There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Up a Mountain down Memory Lane: Taff's Well, Pentyrch and Tongwynlais

Sat 22/08

'For my sixtieth birthday' Lynne's sister Julia had said, 'I want to climb the Garth - and we could gather as many of our cousins as possible to do it with us.'

And so, some months before her birthday, while the weather was still amenable, we met in Pentyrch to set off on this not quite epic ascent. The gathering of cousins though was not a great success; Lynne and Julia have six cousins, but only cousin Nick was available. Even so with partners, offspring and offspring’s offspring, 11 people gathered for the team photo outside the cemetery on the corner of Heol-y-Bryn and Temperance Court (yes it really is called that) and Julia’s daughter Alison became the twelfth when she caught us up twenty minutes later.

Team photo, Pentyrch
(only ten people? Well, I'm behind the camera.)
And why climb the Garth? Because for Lynne and Julia it is a trip down (or perhaps, up) memory lane. It is a hill or mountain they climbed many times in their childhood, and it is a mountain or hill with a story.

That story starts with Dr Monger. Lynne spent the first nine years of her life (and Julia the first four) in Tongwynlais. The village, a little to the north of Cardiff, is a line of shops and dwellings beside what was once the main road north from Cardiff up the valley of the River Taff to Merthyr. The modern A470 is a dual carriageway that by-passes all the villages that once straggled along it, though the valley topography means it does not always by-pass them by much.

Dr Monger was their family doctor though his surgery was in Taff’s Well, the next village/straggle to the north. Everyone thought highly of Dr Monger and Lynne used to share his homespun philosophy with me, sometimes quite forcefully. Much of it involved ‘wrapping up warm in cold weather’ - to which I have always taken a cavalier attitude. Although I never met him I developed quite a healthy dislike for Dr Monger, though to be fair, it was probably not his fault; he was, by all accounts, a first class, old-school, family doctor.

Lynne thinks this was Dr Monger's house and surgery, Taff's Well
The Garth stands above Taff’s Well and Tongwynlais, but we set off from Pentyrch on the other side of the hill as the climb is much easier. Sitting higher on the hillside, Pentyrch is less linear and more upmarket than Taff’s Well and Tongwynlais. Lynne’s father was born and brought up here and his brother (Lynne’s Uncle Lynn) lived here until his death last year.

The Garth above Taff's Well
We walked up Temperance Court and turned into Mountain Road.

Up the Mountain Road
Lynne, Small, Julia, Arthur
Where the minor road swings left to cross the pass and descend into Efail Isaf, we turned right towards the open hillside.

Onto the open hillside
Dr Monger was more than just a doctor; he was a talented amateur artist and a writer with several novels and short stories to his credit, some of which are still in print. His son Christopher inherited the artistic streak, becoming a professional artist, writer and film director. His best known film The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain starred Hugh Grant as the Englishman of the title with the Irish Colm Meaney (taking time off from keeping the Deep Space 9 space station functioning) and Anglo-Irish Tara Fitzgerald pretending to be Welsh.

The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came down a Mountain
(Borrowed from Wikipedia)
The film, a whimsical romantic comedy, is based on a story told to Christopher Monger by his grandfather, and the writer’s credit goes jointly to Christopher Monger, his father (Dr) Ifor David Monger, and grandfather Ivor Monger, though both the elder Mongers were long dead when the film was released in 1995. It is set in 1917 when an arrogant English surveyor arrives in Taff’s Well (Ffynnon Taf) which is fictionalized as Ffynnon Garw (Rough Well). The name might be inspired by Nantgarw a mile or two up the valley, or it may be a little dig at Taff’s Well. Although it is hardly a picture postcard village….

Taff's Well
…. it does have some fine, sturdy Edwardian buildings as well as many of the 19th century workers cottages that abound throughout industrial South Wales.

Sturdy Edwardian buildings, Taff's Well
He surveyed the local mountain, 'Our mountain, the first mountain in Wales' and discovers to the horror of the locals that it was just under 1000ft and therefore not a mountain but a hill. As ‘the grandfather’ says: ‘Is it a hill, is it a mountain? Perhaps it wouldn't matter anywhere else, but this is Wales. The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, but we did none of that, because we had mountains. Yes, the Welsh were created by mountains: where the mountain starts, there starts Wales. If this isn't a mountain well… then Anson [the surveyor] might just as well redraw the border and put us all in England, God forbid.’

The wily and, it must be said, eccentric, locals devise a plan to delay the surveyor’s departure while they build an earthwork on the summit. The hill is resurveyed and now, lo and behold, it is over 1000ft and secure in its classification as a mountain.

The pimple on the broad back of the Garth
It is a steady climb, but not very steep and it does not go on for too long, indeed the youngest member of the party was among the first to reach the top of the hog’s back. The summit sits on a pimple at, according to the Ordnance Survey, 307m. The magical 1000ft mark has disappeared with metrication - and it is a bit of a fiction that this modest height ever ‘officially’ defined a mountain.

'I've climbed my first mountain.
Now, which way is Everest?'
But 307m is 1,007ft, and if 1000ft makes a mountain then the Garth is a mountain only because of the pimple. So it happened just as the Mongers, grandfather, father and son told it and the pimple exists solely to make the Garth a mountain. Sadly, Pentyrch Community Council and the Pentyrch Local Historical Association disagree. According to their plaque at its base, the pimple is the largest of four Early-Middle Bronze Age Circular Burial mounds on the Garth dating not from 1917 but around 2000BC. You may believe whichever story pleases you.

Nick, Lucy, Henry and Anne on the summit
The youngest member of the party was the first to leave the pimple and lead us to the end of the ridge where there is a 20th century earthwork of not obvious purpose.

Come on you lot, let's get on
There are fine views south over the city of Cardiff and the Bristol Channel, reputedly as far east as the Severn Bridge, though that was hiding in the mist. The view north to the Treforest Industrial Estate, Church Village and Llantwit Fadre is less pleasing though the Brecon Beacons were perhaps visible in the far distance.

Cardiff and the Bristol Channel from the Garth
At the very end of the ridge looking down on Taff’s Well the linear nature of settlement in the Welsh valleys was obvious….

Taff's Well from the Garth
… and, looking a little south, the turrets of Castell Coch could be seen poking out from the trees on the opposite side of the valley.

Castell Coch from the Garth
We returned through the bracken on the flank of the hill, at one point braving an infestation of midges which for a few yards meant the air was so thick with insects they got down your neck, up your nose and into your mouth. Thereafter the rest of the descent was straightforward.

Turning back through the bracken, the Garth
All 12 of us met again for dinner in the Cwrt Rawlin Inn on the edge of Caerphilly. It is a large family pub that Lynne and I have visited before and were impressed by the friendliness and efficiency of the young staff. They did not disappoint, and while the Cwrt Rawlin could never be accused of being a gastropub, their food is wholesome enough and very reasonably priced. Thereafter Nick and family returned to Bristol while the rest of us crossed the road to the Caerphilly Travelodge.

Julia and Alison
I know this picture is in the wrong place, but Alison did catch us up, and as there is no other picture of her.....
Sunday 23/08

Friday had been a day of rain. On Saturday we had walked in a window of glorious sunshine, but it rained while we were in the pub, rained overnight and was still raining in the morning, the mist sitting low on the hills.

Castell Coch, Tongwynlais
Anyone who has driven down the M4 past Cardiff will have noticed the turrets of a fairy tale castle rising above the trees just north of the road. This is Castell Coch; it sits in the woods above Tongwynlais and is exactly the sort of place an imaginative four year old would like to visit on a wet Sunday morning. It also has a family connection - Lynne's grandmother was once a cleaner here.

On the drawbridge of Castell Coch, where an imaginative four year old would want to be
It looks like a fairy tale castle because, for the most part, it is. The foundations and the first metre or two of the towers were built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, everything above that is Victorian.

The Coutyard, Castell Coch
Gilbert de Clare, the Norman Earl of Gloucester, has appeared in this blog before as the builder of castles at Llantrisant and Caerphilly. He was known as ‘Red Gilbert’ because of his hair colour or his fiery temperament (or both) and it is alleged that Castell Coch (Red Castle) was named for him. It was subsequently destroyed in a series of Welsh rebellions

Dubious turrets, Castell Coch
500 years later the ruins were acquired by John Stuart, Earl of Bute as part of a marriage settlement. Although they were of the Scottish nobility it was his great-grandson John Crichton-Stuart who built Cardiff docks to export the mineral riches of the interior and started the transformation of a small coastal settlement with barely 1,000 inhabitants in 1800 into a city which would become the capital of Wales.

The Dining Room, Castell Coch
His son, also called John Crichton-Stuart inherited the title in 1840. Extremely wealthy and with an interest in architecture and antiquarian studies he contracted William Burges to rebuild the castle. Burges was a fully paid up member of the Gothic revival and a drinking buddy of the Pre-Raphaelites and although the exterior is a reasonable historical pastiche (except for the fanciful pointed turrets) he let himself go on the interior, carefully locating the top, then going way over it.

The Drawing Room, Castell Coch, the The Fates over the fire place
Unsurprisingly the castle has featured in many film and television productions, Siân remembers it best for the opening sequence of Knightmare, an interesting and imaginative children’s programme that ran from 1987-94, while Lynne remembers being taken to see the filming of The Black Knight an Arthurian tosherama starring a badly miscast Alan Ladd with Peter Cushing and Harry Andrews as the Earl of Yeonil (that will be the Yeonil in Sonerset, then). The jury is out as to whether it is ‘so bad it’s good’ or just plain ‘bad’.

Lady Margaret's Bedroom
There were no ropes in the 1950s and a cleaner's granddaughter could run round, open all the drawers and
climb on Lady Margaret's bed. 
And then we all went home. Thanks to Julia for the idea, Nick and family for being there and making it a family occasion and to Siân and James for bringing 'the chap' who was, as always, the star (or am I biased?)


  1. I think 'opening sequence' isn't quite right - it was used as backdrops and where the players began (or, in the case of the screen shot on the attached link, shamelessly posed):

    1. I did not understand your comment until I followed the link and realised you were talking about the use of Castell Coch in 'Knightmare'. Well I don't remember it as well as you, but I do remember the brolican

  2. The Davies family connection with Castell Coch is more than a cleaner. I remember our maternal grandfather, William Davies, telling us that relatives of his had been stonemasons who worked on the construction of the castle. He had a hammer head that he claimed had been used by one of the stonemasons. Nick