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BRECON BEACONS, WALES – When our tour guide, a former miner, tells us that we’ll be descending 90 metres into the earth, no one in the group seems anxious. When we strap on headlamps – necessary accoutrements for navigating the lightless caverns far below – everyone takes it in stride.
But when he tells us we have to empty our pockets of anything with a battery, a few of us look surprised. “Sparks can come off watches or batteries because of the gases down there,” he explains. “You can’t bring anything like that down there.” Depositing my mobile phone in the bag he offers, I think to myself: Gases? What did I sign up for?
On the surface, much of this part of southern Wales is what you would expect, and hope, from a Welsh landscape: rolling hills and wild moors, market towns and crumbling castles. The area is dominated by Brecon Beacons, a 1,350-square-kilometre national park that twists with 225 km of rivers and peaks with mountains up to 886 metres tall. Sheep amble across bright-green hills, their coats splashed with blue and red.
But the area isn’t just another postcard from Britain. It’s far more interesting. That’s because the landscape wasn’t just shaped by the glaciers that carved its lakes and screes; it was shaped by its inhabitants. Prehistoric stone circles and burial cairns, nearly eight millenniums old, dot the landscape. So do medieval castles, farmhouses and abbeys.
And, of course, mines. When the Industrial Revolution hit, it didn’t take long to realize that this corner of Wales was more than pretty hills: From limestone to coal, it had all of the raw materials needed for industry. Today, the Brecon Beacons park overlaps with a 33-square-km section of land called the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The first ironworks were built here – in the town of Blaenavon, right on the boundary of the Brecon Beacons park – in 1789. They were among the world’s largest. A canal was dug soon after, taking iron to Newport, 24 kilometre due south, and on across the sea. By 1800, South Wales was the leading iron-producing region in the world. The population boomed.
Then came coal. The “Big Pit,” a coal mine, was dug in 1860. By 1913, one-third of the world’s coal exports were produced by 250,000 Welsh miners.
Although industry – smoke-belching, working-class, loud, dirty industry – isn’t always seen as a part of heritage worth protecting, this area, for which it has been so crucial, saw it differently.
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