Steven Hitchins: A conduit or line of pipes

A sign just up off the path: Danger Quarry Keep Out. A little further on a trail cuts off the main path and takes me up the hillside through the trees. I try to work out where I am, orienting myself according to the streets below. Everything looks the same under this rusty carpet of beech and oak leaves.

I notice places where the hill has been chiselled into, hollowed out. Little nooks, enclaves dug out of the slope. The area around the Danger sign is overgrown with ferns and brambles. The soil around this area is very dark, flecked with iridescent black specks. I stoop to pick out a chunk of black rock from the roots of a tree leaning out of the slope.

This part of Pontypridd where I live is called Graigwen (Welsh for ‘white rock’), but this whole area, backing onto the hillsides of Cefn Gwyngul and Craig-yr-Hesg, was apparently once known as Gellifynaches. ‘Gelli’ is a mutation of the Welsh ‘celli’ meaning ‘grove’ and ‘fynaches’ is a mutation of ‘mynaches’ meaning ‘nun’ or ‘recluse’.

Researching Gellifynaches, I come across a newspaper advert from The Cardiff Times (November 13 1863) announcing an application for the incorporation of the Pontypridd Water Works Company. The notice lists the various conduits, pipes and reservoirs that the company was responsible for.

Gellifynaches is mentioned a few times in the advertisement. It refers to a conduit or line of pipes commencing near ‘the mouth of an ancient coal level’ 200 yards north of ‘a farmhouse known as Gellifynaches’, and later mentions diverting ‘the waters of the Gellifynaches Brook’ into the said conduits.

Mist bathes distant hills. Steam twirls up off veranda. In the east Eglwysilan sugared in snow. Its cap of ferns the burnt browns of dried blood. To the southwest mists drift up off Gelliwion’s pines. Climbing coils of coniferous breath.

I place my gathered rusty objects in a tub and cover them with a solution of one-part vinegar to two-parts water with a pinch of salt. Acid and salt open the metal, electrochemical reactions accelerated by electrolytes preparing it for marriage to the plant world, intermediary to the animal world. As electrons pass from the iron to the oxygen in the water, the mineral eats its way into the vegetable realm. I splash an ochre wash of this iron water across a sheet of paper.

Ferns red against white birch trunks. Craig-yr-Hesg crags in the drizzly mist. Where the vegetation has died back I notice a newly denuded pathway cutting off in a different direction to where I usually go. I follow it down. Through the trees is a wooden frame fence forming a small square. I tramp across to it and see that inside is a tangle of wire, toppled posts and brambles. Around the other side of the fence is a sign: The Coal Authority – Keeping the Public Safe. And next to it another sign: Danger Unstable Ground / No Entry / No Smoking. Through the mesh of wire and brambles I can see a square hole in the ground. It goes down a distance then seems to be filled in.

Conduits Nos. 1-5 and No. 15 all stem from wells or springs in Lan Wood, the woodland surrounding Graigwen, with many of them commencing in the region of the Darren Ddu Coal Level where Lan Wood meets the side of Craig-yr-Hesg. The Darren Ddu Fault runs west of the Clydach, crosses the Taff at Trallwng and continues past the edge of the Common (near the Rocking Stone) and on to Gyntaff and Upper Boat. Small coal-levels had evidently been tunnelling the vein throughout Lan Wood for many years, with an ‘ancient level’ behind Gellifynaches mentioned in the advertisement.

I follow a stream down to a path and then clamber up, snapping through branches, onto the spoil tips. Landscape of black hills dotted with pale blonde grasses and clumps of heather. White birch spearing through shale-grey dunes. My boots munch across the carbon gravel. Slag path laked in puddles. A tunnel of twigs jewelled in chainmail of raindrops.

The Darren Ddu Level in Lan Wood was opened in 1842 by Morgan Thomas and his sons. Shortly afterwards, they opened another entrance on the other side of Graigwen, in an area between the Pwllhywel, Bryngoleu and Blaenhenwysg farms which consequently became known as Cwm Sg?t. Later another entrance was opened near New Road on the Ynysybwl side of the mountain, so that the level eventually became linked up in a network of burrows through the hillside. But subterranean water was always a problem at Darren Ddu with numerous attempts at damming the underground streams and accidents involving flooding occurring in 1861, 1897 and 1911.

Further along, in one of the channels dug into the hillside is a drystone wall. Above is a path I’ve never noticed before. I follow it up the hillside, neat sandstone slabs forming staircase. I emerge up behind Lan Farm. On the cragtops I sit on a fallen trunk overlooking town. Swoosh of roads in the distance, engine drone smeared in a hoarse hum, swelling to a grumble then dying back to the everpresent air-rumble.

Conduit No. 6 stretches from the Lan Wood reservoir right the way across the town of Pontypridd up as far as the location of the Rose and Crown pub on the Graig hillside on the southern side of the valley. Conduits Nos. 7-14 all then branch out of this main trunk of No. 6, sprouting off into the different streets of Pontypridd town. Mapping the conduits outlined in the advertisement, it is clear how the nineteenth-century waterworks tapped into the springs of Lan Wood to funnel water into the expanding industrial town.

I machine-stitch the route of the conduits onto the iron-stained paper, and then hand-stitch map-elements such as old field boundaries and rivers. The threads focus my attention on materiality and texture, the tactile physicality of stitching onto and into the page. The pop as needle pierces paper, the scrape as thread drags through, knotting, tugging taut, weaving a shape, winding a route across the page. The rapid judder of the sewing-machine as it chews off across the page.

On the 1841 Tithe Map, two farms dominate the hillside that is now known as Graigwen: the lower one, around the Tyfica area, is marked Gellifynaches Isha (Lower Gellifynaches) and the upper one, around the Whiterock area, Gellifynaches Uchaf (Upper Gellifynaches). A memory lingers on the map today in the name of Nun’s Crescent, a street built in the mid-1960s on the location of the old Gellifynaches Uchaf homestead.

The name Kelli’r Vanaches first appears in a 17th century rent role of the Meisgyn commote (R.J. Thomas, ‘Astudiaeth o Enwau Lleoedd Cwmwd Meisgyn’, Unpublished M.A. thesis University of Wales, Cardiff, 1933). The name may have become associated with this part of Pontypridd during the period of the Cistercian monasteries between the 12th and 16th centuries. In his book, In The Footsteps of Glanffrwd, D.J. Rees comments that Gellifynaches and Lan (the farm above it) were once nunneries or overnight refuges for nuns on pilgrimage to the shrine at Penrhys (up in the northwest between the two Rhondda valleys).

Winds rumple against the mic, blowing a distorted screech over the recording. Cold in my ears. Stream trickles down hillside, cuts through rocks, gurgles over stones. Backwards ripple of rewinding bubbling plaps and purr-ticker. Ferns fringe murky puddles. Cloud reflections. The ground gets rockier, water flowing along path now. I kick chunks of rock as I walk. Wind tearing now, loud rips cutting through the recording. A dirty crackle, blistering grunt, sub murmurs rippling to erupt. I trudge across spongey moss.

The road over Graigwen and across the ridge of Cefn Gwyngul leads to Llanwonno (or Llanwynno), where a church was reputedly established in the 6th century by St Gwynno, a disciple of Illtyd. It may have been built on an even earlier site of veneration, as Rees comments that ‘prehistorical deviation ley lines … link the churches at Llantrisant, Eglwysilan, Llanfabon, Llanwynno and – inexplicably – the site of The Tonypandy Inn’ (about 2 miles down the Rhondda Fawr Valley from Penrhys). Rees goes on to add that St Gwynno’s Church ‘is built at a pre-historic Ley’s Lines deviation, where its position to the sun follows patterns of still earlier Welsh churches’. If lines are traced between Llantrisant, Eglwysilan, Llanfabon, Llanwonno and Tonypandy/Penrhys on a map, Llanwonno forms the peak of the pentangle.

I trek down a fern-trail into the old Darren quarry. Sheer copper cuboids whitewashed with lichen. An oak twists its frayed tendons out of the sandstone face. Plap of drippers falling onto bed of leaves. Ferns tuft up behind boulders.

A chain of cairns and mounds delineates the trail along the Eglwysilan ridgeway and across Cefn Gwyngul to Llanwonno, crossing the Taff in the Berw area of Pontypridd below Craig-yr-Hesg hillside, where John Leland recorded a wooden bridge called ‘Pont Rhehesk’ (Pont yr Hesg), also referred to as ‘Pont Erliesk, a great bridg of tymbre’ (Lucy Toulmin Smith, The Itinerary in Wales of John Leland in or about the years 1536-1539).

Another Danger Quarry sign further along before the crossroads leading down to the Lanwood playpark. Rain on slide in empty park. Jackdaw squawks. I squelch along the path up above the back of Lanwood Road. Glow of conservatory, kitchen of stainless steel taps, wood-effect cupboard, glimpse of bedroom.

Stirring the cauldron of mulled pulp (mainly recycled drafts of these notes, along with bits of newspaper, cardboard packaging, junk mail, envelopes), I stew and sift this mulched broth of pulverised fibrous sinews, the page in larval form. Deckled into sodden stacks they dry to crispy shards. I paste cut-up fragments of my notes onto them and string them into a palm-leaf book-fold, a line of nettle thread running between the pages, loosely holding the panels together like dangling planks on a rope bridge.

I emerge onto Lanwood Road, wellies slapping tarmac pavement. Drizzle crackles on my hood. Reddish frizz of birchtwig hills looms above the bungalows. Lan Farm peeping over treeline. Drain torrent underground. Sky puddle down centre of road. Murky luminescence triangled by telegraph cables. At the end of the street the silhouette treeline of hills across the valley: Penycoedcae and the Graig. On the hilltop a single light flickers through trees in the mist.

Gwyngul: literally, ‘narrow’ (gul, soft mutation from ‘cul’) and ‘white’ (gwyn – though ‘gwyn’ also carries connotations of ‘holy’). So Cefn Gwyngul is the narrow white ridge, the narrow road to the interior. In his History of Pontypridd, Morien suggested that ‘Cefn Gwyngul translated into, “The ridge of the Holy Retreat”; Llan-wen was its original name, meaning, “High Place of worship” which was a mound around which the Nave was erected and contained the large number of human remains that he himself witnessed being re-interred.’

The next day a fine drizzle evaporates the woods. Grey mist veined with white trunks of birch. A lichen-gnarled knuckle of oak claws through. Everything looks different. I try to find the place. Yards ahead the path blends into an opaque wall of grey. I plunge up the slippery slope, skipping around splodgy mud, my boots sliding and sinking. Confetti of beech and oak litter thick and sodden.

May all present and future know that I, Caradoc Uerbeis, have given to God and St Mary and the Cistercian Order and to Brother Meilyr and the brothers of Pendar all my land which lies between three rivers, that is, the Frutsanant [Ffrwd] and the Cleudac [Clydach] and the Nantclokenig [Cynin/Llysnant], in wood and plain, which wood is called Hlowenroperdeit [Llwynperdid].

I spot the yellow-blue Danger Quarry sign through the mist and climb until I’m positioned above it. I look down and see the tree from yesterday. I edge down the slope and see the jetblack nuggets iridescent around the roots. I place my chunk of coal back where I found it.


NOTE: The book work ‘a conduit or line of pipes’ was produced for the ‘Without Borders’ project curated by Elysium Gallery and 1SSUE magazine.



Steven Hitchins edits The Literary Pocket Book press, producing miniature origami-style pamphlets of contemporary experimental poetry. Recent publications include Black Fens Viral by Frances Presley and NONglyns by Rhys Trimble and Harry Gilonis. In 2017-18 he ran Canalchemy, a series of walking-poetry events along the route of the now erased Glamorganshire canal from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff Bay, which fed into his most recent poetry collection, The Lager Kilns, available from Aquifer Books. His other books include Ilan (2018), The White City (2015) and Bitch Dust (2012), as well as the collaborative books Brynfab Collider (2019) and Yth (2015) both with Rhys Trimble, Winter Texts with John Maher (2016), and Translating the Coal Forests with Camilla Nelson (2015). His poetry has also featured in the anthologies The Edge of Necessary and Imagined Invited, as well as the recent Welsh innovative poetry edition of Blackbox Manifold (Issue 25). His book-work ‘a conduit or line of pipes’ will be exhibited as part of ‘Without Borders’ curated by Elysium Gallery and 1SSUE magazine.


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