The train appears, miles away down the straight, a dot shimmering in the clean early heat. After what seems an age it limps along the platform and we board. The old man sits near us. I wish him a good morning and we strike up a conversation.
He's been here most of his life, worked in the mines as a boy, seen it all change. He's got stories to tell, and invited, he's going to tell them. But he's a quiet, gently spoken man, who doesn't vary the volume to allow for the situation. The train pulls off and drowns him out. When it stops at one of the many stations on the endless strip habitation between Treherbert and Pontypridd, he suddenly becomes audible and we catch part of the story.
"... Pontypridd is the longest station in Wales, longer than Cardiff. It's where the valleys met and the great coal trains left for the..."
"... and there they made the silicon bricks for all the world..."
"... but they never investigated the murder. We knew who'd done it, we all did, but the pit owners and the chapels meant there was never an investigation, they worked together, the chapels and the owners, they weren't working for God, let me tell you that, had everyone under their control, did you ever watch 'How Green was my Valley?'"
We arrive at Pontypridd, and I say farewell.
"So how do you like the Welsh?" he asks
"Always friendly and approachable." I reply
"Well, they're thick then, aren't they!" he concludes with a surprising flourish.
Pontypridd is a bustling, freshly painted sort of place. The bingo hall is derelict, but everything else is a buzz of small shops, smaller cafes, and street stalls. The indoor market is fully occupied with hardware stalls, meat, cheese, clothes, fridges, even a Welshcake specialist. The sweetshop sells things I didn't know were still made. I buy Welsh humbugs. The owner pronounces 'Cloves' across two distinct syllables. We eat in a greasy spoon cafe, through a tight doorway, framed by mirrors and wipe clean plastic tables. Old men come in and with just a nod order faggots and peas for breakfast.
The train to Aberdare is quiet. Someone has discarded an empty tube of haemorrhoid cream on the seat opposite us. It looks lonely. We alight at the small town of Mountain Ash.
I have a CD to post out. I always like to send post from the most obscure post offices I can find, in the vain and unknowable hope that the obscure post-mark will cause mild confusion at the other end. With that in mind, I'd saved this CD for the Mountain Ash post office, a spacious, barren room, oversupplied with counter slots, and undersupplied with staff, towards the end of the one enfeebled shopping road of this almost-town.
The sole member of staff on display was a small woman, not so much at the counter as below it, peering over the lip, hair neat, glasses on the end of her nose. Accent strong. I was second in line. The bloke in front of me had a very long and thin parcel. Called forward, he began to balance the thing on the scales. It fell off. After a while, the lady came out through the side door to try it on her personal scales. They were near the corner, so it wouldn't go across without fouling on the walls. She asked him if he'd weighed it himself.
"No" Came the broad, deadpan Welsh reply.
"Is it valuable?"
"What is it?"
"A metal one."
This brought us to a stalemate. There was a reasonably long queue behind me now, but nobody seemed to be in a hurry. Advice began to be issued.
"You didn't have it centered."
"Let me have a go."
"Balance it across two sets of scales and add the numbers."
This last one seems to make sense, so we set it up. A figure is calculated across the scales, and there's a general murmur of approval for a job well done. We all re-form the queue, politely checking our places. The cashier takes her seat again and adjusts her glasses.
"So, darling, how do you want to send it? You can send it next-day delivery with Parcel force but to be honest I don't think he'll be back here today."
Some while later, my CD posted, we head up the main street. A tatty amusement arcade has lost a letter and is now called 'TARDUST'. Fancying a lunch time refreshment, we enter the first pub.
You know you're in a good pub when the two forms of entertainment on offer are a slot machine and a 'Splat the Rat' pipe. They have a league table, and beer prizes for the best rat splatters.
The clientele are mostly former miners. Short sleeved, they have old tattoos, the dark blue ones. One is wearing shorts made of chequed towelling, a plain white polo shirt, and a highly tailored waistcoat. They are watching the horse racing, and pink slips cover the tables. A younger crowd are drinking tins of cola on the next table to us. They have a bag full of lipsticks, razors, and vaping equipment and commence to flog it all. Prices are lowered, and to my astonishment, most of it goes pretty quickly. I'm offered a waterproof eyelash volumiser for £3 but turn it down. Meanwhile, my pink iPhone causes a minor stir. This valley isn't ready for blokes to have pink iPhones yet. The only pink on these gentlemen is a tattooed lipstick mark on one gentleman's neck. There are snuff holders out on the tables. The disabled loo has a large punch hole in the door, half-heartedly covered in a drink aware poster. A large and jagged hole in the plaster marks where the sink once was.
Everything is so cheap up here. Even in comparatively well to do Aberdare, we got two good coffees for £2.50. 2 pints of beer sees decent change from a fiver. My full breakfast weighed in at £4. Charity shops are few and far between, as they cannot undercut the indigenous commercial stock. But in every valleys town you can find a bakers, a butchers, a greengrocers, a flower shop, and a carpet shop. My girlfriend notices that each carpet shop has a large display of fake grass in the front window. It's clearly the big seller. I wonder exactly what the market for it is, and like to think the local fashion is to bedeck the guest bedroom in the stuff.
Aberdare has too many churches. They overlap and jostle, fighting to get above the canopy and into the sunlight. Competing for soil to sink their great root systems into. One is hosting a funeral. Black morning suits the colour of the bedrock. They are an outcropping, the foundation of valley life exposed and weathered on the surface.
But Aberdare is coming up. Tourists do come here, but from the North, off the beacons, not up the valley like us. Parking restrictions are visible on residential streets, the first sign of economic improvement, like early coloniser insects migrating north as the planet warms.
We head down to Abercynon and catch the train up the final valley line to branch out of Pontypridd, to Merthyr Tydfil. The afternoon hangs hot and limp, and the dreadful British Leyland bus inspired 142 class sprinter is a claustrophobic box of fetid air and noise. We attempt to eat our picnic, but it's not an appetising place to be. We pass Aberfan, now more than fifty years after the disaster that so etched its wretched and shameful place into British history. I expect, somehow, to see the evidence of the tip that slid off the hill onto the school, to see the missing buildings, the dark trails of destruction. But of course the tips were removed, the buildings replaced, the land recovered. It is relentlessly sunny, and the place refuses to have the cloud of gloom hanging over it that my prejudice demands.
The train doesn't even stop here now, but continues to the terminus at Merthyr Tydfil, a serious town, once the largest place in Wales, and for much of the 1800s, home to the world's greatest iron works. We walk up the hill towards the old works, and the buildings grow ever sadder at street level, even as they grow in grandeur from the first floor upwards. The town centre has slowly glaciated downhill, leaving the old heart quiet and antiquated. The site of the works is now a huge area of parkland, with few clues to its past. It is bounded down one side by an endless council estate, quiet, un-bustling, symbolic of the jobs that no longer exist. But full of life nonetheless. Old ladies in pinnies enjoy the sun outside their homes. Young men have souped up cars and the time to lavish on them. We are an odd sight, tourists to a forgotten corner of the valleys, and the sun draws people out and turns our walk through the estate into a strange procession.
We catch our train back to Treherbert. I offer the conductor a humbug, and he accepts. As we drive out of the valley, we pass a chip shop named "A fish called Rhondda".