad is often called the Penydarren Tramroad. Which spelling is right I leave to others to decide). The tramroad had been built because the Dowlais Company’s railroad ran past the Penydaren Ironworks on a high level course, making it impossible to build a junction for the Penydaren Ironworks to use. In response, Samuel Homfray commissioned the tramroad to follow the eastern bank of the River Taff down to Navigation (modern day Abercynon). The tramroad was completed in 1802, and was in use until 1875, except for a period of uncertain length starting in 1815 (and maybe continuing to 1825) because of the collapse of a bridge at Edwardsville just north of Quakers Yard.

Although it was the route used for the first-ever steam-powered railway journey, those early iron rails couldn’t take the weight of the engine. Just as it had been before Trevithick, after he’d left South Wales (he was notorious for losing interest in his inventions; it was his great character flaw) the tramroad reverted back to using horses to draw the wagons down to Navigation.

To accomodate the horses, the tramroad didn’t use sleepers as we’re now used to from our modern railways. The rails sat on two lines of stones, allowing the horses to walk between the rails without difficulty. It also made things easier for the man who led the horse throughout the journey! There are several good examples of the tramroad stones still in existence along the route.

Today, the rails are gone, but the tramroad used in that historical journey still exists, and can be followed from Abercynon up to Merthyr Tydfil. The entire length up to Pontygwaith is part of the Taff Trail route of the National Cycle Way.

Thoughts On The Day

With blue skies overhead, this route makes for a very relaxing walk through some of the most beautiful parts of the Taff Valley. Although neither the A470 nor the Valley Line service up to Merthyr Tydfil are ever far from the tramroad, the calming lull of the River Taff bubbling along in the opposite direction more than makes up for the dull background noise of road and rail.

My original plan was to follow the tramroad all the way up from Navigation to Merthyr Tydfil and then catch the train back to Abercynon, but I didn’t make it all the way. I spent far too long along the way stopping for photos, which meant that a journey that takes the train just 9 minutes took me nearly six hours! (By contrast, it took me only two hours to make the return trip, including a photo stop at the Giant’s Bite). The other problem is that the tramroad unfortunately hasn’t completely survived. The section from Navigation ends at Merthyr Vale. It is possible to pick up the trail again from Troedyrhiw, but it seemed sensible to leave that for a follow-up visit, when maybe I wouldn’t get lost!

The route’s in various conditions. From Navigation to Quakers Yard, it has become a single-track road serving a few houses that lie along the route. From Quakers Yard to Pontygwaith Bridge it’s a stony track, similar to many now used by the Taff Trail. I was struck by the difference from Pontygwaith Bridge to the southern end of Merthyr Vale, where the track is packed hardcore showing off the original stones that the rails sat on to perfection. And then you get to Merthyr Vale, where the tramroad is in various states of having been tarmaced over, or completely buried under some form of building work that I don’t recognise. At some point in the middle of all this, the tramroad actually crosses the railway line. I completely failed to spot this, and ended up walking along the old Merthyr Vale Colliery branch line instead until it came to an end. (I only realised my mistake during the post-production research for this article).

There are magnificient views to be had, especially through the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. This hidden valley used to be crossed by three great viaducts. Two of them (the Joint Line’s viaduct to Cefn Glas, and the GWR’s viaduct to the Cynon Valley) no longer stand (they were demolished in 1969 – GaAC Volume 1 has a photo of both viaducts still in place taken in the 1950’s), but Brunel’s Goitre Coid Viaduct still stands, and is still in use by the Valley Lines service between Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil. Although all three viaducts were built to cross the tramroad, the best view is to be had from the top of Giant’s Bite on the other side of the valley.

The whole hidden valley takes its name from Pont-Y-Gwaiththe Works Bridge – which crosses the River Taff in the shadow of the A470. If you’re following the Taff Trail, the trail leaves the tramroad to cross Pontygwaith and duck under the A470 before heading north to Aberfan on the western side of the A470. If you’re heading south along the tramroad instead of north, you can cross Pont-Y-Gwaith, make your way under the A470, and then head up the hill to Giant’s Bite, or follow the dried up Glamorganshire Canal bed south around the foot of the hill.

Myself, I went up to Giant’s Bite, so that I could take some photos of the three viaducts from across the valley. I was pleasantly surprised with how close in I managed to get with just a 135mm DX lens (equivalent to a 200mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera). When the sunny weather returns later in the year, I’ll have to head back up there with my Sigma 80-400mm lens to see what detail it can capture 🙂

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Crossing Under The A472This shot of the A472 road bridge is my favourite shot from this shoot. When composing photos, I’m always looking for lines that will draw the eye along, and this photo is a fantastic example of how converging lines catch my attention. Unlike the natural landscape shots that make up the rest of the shoot, this photo feels clean and uncluttered. I don’t know … it just makes me want to go out and take more photos!

A Pause For BreathA close second is this shot taken just before reaching the bridge at Edwardsville that carries the tramroad across the River Taff, just south of the Goitre Coed Viaduct. My recent shoot down at Sea Lock, whilst very satisfying to that part of me that is really enjoying the history side of things, had left me feeling that the photography was getting lost amidst it all. I’ve been playing around with this basic shot design – a plain subject in focus in the foreground, with the more interesting subject further back out of the depth of field – since I first thought of it during my trip up to Snowdonia in 2003, and it’s always my fallback strategy when I’m not enjoying my photography as I’d like to.

Goitre Coid ViaductAlso a close second is this shot looking south at Goitre Coed Viaduct. I always find the Viaduct a complete bugger to photograph – the best place to actually see the damn thing seems to be across the valley sat atop Giant’s Bite. The Viaduct’s simply too big, and the valley too small, to get a great picture from the tramroad itself looking north. Going under the Viaduct, and looking south back to Quakers Yard, I managed to snag this shot which I feel gives a good idea of just how the viaduct appears out of nowhere to completely dominate the scene. But don’t take my word for it – get out and about and go see it for yourself.

Post Production

After the eye-popping colours from my Sea Lock photoshoot, I didn’t want to do another set of photos looking like that. But equally I didn’t want to do a black and white shoot if I could avoid it. It was a great day, blue skies and hot sun, and I’d been careful to avoid burnt-out skies as much as possible (which is why many of the photos in this set are looking south even though my journey was heading north!)

It was during the post work on the railway car shot that I decided to try desaturating the colours in the photo instead of saturating them. It seems obvious now that the problem was the unbalance I was creating through boosting the colours, but equally the same colour boosting really improved the photos I took on the Sculpture Trail walk on Good Friday. Go figure! I managed to drag Kristi away from the gardening to help, and together we produced a set of Aperture colour presets to desaturate the colours in different ways depending on the scene.

I’m sure that the most important factor with these photos was that they were all taken on a bright sunny day, but after readjusting all the colours from the shoot using the new desaturated presets, this is the first colour shoot in the Merthyr Road collection that I’m happy with. I’m planning to re-publish each of these articles as a free-to-download PDF ebook; I’ll need to reprocess all the colour photos that I’ve already published before I do.

The write-up for this shoot has taken me a lot longer than any of the previous articles in the Merthyr Road series. This shoot consists of more photos than previous ones, and the Merthyr Tramroad touches so much of the history of the valley that it travels through that there’s simply so much more to see and learn about. I’ve added a new section to the article, listing all of the resources used to compile both this article and the write-ups for the individual photos on Flickr. I highly recommend that you visit all of referenced websites; they contain far more information than I can include here, and there are also many old photos from a time when the Merthyr Tramroad was still in use.

Although the history is such a major part of this project, looking through the photo set one last time before making it public, I’m happy that the photography hasn’t been lost this time out.

Found on Flickr

I can understand a shortage of photos on Flickr about the Glamorganshire Canal, but I was surprised by the lack of photos covering the Trevithick Tramroad and the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. Practically every other walker I passed on the day was carrying a camera. Maybe there’s something wrong with the way I search Flickr for photos?

Mmm. I did manage to find these two photos which I liked.

They both make me want to go back at the height of summer, when everything will be much greener than now.

Sources

If you’d like to learn more about Richard Trevithick, the Merthyr Tramroad, or the areas that the Tramroad runs through, the sources used for this article and the photo write-ups on Flickr include:

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The Melingriffith Feeder, circa 2007
View the photos from this shoot as part of my Merthyr Road collection on Flickr.

When it came to working tin in South Wales, Treforrest was the undisputed King. But if Treforrest was King, further south down in the Vale of Glamorgan above Cardiff, the works at Melingriffith were certainly the Crown Prince. Built in 1749, the Melingriffith Tinplate Works sat on or near the site of an old corn mill that had existed as far back as the twelfth century. It was once the largest tin works in the UK, until the construction of the Treforrest Tin Works. The works closed in 1957, and today the only obvious traces that the works ever existed at all are the Melingriffith Feeder that runs down from the River Taff, and the restored Water Pump standing opposite Oak Cottage. The works themselves appear to have been completely cleared, and the site today is a modern housing estate.

Its mills were powered by water taken from the River Taff by the Melingriffith Feeder – a water course that doubled as a canal carrying iron from Pentrych Works until around 1815, when the Pentrych tramroad was completed. The tramroad crossed the River Taff over Iron Bridge. The Feeder lock was permanently closed in 1871 when it was bridged over, but traces of it remain if you don’t mind walking out into the (mostly) dry bed of the Feeder to look.

The Melingriffith Feeder makes its way to the old Glamorganshire Canal, where they run in parallel down to the Tin Works and out the other side at Melingriffith Lock. Where they come together to the north of the Tin Works, any overflow from the Canal was designed to flow into the Feeder. This is now the southern end of the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve at Forest Farm, and all the water from the Canal now runs into the Feeder before disappearing into a water course that runs underneath the housing estate that has replaced the Tin Works.

At the southern end of the housing estate, the Feeder re-emerges from underground where the Melingriffith Water Pump stands. The Pump was originally designed to pump water from the Feeder into the Canal at Melingriffith Lock. Rowson & Wright’s “The Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals Volume II” has an entire chapter devoted to the many disputes between the Tin Works and the Canal over the supply of water. As I understand it, the Tin Works ran entirely on water throughout its history – water that the Canal itself also needed, as Melingriffith was the last point where the Canal could gather additional water needed for the section down to Sea Lock. Today, the Canal has been totally obliterated (Ty Mawr Road has replaced the Canal here down into Whitchurch), and the Feeder just empties back into the Taff beside the Valley Lines railway bridge just south of Radyr Station.

Melingriffith is a great example of the huge contrast that exists between Cardiff and the Taff Vale in the regeneration of the former industrial sites. Most of the route of the Canal through Cardiff was industrialised, but today you wouldn’t know it. The Canal has gone, and the industry has been replaced by the housing estates of Melingriffith, Gabalfa, and Talybont, plus the regeneration of Cardiff Bay. In the Taff Vale, the Canal has mostly disappeared under the A470 trunk road, but where it hasn’t, the land has mostly just been left unused until you reach Rhydycar at Merthyr Tydfil and the site of the local Welsh Assembly Government office.

It’s a story that mirrors the growth of Cardiff against the decline of Merthyr.

Thoughts On The Day

I’d travelled through the Melingriffith housing estate a couple of years ago cycling the Taff Trail, but back then I’d never heard of the Tin Works, or the Feeder, or really of the Canal itself. I’d stopped at the Water Pump, and read the excellent tourist sign that goes with it, but without any background knowledge, I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. I didn’t know that Oak Cottage on the other side of the road was the old lockkeeper’s cottage from Melingriffith Lock, or that the road itself is where Melingriffith Lock once stood. I didn’t know that the Water Pump stands in the Melingriffith Feeder, whose route can be traced back up to the River Taff at Radyr Weir. And I didn’t know that the Feeder was also used as a canal – with its own lock on the River Taff itself – years before the Glamorganshire Canal was constructed.

If you want to explore this area for yourself, I recommend parking at the southern end of the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve. There’s a small car park there. Head north into the Reserve, cross the Canal overflow bridge, and follow both the Feeder and Canal until the Feeder starts to veer off to the left. Follow the Feeder all the way up to the River Taff. Here you can see the sluice gate mechanism that once regulated the flow of water into the Feeder, and the remains of the lock. Turn south, past Radyr Weir and its picnic area, and follow the Taff Trail down until it threads its way through the Melingriffith housing estate to Oak Cottage and the Water Pump. If you wish, there’s a muddy footpath down the Feeder’s east bankside that you can follow down to the River Taff and beyond, but that’s really a walk for another day. At the Water Pump, turn north, and follow the road (which lies on top of the old canal bed) back up to the car park. The whole walk will take an hour or two, and should be suitable for most people.

The Feeder is just one of the delights to explore in this area. There’s the Canal itself, which can be followed up to Longwood Drive (and further north up to Tongwynlais, as covered in another article). From Longwood Drive, there’s the disused Cardiff Railway route down to Coryton, which also makes for a great walk. And all of these walks are set in the Local Nature Reserve, which includes two purpose-built hides for watching the local wildlife without disturbing it.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Overflow Into The Feeder

From the two visits I made to Melingriffith, I came away with 305 photos, according to Aperture. Even allowing for the fact I now bracket every shot (so, divide that number by 3), that’s still a lot of photos. It was a tough challenge cutting it down to the 26 photos I finally uploaded to Flickr. Picking just one photo as a favourite was harder still.

In the end, this photo showing the Glamorganshire Canal flowing down into the Melingriffith Feeder is my favourite photo from this shoot. It’s a photo that’s a bit different, for a start. I’m willing to wager there aren’t too many other shots of this scene currently around 🙂 I love the colours too. I think it’s a great advert for what my new Nikon 18-135mm lens can do (more on that lens in a dedicated article later in the year).

Post Production

The photos for this shoot come from two separate visits to the area. Because you have the Canal, the Cardiff Railway, the River Taff and the Taff Trail all in the same area, some of the shots are going to be included in other shoots in the future. Rather than lump all these shots into a single folder, I decided to spend a lot of Mother’s Day tagging my photos in Aperture, with a view to building a set of Smart Albums based on the tags.

Aperture is a great tool, but if there’s one thing that Apple has overlooked, it’s the very simple operation of being able to add one keyword to a group of selected photos. I can use the excellent Lift & Stamp tool to copy keywords from one photo to others, but I can’t drag and drop a keyword onto a group of selected photos. When you try, the keyword gets applied to just one photo in the selection (the photo that you drop the keyword onto). It would be such a time-saver to be able to do this simple task – it would save me up to an hour a week.

Found On Flickr

A search for the term ‘melingriffith’ turned up two great shots of the Water Pump, but no shots of the Feeder at all, and no old photographs showing the Tin Works during their existence.

Maybe my search foo just isn’t good enough. I’m really surprised that there aren’t more photos up on Flickr covering the same subjects as my articles. These places are part of the Welsh heritage, as well as being historically important both to Wales and the UK.

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