The Welsh Valleys are often overlooked by visitors flocking to the scenery of the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia, or Pembrokeshire's rugged coastline. But this region has something truly special going for it: the chance to immerse yourself in a remarkable history.

The story of the Valleys is riveting, from the furiously industrialised period when South Wales coal was shipped to all corners of the globe to the tragedy of pit closures. This is a story that’s still unfolding: the once coal-scarred environment is gradually being reclaimed by nature, making it a joyful place to explore by bike, and locals are shining a light on the highs and lows of this fascinating region through museums, tours and public artworks.

Former mining village Blaencwm sits in the Rhondda Valley © Billy Stock / robertharding

Going underground

In the 19th century the coal industry began to boom in South Wales and a formerly sleepy part of the world was transformed into an industrial heartland. The population surged as workers flocked to villages near the collieries, creating communities whose lives revolved around the mines. Worldwide demand for the wealth of coal beneath these hills was so intense that at the peak of production in 1913, the South Wales coalfield produced 56 million tons of coal and employed 232,000 men.

Big Pit National Coal Museum © Geography Photos / UIG via Getty Images
Big Pit National Coal Museum © Geography Photos / UIG via Getty Images

What was life like for these miners? Blaenavon's award-winning museum Big Pit, which was a working coalmine from 1880 to 1980, gives an eye-opening insight.  Funny and informative former miners guide an underground tour, which begins with a nerve-wracking 90m descent in a pit cage. Then a walk through the heart of the mine passes corners where children would sit in the dark for hours to operate the trap doors, and stables where pit ponies lived. It’s dark, cool, damp and claustrophobic and the guides do an excellent job of recreating a sense of what life was like underground.

The Glyn coalpit, near Pontypool, from Le Tour du Monde travel journal, 1865 © Morphart / Shutterstock
The Glyn coalpit, near Pontypool, from Le Tour du Monde travel journal, 1865 © Morphart / Shutterstock

In separate parts of the colliery, there’s also an exhibition on the Pithead Baths where miners would scrub themselves clean of soot, and an evocative showcase of the powerful machinery used in modern mining, complete with light and sound effects. Sensitive and nuanced exhibitions also cover the difficult period of strikes, mass layoffs and pit closures in the 1980s, as well as the hardships for mining communities that would follow.

Visitors keen to delve deeper into the region's industrial heritage can also stop in at the nearby Blaenavon Ironworks, where the historic iron production process is showcased and the well-preserved remains of the blast furnace complex still stand.  A short drive southwest of here, Rhondda Heritage Park offers another compelling, hands-on glimpse into South Wales' coal-mining history.

A monumental sculpture

Day to day work in the mines was laborious and dangerous in itself, but what made it worse was the ever-present threat of disaster. From time to time during the mining era, major accidents were responsible for the deaths of thousands of miners.

The imposing Guardian sculpture overlooks Ebbw Vale © LatitudeStock / Angela Hampton
The imposing Guardian sculpture overlooks Six Bells © LatitudeStock / Angela Hampton

In 1960, an explosion of firedamp deep underground in the Arrael Griffin mine killed 45 of the 48 men that were working there that day, devastating the Six Bells community. Fifty years later, the Guardian was erected as a tribute to those that died that day and in other mining disasters in the region. Built on the site of the former colliery, this wonderful 7m-tall sculpture of a miner is constructed of rust-coloured steel ribbon, with the names of those killed and their ages inscribed on the base. A poem about the event by Welsh poet Gilliam Clarke is displayed on a nearby board, and the whole site is a very reflective and moving place.

Exploring heritage landscapes

Need some fresh air in your lungs? The Valleys are threaded with top-notch bike paths, and a two-wheeled excursion is the best way to admire this changing environment.

Just a few decades ago, looming slag heaps dotted the Valleys and streams ran black and opaque with coal dust. That polluted landscape is now thankfully a thing of the past. Instead it’s an absolute joy to cycle past sloping green hills, along paths lined with wildflowers, crystal clear brooks and the odd charmingly overgrown railway platform – nature gradually reclaiming the land. Look out for the picturesque sight of former mining villages, with neat rows of Victorian terraced houses, built at often extraordinary angles into the hillsides.

Cyclists are spoilt for choice in terms of routes, but excellent suggestions can be found at bikewalesroutes.blogspot.co.uk and sustrans.org.uk/wales.

One particularly lovely trail follows parts of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, and there's a perfect stop-off point at Pontymoile Basin where a barge converted into a cafe does a good line in tea and Welsh cakes.

Cycle along the pretty Monmouth and Brecon canal © Helen Elfer/Lonely Planet
Cycle along the pretty Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal © Helen Elfer /Lonely Planet

Another route runs next to the tracks of Blaenavon’s heritage railway. Once a passenger line, it was used for transporting coal from Big Pit until 1980. Now it’s lovingly maintained by volunteers and runs from Whistle Inn station to Blaenavon at the weekends. Time your ride right and you’ll see one of the steam and diesel locomotives trundling along, getting a cheery wave from the driver if you’re lucky.

Finally, treat yourself to a spin through Garn Lakes Nature Reserve (visitblaenavon.co.uk), near Big Pit. This is evidence of land reclamation at its best – once full of ruined colliery workings and slag tips, it’s now a pristine spread of lakes and grasslands and a prime spot for bird watching.

Helen travelled to the Welsh Valleys with support from Valleys Tourism (thevalleys.co.uk) the Lion Hotel (thelionhotelblaenavon.co.ukand Drover Cycles (drovercycles.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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