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Archaeology around Blaenafon


Introduction

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History

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Canal

Railway

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blaenafon old ironworks Blaenavon's Industrial Landscape is an industrial archaeologist's dream, but it has the ability to captivate even those who would never have thought themselves interested in such things and perhaps couldn't even spell arciology! Its magical ability to evoke past ages makes a walk across the hills around Blaenafon truly stepping back in time. Apart from the well visited Big Pit and Old Ironworks there are numerous quarries, disused mines and buildings, reservoirs, old tramway and railway tracks, slag heaps, chimneys, kilns - the list goes on and on.

Perhaps one of the most impressive enterprises still in evidence is Hill's tramway, a trolley rail system that connected Blaenavon furnaces with the forge at Garnddyrys and the limestone quarry at Pwlldu. Carrying coal and pig-iron one way and limestone the other through the amazing mile-long Pwlldu tunnel, Hill's Tramway continued on over bridges and tunnels , clinging to the contours of the Blorenge mountain down to the canal wharves at Llanfoist. Other tramways drop down to the canal at other points such as Govilon. These routes are still clearly visible in many places, and it makes an excellent walk to follow their courses, with magnificent views over the Usk valley.

hill's tramway incline

On a social side there is some of the best preserved workers' housing anywhere, as well as chapels, churches, old schools, public houses and the Workmen's Hall. The award of World Heritage Site by UNESCO reflects the importance and uniqueness of the Blaenafon industrial landscape.

Channel 4 television's archaeological programme 'Time Team' was drawn to Blaenavon for three days during the spring of 2000 in an attempt to locate the world's first railway viaduct, built in 1790. Despite having a reasonably good idea where it was from studying old drawings, such a vast amount of spoil and ballast had been deposited around the site over the years that it was immediately apparent that despite being 10 metres high and 40 metres long, the viaduct had sunk without trace. After bringing in larger earth-moving plant and moving some 10,000 tonnes of dirt, the team had excavated to a depth of over 10 metres and were on the verge of giving up, when they finally broke through the roof of the viaduct.

blaenafon viaduct Unfortunately their alloted time was nearly up and also considering the danger, all that could be done was to lower a camera and light to get a brief, tantalising view inside the structure. Then the huge hole was back-filled to await further exploration at a later date.

The programme was first transmitted in February 2001 but is frequently repeated on the cable channels. Many people ask why the excavation was abandoned after only three days or why it was not continued by others. The simple explanation is that the programme makers work to strict schedules that cannot be varied, principally because of financial restraints. They offer to leave the site as it is or return it to its original state, but then absolve all responsibility. If the site had been left uncovered, some other organisation would have had to find considerable funds to proceed. In the Blaenafon area there is no shortage of projects requiring financial support, so for safety reasons it was necessary to recover the viaduct, as disappointing as that was to all concerned.

Further afield there are exceptional Roman sites at Caerleon (Isca) and Caerwent (Venta Silurum). Medieval castles are so thick on the ground that it is difficult to know which to visit first among Raglan, Abergavenny, Chepstow, Caldicot, Usk, Caerphilly and Cardiff. The Welsh Folk Life Museum has over 30 buildings brought from all over Wales and re-erected in the grounds of St Fagans castle.Other communities in the Valleys have museums and visitor centres relating to their coal, iron or steel heritage. See the links page for more details.



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