I’ve had such a great response to this little series that I’ve put them all together. Let me know what you think of it.
HOW GREEN WAS MY DUFFEL COAT?
By Peter S. O’Neil
Here we are, the village of Dan-y-Bont. It means ‘under the bridge’. Nothing special, see? Three rows of terraced houses running parallel along the hillside, the old primary school, a chapel, a little police house, a corner shop and a rugby club, known as the ‘Bonters’, with its sloping pitch by the river. The only feature that sets it apart from so many other villages in the area is the railway viaduct that spans the valley and gave the village its name.
The railway viaduct used to be part of the web-like network that ran from all the mining communities down to the docks, the foundries and the factories of the major towns. All those little communities born out of the black, smoking fires of the Industrial Revolution.
No trains cross that viaduct any more. It’s part of the Ramblers’ network now. Backpacks and bottled water. Men with pony-tails and women wearing trousers and steel-toe-capped boots.
It’s a new world, alright, but this is where I grew up. Just another snotty-nosed little boy in shorts and a woolly, red jumper that my Nan knitted for me which, as far as I was concerned, transformed me into Captain Scarlet whenever I pulled it on. Indestructible I was, well, until I came down that slag-heap on a bike with no brakes.
Do memories play tricks or is it just that they are the memories of childhood, but didn’t it all seem so much better then? Simpler, for certain. You went to school, first at the village primary and then on to the comprehensive in the Cwm, and, when you looked, or were, old enough you went to work ‘on the coal’, off the books. It’s the way it was.
Dan-y-Bont Primary School closed down as part of the “centralisation of the valleys”, but there used to be an Honour Roll board in the corridor with the names of former pupils who actually sat ‘O’ Levels or G.C.S.E.’s and went on to Further Education. There was also a brass plaque dedicated to one former pupil who actually went on to Higher Education. Rhodri Preece went to Cardiff College. People in the village reckoned on him being the next J.P.R. Williams. A full-back with a brain!
Yes, of course Rhodri played rugby! Dan-y-Bont demands it of its young men. After all, the older generation can’t keep playing forever. Poor Selwyn Davies played second-row well into his sixties until somebody else finally grew up to be tall enough!
Everyone thought that Rhodri was destined to marry Ffion Thomas, the most popular girl in the village and United Collieries Easter Pageant Princess three years running, but, by the time Rhodri finished college, Ffion already had four children, on account of her being so popular, and was living in the biggest council house in Dan-y-Bont – an end-of-terrace with a lean-to on the back kitchen.
Fair play mind, Ffion was always good for a lend of a few quid on Child Benefit day. On a Thursday morning, the queue outside the Post Office was mostly people waiting for Ffion. Mrs. Lloyd, the Post Mistress, always closed early on a Thursday once Ffion had been in.
Funny though, no-one knew Mrs. Lloyd’s first name. She was always just Mrs. Lloyd. “Hello, Mrs. Lloyd,” “Lovely day, Mrs. Lloyd,” “Second class stamp, please, Mrs. Lloyd.” If you visit the cemetery behind the chapel, you’ll find her gravestone with the epitaph: “Mrs. Lloyd. Dan-y-Bont’s last Post Mistress. R.I.P.”
You see, after she passed away, they closed the Post Office. More of the centralisation. Mr. Patel started selling stamps in the corner shop. People weren’t too sure if the stamps would be the same, but they were.
Centralisation. Everything moved to the Cwm. It wasn’t a great deal bigger than most of the villages but it had the comprehensive school and a lay-by big enough for two buses, and, of course, it had a Woolworth’s.
The police service was the other facility that moved to the Cwm. I’ll tell you more about that the next time, is it?
Dan-y-Bont. Here we are again. ‘Under the bridge’, remember? Terraced houses, the corner shop and the chapel up there on the side of the hill. Down in the valley, more houses, bigger ones, private ones, the ‘Bonters’ rugby club next to the river and the old police house by the bus stop.
They built that breeze-block bus shelter back in the seventies. The very first piece of graffiti is still there, inside: “Dai luvs Rhian”. There were seventeen Dais and eleven Rhians in the village at that time and, to everyone’s knowledge, none of the Dais were ‘officially’ romantically entangled with any of the Rhians. It’s a local mystery. Maybe that’s why the graffiti was never removed? It’s a constant reminder that people still want to know which Dai and Rhian it was. I’ve got a theory of my own about that.
But I’ve gone off on a tangent again, haven’t I? I was going to tell you all about the old police house. Well, before the ‘centralisation of the valleys’, and for the twenty-odd years prior to it, Police Sergeant Richard Lewis occupied the police house in his capacity as Dan-y-Bont’s village bobby. ‘Dickie Dwt’ he was called because he was barely five feet tall. We all thought that you had to be six feet and above to join the police. Dickie must have lied about his height. Mind you, what he lacked in height he more than made up for in unbridled enthusiasm. He was fast too, nippy, due to his low centre of gravity. If you were going to run from Dickie Dwt, you had to be fast.
He very rarely arrested anyone though. No, he was quite happy to mete out his own brand of justice, on the spot, and send you on your way. Especially the youngsters. These were different times, of course. If you went home and told your Mam and Dad that Dickie Dwt had given you a good pasting, they’d most likely give you another one and then invite Dickie around for tea to get the story from him. You’d probably get a third hiding after that, just for good measure.
‘Petty crime’ is probably too harsh a description for most of what went on and serious crime was unheard of. These were close communities. When the coal industry collapsed, villages in the valleys became little pockets of depression. Dickie Dwt was put out to pasture and Dan-y-Bont became a haunt of the ‘Panda Patrol’. A police car would pass slowly through the village, regular as clockwork, three times a day. People thought crime would go up but the levels dropped dramatically. Well, no-one reported them anymore, did they?. Everything was dealt with ‘in house’, so to speak.
The police house was closed up and the South Wales Constabulary eventually sold it at auction to a local entrepreneur. So, after more than a century as home and station to many long-serving village policemen, the old police house re-opened as the Dan-y-Bont Bistro.
My Nan and a few of her friends sometimes went there, as a treat, for tea and a cake. “I’m going down the bisto,” she’d say. “No, Nan,” I’d say, “it’s bistro, with an R.” “Yes, yes,” she’d reply, “ah, bisto!”
Needless to say, it didn’t last. Why would it? There was little call for fine dining in Dan-y-Bont. Not even Ffion Thomas could afford to eat there on Child Benefit day!
The old police house closed again and remained so for a number of years. Then, it was re-purchased by public funding. It underwent a facelift (they painted the outside pink) and it opened its doors once again, this time as Dan-y-Bont Community Library and Help Centre, providing books for the bored and advice for substance abusers, all under one roof. Within two years, lack of public funding meant that it had to close.
An artist (sculptress, I suppose is correct) lives there now. She calls herself Abigail Lindqvist, but her name is really Alice Evans from the Cwm. She made a lot of money out of welding together bits of old colliery machines and stuff and selling it to posh people who praised her work as “poignant and inspired”, “masterful and significant”. People in the village called it “rubbish”.
She positioned one of her favourite sculptures in her back garden. Dai the Grass, the local gardening guru, hangs his jacket on it when he mows her lawn. Ms. Lindqvist goes bananas when he does that.
Dai’s been doing gardens in Dan-y-Bont for as long as I can remember. Years back, his uncle died and left him a bit of money. Not a lot, but Dai invested in a brand new petrol mower to replace his rusty, old, manual, cylinder mower. He used to accept tea and fags as payment if you didn’t have the money and probably still does. He loves that petrol mower. He named it Rhian.
Dan-y-Bont. It’s not the same as it used to be and, I’m afraid, it never will be again. A lot of the terraced houses are boarded up now. People have passed on or moved on and no-one has come to replace them. Only ghosts live in them now.
That one there was Selwyn Davies’s house, the one who played second-row into his sixties. If you look closely, there’s still a bit of a blood-stain above the door. Old Selwyn never remembered to duck when he came home after a few pints down the Bonters. His two children moved away to England. Nobody talks about that though.
The end house on this street is where Ffion Thomas lived with her children. Seven she ended up with. She relocated to a caravan down in Porthcawl which, they say, she paid for with thousands of books of Green Shield Stamps. I don’t believe that for a minute, they definitely didn’t do caravans.
Next door is Dai the Grass. He’s still there, him and Rhian, I guess. He saw to Ffion’s lawn a few times, if you catch my meaning. Ffion’s youngest works in the garden centre in Pyle. Go figure.
Opposite is the Jenkins residence. Empty now, all dead. I haven’t mentioned the Jenkinses before, have I? Big rugby family, they were. Generations of the Jenkins boys played for the Bonters. My dad went to school with Idris Jenkins. Idris and his wife, Mair, had six boys. Now, Idris was a huge lover of the old westerns. He was crazy about them. John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy… Well, he named his oldest Jeronimo, with a ‘J’.
Mair wanted to call him Tom, after her dad, but she made the silly mistake of letting Idris go to the Registry Office by himself. Needless to say, she went with him for the others – Tom, William, Gwyn and Rhys followed. Then, after a legendary, cornet-wielding, domestic bust-up at the ice cream van which eye-witnesses referred to as the ‘Thriller in Vanilla’, Idris and Mair reached a compromise between Huw and Cochise and the fifth was named Shane. It really made no difference, all the boys were known as ‘Jinks’.
This is the old Post Office, with the red pillar box outside. Mrs. Lloyd, the last Post Mistress, lived in the upstairs. I think someone must be living there now, there’s glass in the windows.
Next house along is where Rhodri Preece grew up. His parents are long gone and Rhodri was never going to stay in the valley, not with his college diploma. He’s a manager now at a motorway services Starbucks. If the primary school was still open they’d probably put up another plaque.
The Patels still have the corner shop. Third generation, I think. You can still buy stamps but it’s mostly booze, fags and greetings cards. Everything you might need for a person’s special day.
Abigail (Alice Evans) Lindqvist has the old police house, of course. There’s gossip that she’s after buying the chapel and turning it into an exhibition and gallery. I know a few of the old ministers are buried in the cemetery behind and might have something to say if that happens.
I’ll tell you who else is there too. Dickie Dwt. Old Sergeant Lewis himself. I never knew that he’d been buried here. After his ‘retirement’, he went to live with his brother in Portugal. Apparently, he didn’t want to be buried over there because it was too hot. I’m glad. He belongs here with all the rest of Dan-y-Bont’s old ghosts. They’re all here. You can sense them. In the same way as the smell of coal seeps out of the ground when it rains, they’re all here, just beneath the surface.
Well, it’s time to say goodbye to Dan-y-Bont now. It’s been a nice little visit and maybe, one day, we can come back again. For now though, let’s let the old ghosts rest.
Nos da, Dan-y-Bont. Cysgwch yn dawel. (Good night, Dan-y-Bont. Sleep peacefully.)