Pontyclun to Ebbw Vale Town Great British Railway Journeys


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Pontyclun to Ebbw Vale Town

Michael Portillo strikes gold at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, where after much frisking, he gains access to the inner vaults.


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For Edwardian Britons, a Bradshaw's was an indispensable guide

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to a railway network at its peak.

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I'm using an early 20th-century edition

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to navigate a vibrant and optimistic Britain...

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..at the height of its power and influence in the world...

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..but a nation wrestling with political,

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social and industrial unrest at home.

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A century ago, South Wales could claim to have played a vital role

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in making Britain the globe's greatest economy,

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maritime power and empire.

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But coal, the key to the region's and the country's wealth,

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was unglamorous, and cities like Cardiff felt undervalued,

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and so sought other ways to draw the world's attention

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to their great worth.

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I'm continuing in South Wales,

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through the industrial core of the country,

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where Welsh character and traditions were forged

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through mining and migration, religion and rugby.

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Heading east, I'll cross the Bristol Channel into

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south west England, where Isambard Kingdom Brunel's

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feats of engineering defied tides and spanned rivers,

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before ending my journey in Cornwall.

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My journey will take me to Pontyclun,

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to the mint that exports more coins than any other.

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I'll explore sporting and maritime milestones in Cardiff

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before reaching Ebbw Vale, where I'll transfer to Bleanavon's

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heritage railway.

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On this journey, I discover how money is made in Wales...

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And then when the guard opens, it'll come out.

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HE LAUGHS

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..test my sea legs and my lungs...

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HE SHOUTS

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..and get back on the tracks

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at the highest station in Wales.

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WHISTLE SOUNDS

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My journey continues eastwards from Swansea.

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Destination - Pontyclun.

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It's always puzzled me why we prize gold so highly.

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When you think about it,

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why should we treasure it above all other minerals and things?

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But over the centuries, as currencies have risen

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and fallen in value, gold has been the reliable store of value.

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100 years ago, as the British government prepared its war chest,

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it wanted all the gold that it could lay its hands on.

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At the time of my Bradshaw's,

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the gold sovereign was a coin in general circulation.

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I've come just north of Pontyclun, to Llantrisant, to investigate.

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The Royal Mint moved here from London in 1968,

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and produces all British coinage and much for export.

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Its museum houses coins spanning 1,100 years...

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..as well as medals for gallantry and Olympic victory.

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I'm meeting museum director and numismatist Dr Kevin Clancy.

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Gold has always been very closely associated with coinage,

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is that right?

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Yes, from the beginnings of the invention of coinage,

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when the Greeks invented coinage 2,500 years or more ago.

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And in Britain people would have used gold regularly

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from the mid-14th century.

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Tell me about the history of the coin that we call the sovereign.

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Well, sovereigns go back to the reign of Henry VII, 1489.

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If you had a sovereign, you would have had 20 shillings' worth,

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more or less, of gold in your pocket.

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This thing is absolutely exquisite, isn't it?

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It's got a beautiful design. The lettering is very clear.

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Tiny bit of damage to it, there.

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What a wonderful object. You must be very, very proud of that.

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It's splendid design and incredible

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on pretty well every level.

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The first modern sovereign was struck

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in 22-carat gold in 1817,

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towards the end of the reign of King George III.

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In the pre-First World War period, what's happening to the coinage?

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The sovereigns were produced in truly industrial numbers,

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millions and millions every year.

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We've got an example here from the reign of Edward VII.

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Oh, what a handsome portrait.

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That's very good. Very recognisably Edward VII.

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When he was on the throne,

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a gold sovereign represented more than a farm labourer's weekly wage.

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But what was happening to the coinage come World War I?

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You've got a period of massive economic disruption.

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The country simply couldn't sustain a precious-metal coinage

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-of gold at that time.

-And they're replaced by paper?

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And they're replaced by paper.

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Within days of the outbreak of the war, the British public was urged

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to hand in its gold sovereigns to fund the war effort

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through war loans, or in return for treasury notes.

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By mid-1915, gold had all but disappeared from circulation.

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But sovereigns are still being made today,

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and they're highly collectable.

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I'm curious to see the process.

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But first, some stringent security checks.

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Hello, Paul. And what sort of work are you doing here?

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We're changing over our machine to bullion sovereign.

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-What are bullion sovereign?

-Bullion sovereign's

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a lower-quality sovereign, but it's still quite a high-quality coin.

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So, these are gold of a certain purity...?

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-22 carats.

-22 carats.

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-And at the moment, these discs of gold are completely blank.

-Yep.

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-That's what makes the coin.

-This is the die, is it?

-That's the die.

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What, so, it's going to be like that, is it? And any heat?

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-Do you heat the metal? No.

-And we strike it three times.

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And you have to do that with a fair amount of pressure, do you?

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-70 tonnes.

-70 tonnes?

-70 tonnes.

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The Royal Mint strikes nearly five billion coins a year

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for around 60 countries throughout the world.

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So, one entirely blank and very beautiful coin.

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I'm going to pop it into the slot, there.

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I'm going to put my hands down here

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and press both buttons simultaneously...

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-Keep your hands on them.

-Keep my hands on the buttons. Here we go.

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Now you can take your hands off.

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And when the guard opens, just take the coin out.

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HE LAUGHS

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Oh, look at that. Isn't that beautiful?

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Dragon on one side, Her Majesty on the other.

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-A sovereign on a sovereign.

-It is.

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Thank you, thank you.

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Hello, Michael.

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-If you just come this way, please. Another search.

-Another search?

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-Arms like that, please, yeah.

-I was just searched, you know.

-I know.

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We search all the time here. Don't worry.

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MICHAEL LAUGHS OK.

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Under escort by head of security Mark Shutt,

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I'm gaining access to the very heart of the mint.

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Oh, my goodness. HE LAUGHS

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Oh, wow. Oh. Am I allowed to touch those?

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You can do. I'll have to give you some gloves first.

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-How pure is that gold?

-As pure as you can get.

-Really? That...?

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Yes, it is.

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Be careful, they're very heavy, so please don't drop one,

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-otherwise it would cost you a lot of money.

-Right.

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HE LAUGHS

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That is ridiculous.

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That... That is ridiculous.

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It's 14kg.

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You can't believe the density of that, can you?

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You can't believe that an object that size

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is going to weigh that much.

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Wow. And how many have we got there?

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-10 bars.

-10 bars. 140kg.

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How much money is that?

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-About 3.5 million.

-You're kidding?

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3.5 million. And that's quite an elegant door. Where does that go to?

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Erm, it goes somewhere very secure and safe.

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-Can't get much out of this fellow, today.

-No.

-No.

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But I'm speculating that perhaps there might be more

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of this lovely stuff in there.

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Indeed there is, yes.

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Very nice. Well, thank you, gentlemen.

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That is an exquisite display.

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-Thank you very much indeed.

-We appreciate it.

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The game of rugby was invented by an English schoolboy,

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but embraced enthusiastically by the Welsh.

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It also flourished in the healthy, open spaces of New Zealand.

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Could men who toiled in the pit and lived in the smoke

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of industrial South Wales field the team that could match the Kiwis?

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The matter was put to the test in 1905 in the heart of Cardiff

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in a struggle that would enter the history books.

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I've travelled some 15 miles to the capital

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and the home of Welsh rugby.

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Towards the end of the 19th century,

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Cardiff had grown to become one of the largest towns in Wales,

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thanks to its prosperous trade in coal.

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King Edward VII recognised the town's great industrial success

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when, in 1905, he granted it city status.

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To find out about the sporting milestone that same year,

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I've come to Cardiff Arms Park.

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I'm joining historian Gwyn Prescott in the stands.

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Why was there such a build-up to this match in 1905?

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Well, the New Zealanders had arrived in Britain in September.

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They'd won 27 games on the trot including defeats

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of Scotland, Ireland and England by five tries to nil,

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so by the time they came to Wales, which it was, fortunately for Wales,

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right at the end of the tour, this huge interest -

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the arrival of the All Blacks in Cardiff.

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How good were the Welsh at that time?

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We were absolutely at the top of the game,

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in fact in the middle of what later became known

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as our first Golden Era - 11 years from 1900 to 1911,

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when Wales won six triple crowns. Exceptionally strong side.

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So the match begins with the two teams coming onto the pitch.

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Well, at that time, there were no formalities

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before an international match,

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but it was different with the All Blacks,

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because they'd thrown down the gauntlet at all their matches,

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performing the haka,

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but one of the Welsh selectors,

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Tom Williams, came up with a brilliant idea.

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He said, "Well, why don't we respond to the haka?"

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And what better way is there of responding to the haka than singing

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the Welsh national anthem?

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And the crowd soon picked it up,

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so, within seconds, 42,000 people were singing

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the Welsh national anthem and it had an electric effect.

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On their first tour of Britain,

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the All Blacks captivated Edwardian sports fans and the press

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when they performed they performed their ancient Maori war dance,

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the haka, which is now a rugby tradition.

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PLAYERS CHANT

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Today, Wales's national team plays next door

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at the Principality Stadium, which swallowed up

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part of the old Cardiff Arms Park where the 1905 match was staged.

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What happened in the match?

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It was an incredibly intense game, but Wales managed to score a try

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in the first half and went into a 3-0 lead.

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About 10 minutes before the final whistle, Bob Deans,

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the New Zealand centre, was passed the ball on the 25 yard line,

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22 metre line today, and made for the goal line, but was brought down.

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The referee arrived and said, "No try,"

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so it was no try and the referee's decision is final.

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-It was a Welsh win?

-It was a Welsh win.

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Why is the fixture remembered more than a century later?

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In 1905, that victory over New Zealand was

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the coming of age of Welsh rugby.

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It was the point when rugby became a marker of Welsh identity,

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if you like.

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The Golden Era of the early 20th century was unmatched

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until the 1970s when Wales again enjoyed great success.

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Gerald Davis CBE, played during that time

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and is one of the finest ever international wings.

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WELSH NATIONAL ANTHEM PLAYS

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Hi Gerald, I'm Michael.

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What a glorious sound, Gerald, and you must have heard it

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so often before matches. It must do something very special to you.

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Well, I have to say, I have heard it often enough,

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but it speaks of the heroes of the past, of Wales being a land of

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poets and singers and also the need for the Welsh language to survive.

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It is a stirring piece of music and we all feel proud

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and we all have a sense of belonging to Wales.

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Now, what fortune did you personally have against the All Blacks?

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Well, this was back in the 1970s and we never beat them.

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They're still the strong team and, up until 1953,

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Wales were leading in the series of matches against them, 3-1,

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but ever since then, Wales have never ever beaten them

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and I'd like to think perhaps in the way George Orwell thinks

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of sport, you know, Wales won the battles, but we never won the war.

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So, what does rugby mean to Wales?

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We're very proud and very passionate of our game,

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all of us in Wales are.

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It is considered to be our national sport and that is

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because we find that we can compete against the best in the world.

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We can't say that about every sport that we have in Wales,

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but certainly rugby gives us an identity on a global scale.

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I'll continue my exploration of Cardiff in the morning.

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I'm joining the railway at Cardiff Queen Street

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and travelling one stop to Cardiff Bay.

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Inspired by the example of Captain Robert Falcon Scott,

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I'm going to abandon the decadent luxury of the train for the perils

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of the briny sea, though I may stop somewhere short of the South Pole.

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At the beginning of the 20th century,

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Cardiff's docks handled more coal than any other port in the world.

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The population of what was once known as Tiger Bay had swelled

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in the mid-19th century with immigrants from all over the world.

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The Grade I listed pierhead building

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stands a stone's throw from the water.

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It was erected in 1897

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and became the headquarters of the Cardiff Railway Company.

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On the trail of Scott's voyage to the last unexplored continent

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on Earth, I'm meeting maritime historian David Jenkins.

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David, how was it that there came to be

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a connection between Captain Scott and Cardiff?

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Well, it all came about through the figure of Edward Evans

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who was Scott's deputy on the expedition.

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He had Cardiff connections,

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particularly Cardiff's foremost ship-owner

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at the time, Daniel Radcliffe,

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and through that association the scene was then set

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for Cardiff's solid support for the expedition.

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Was Cardiff anxious to support something like this?

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Well, I think there was a sense in which Cardiff wanted to be

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recognised as an imperial city.

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It wasn't recognised as one of the great entrepots of Empire

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where all the wonderful goods, like tea and sugar,

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and all the rest of it came in.

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This was the port that exported this dirty stuff called coal

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which nobody really wanted to know about,

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but actually the British Empire would have ground to a halt

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in a few weeks had it not been for this coal

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and I think the business community of Cardiff

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saw it as their opportunity to shine.

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-There was prestige to be had?

-Exactly, Michael.

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This was the expedition which they hoped to reach the South Pole

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and claim it for Britain.

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Scott's first Antarctic expedition, between 1901 and 1904, fell short

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of the pole by 500 miles,

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but made it further south than man had travelled before.

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Scott returned a hero and was made Commander

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of the Royal Victorian Order by the King, yet he remained

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determined to complete the mission and planned a second expedition.

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Where exactly did the Terra Nova depart?

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Well, just from behind us here, Michael.

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She sailed out into the Channel,

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she was followed by a massive entourage of local tugs

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and she left Cardiff amidst great flag-waving

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and ceremony on 15th June 1910,

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which was a lovely day, not like today.

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Scott realised his dream and became the first British explorer

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to reach the South Pole in January 1912,

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but his achievement was bittersweet as the Norwegian Roald Amundsen

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had beaten him to it by month.

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We all know that the expedition ends in disaster

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and with Scott's death.

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What happens to the ship?

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The ship returns here in 1913,

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obviously a much more solemn occasion

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than her departure of three years previously,

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but the Terra Nova did come back to Cardiff

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and there are a number of memorials around the city

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related to the vessel.

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An extraordinary sort of symmetry between the departure and return.

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Exactly, she did return.

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Over 100 years after Scott's ill-fated second expedition,

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I'm keen to find out whether the spirit of adventure

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is still alive in Cardiff Bay, on a boat that is no stranger to the ice.

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Skipper Andy Hall welcomes me on board the yacht Challenge Wales.

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Thank you very much. Anyone got a life jacket?

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This vessel has been to Antarctica, has it not?

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Yes, this boat was originally built to race around the world,

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so she's been down into the southern hemisphere

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and down into the Southern Ocean on two occasions now.

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And a century after Scott, Antarctica is still

0:19:440:19:46

-a substantial challenge?

-Oh, yes, very much so.

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Even the current round-the-world races all have limiting points

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to stop them going too far down into the ice.

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What does the boat do now? What's its function today?

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The boat is now owned by the charity of the same name

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and the purpose of the charity is to take young people out

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on adventurous trips to help develop what's broadly termed "life skills",

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so it's getting them working as a team, setting them

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a challenge, taking them out of their comfort zone,

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getting away from their mobile phone coverage.

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Well, I'd like to muck in with that. I'm at your orders, captain.

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OK, that's good.

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If you'd like to make your way forward to the mast,

0:20:210:20:24

then you can help put the sail up and we'll just get

0:20:240:20:27

the starboard running backstay forward, please, team.

0:20:270:20:29

-Hello, Adrian, reporting for duty.

-That's good, Michael,

0:20:330:20:36

-if you'd like to come up to here.

-Yes.

0:20:360:20:37

This is the main halyard for the boat

0:20:370:20:40

and this pulls up the mainsail, so it's a bell-ringing action

0:20:400:20:45

first of all and then we pull the rope outwards.

0:20:450:20:48

It is getting harder.

0:20:480:20:49

Out and down!

0:20:530:20:55

-Out and down!

-Whoa!

0:20:550:20:58

-Hello, are you Sophie?

-Yes.

-My name is Michael.

0:21:080:21:11

How long have you been on Challenge Wales?

0:21:110:21:14

I started coming on board about seven years ago.

0:21:140:21:17

Oh, wow, so you're quite a veteran?

0:21:170:21:19

-Yeah.

-It's quite hard physical work. Have you adapted to that?

0:21:190:21:22

Yeah, cos when you're working altogether, it becomes quite fun.

0:21:220:21:25

The crew is currently in training for this summer's Tall Ships Races,

0:21:250:21:30

one of the largest youth and cultural events in Europe

0:21:300:21:33

for trainee sailors, drawn from many nationalities and backgrounds.

0:21:330:21:38

The event has been an annual fixture since 1956

0:21:380:21:42

and, this year, around 100 vessels will be taking part.

0:21:420:21:46

I'll leave this train at Ebbw Vale, bound for Blaenavon.

0:21:580:22:02

My 1907 Bradshaw's railway map is eloquent.

0:22:020:22:05

There's a greater concentration of railways here in South Wales

0:22:050:22:09

than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

0:22:090:22:12

In parallel lines, representing the valleys,

0:22:120:22:15

the trains brought the coal down to the ports.

0:22:150:22:18

In those days, coal was used for everything - in homes,

0:22:180:22:22

in industry for power, by ships and by the Royal Navy.

0:22:220:22:26

With the decline of coal - puff! -

0:22:260:22:29

in 1980, the rail services

0:22:290:22:30

between Blaenavon and Pontypool were terminated,

0:22:300:22:34

but today trains run again - puff-puff!

0:22:340:22:38

-Tickets, please.

-Hello.

-Hello. How are you?

0:22:430:22:47

-Going to end of the line.

-OK. Thank you.

0:22:470:22:49

I'm just looking at this old map of the railway lines

0:22:490:22:52

here in South Wales.

0:22:520:22:53

Do you have any memory of when every one of these valleys have a line?

0:22:530:22:56

I remember a lot of coal industry,

0:22:560:22:58

-a lot of coal freight, going down the valleys where I live.

-Yes.

0:22:580:23:02

-It's all gone now, but I worked in the mines myself.

-Did you?

0:23:020:23:07

Yeah, done it for 15 years, came out of it unscathed, so...

0:23:070:23:11

Yeah, congratulations.

0:23:110:23:12

-Well, thank you very much.

-Yeah, thank you.

0:23:120:23:14

-Have a nice journey.

-Thank you.

0:23:140:23:16

At the start of the First World War, coal exports from Wales

0:23:190:23:23

were at their peak, at more than 10 million tons annually.

0:23:230:23:27

During that industrial heyday, the big pit mine

0:23:270:23:32

was in full production and the town of Blaenavon could be

0:23:320:23:35

reached from Ebbw Vale via a western branch on the Monmouthshire line.

0:23:350:23:40

WHISTLE BLOWS

0:23:400:23:42

Built in 1866, this stretch of track closed to passengers in 1941

0:23:420:23:48

and to cold freight in 1980.

0:23:480:23:50

WHISTLES BLOW

0:23:510:23:54

It's now a heritage line,

0:23:550:23:57

preserved by the Pontypool and the Blaenavon Railway Society.

0:23:570:24:01

Retired railway civil engineer Paul Dally used to maintain tracks

0:24:010:24:05

in West Wales.

0:24:050:24:07

This is a splendid vehicle. What is this?

0:24:070:24:09

This is an ex-Great Western Railway inspection saloon

0:24:090:24:12

that was used by the engineers to inspect the track

0:24:120:24:15

and it's mounted on an even older underframe that came

0:24:150:24:18

from the 1880s, so this coach would have been built in about 1912.

0:24:180:24:22

I never think much about rail inspections.

0:24:220:24:25

Tell me how it was done.

0:24:250:24:26

Well, track inspection is principally down on foot.

0:24:260:24:29

You've a patrolman who walks the line regularly to ensure it's safe.

0:24:290:24:33

And you, of course, have to maintain heritage railways.

0:24:330:24:37

-You have to be certain that the track is safe.

-Absolutely.

0:24:370:24:39

The same principles that were carried out

0:24:390:24:41

during the Edwardian times still apply today.

0:24:410:24:44

Not on the filthy wet day like today?

0:24:440:24:46

Track patrolling has to be done whatever the weather,

0:24:460:24:48

even in the snow.

0:24:480:24:50

Gauge down, turn knob. Is that satisfactory?

0:24:590:25:02

Yes, that is good because 1,435

0:25:020:25:04

is four foot eight and a half in imperial

0:25:040:25:06

and this is slightly over, so this is all well within tolerance.

0:25:060:25:10

This is a fun thing to do in wet weather!

0:25:120:25:14

-Yes, it's not very nice, but then you can see the dips.

-Oh!

0:25:140:25:17

What's causing this?

0:25:170:25:19

Well, in this instance,

0:25:190:25:20

it's probably down to the amount of mining that's been done in the area.

0:25:200:25:24

Old mine workings do subside.

0:25:240:25:25

That would have to be put right at some point.

0:25:250:25:28

Yes, that would be planned in for the local gang to come

0:25:280:25:30

and lift the track and pack, to get the rails exactly level.

0:25:300:25:33

Well, I think I might leave you to put it right.

0:25:330:25:36

I was I was rather hoping to take another ride.

0:25:360:25:39

That will be excellent, thank you.

0:25:390:25:41

-Alex. May I come aboard?

-Of course.

-Thank you.

0:25:440:25:47

WHISTLE BLOWS

0:25:480:25:50

BLOWS AGAIN

0:25:520:25:53

Alex, it's a wet day and you've got quite an incline here.

0:26:060:26:10

Is it difficult to drive the locomotive in these conditions?

0:26:100:26:13

There's a little bit more skill required, but...

0:26:130:26:16

You can slip on the rails if you're not careful?

0:26:160:26:19

-You can, yes, very much so.

-What is the gradient?

-It's about one in 40.

0:26:190:26:24

And the valleys here are so beautiful, aren't they?

0:26:240:26:27

Even on a wet day, it has a majesty about it, doesn't it?

0:26:270:26:31

It certainly does.

0:26:310:26:33

And filled with steam and smoke, it looks at its best.

0:26:330:26:36

And we're coming towards our last station. What's the name of that?

0:26:380:26:41

-This is the Whistle Inn.

-The Whistle Inn?

0:26:410:26:43

-That demands a whistle, don't you think?

-It does indeed.

-Here we go.

0:26:430:26:47

WHISTLE BLOWS

0:26:470:26:49

-Wow! I enjoyed that.

-It's a pleasure.

0:26:490:26:52

Thank you, Alex.

0:26:550:26:57

-And thank you, Wayne.

-A pleasure.

-Bye-bye.

-Bye.

-Bye now.

0:26:590:27:04

At the beginning of the 20th century,

0:27:120:27:14

South Wales was known around the globe for its coal -

0:27:140:27:19

the fuel of British manufacturing industry

0:27:190:27:22

and of the most powerful navy in the world.

0:27:220:27:26

The departure of Captain Scott from Cardiff to Antarctica boosted

0:27:260:27:31

the region's prestige and the Welsh anthem swelled in the valleys

0:27:310:27:37

when the national team triumphed over the All Blacks.

0:27:370:27:40

The men who toiled in the coal mines

0:27:400:27:43

and those who carried the coal along these lines were justly proud.

0:27:430:27:48

They knew that the might of the British Empire

0:27:480:27:52

rested on their brawn.

0:27:520:27:54

Next time, a cinematic experience hits a high note...

0:27:590:28:02

CINEMA ORGAN PLAYS

0:28:020:28:03

That's absolutely brilliant.

0:28:060:28:07

This is Mary.

0:28:070:28:09

..I learn about the fight for female emancipation.

0:28:090:28:12

How do you feel about those women, those suffragettes?

0:28:120:28:14

They knew what they wanted and in the end they got it, didn't they?

0:28:140:28:18

..and prepare for a smooth landing.

0:28:180:28:20

The toilets are no longer in use.

0:28:220:28:23

Cabin crew, resume your seats, please.

0:28:230:28:26

Oh! That is amazing.

0:28:260:28:29

Armed with his Edwardian Bradshaw's guide, Michael strikes gold at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, where after much frisking, he gains access to the inner vaults.

At Cardiff Arms Park, Michael revisits the scene of a triumphant Welsh victory over the fearsome All Blacks and hears from Welsh international Gerald Davies how the Welsh national anthem kicked the intimidating Haka into touch.

In Cardiff Bay, Michael discovers the departure point for one of the Edwardian era's most famous expeditions - Scott's ill-fated voyage to the Antarctic. Aboard the racing yacht Challenge Wales, Michael meets young sailors training for a Tall Ships Race.