by Kerry Walker, The Telegraph, March 4, 2019
From a Banksy within view of Port Talbot's steelworks to a speciality coffee roastery making coal cool – Wales is riding the creative waves of its post-industrial heritage, and not before time.
In Ammanford, a grainy black-and-white photo from 1956 shows three half-grinning coal miners propped against a brick wall. One of them is Ben Addis, the great-grandfather of Scott James, co-founder of Coaltown Coffee.
“That was a golden era for the town,” admits Scott. “The community was thriving and industry booming. But after the mines closed down, the town lost its purpose, spirit and hope. People laughed when I talked about opening a business because there was nothing here. I thought: exactly, so let’s create something. I could see the opportunities.”
Scott and his dad, Gordon, began small. “We built our roaster out of a barbecue, cooling the beans with the fan from a Ford Ka. We operated out of a garage and shed when we started in 2014,” Scott smiles nostalgically. “Then we opened an espresso bar in the centre of Ammanford to test the waters before finally opening the roastery last year. It has been a huge success - locals really love the place. Our aim is to bring an industry back to our hometown and employ locals. Coffee is our new black gold.”
If the origins of Coaltown are humble, what the James family has achieved is far from it. In a former industrial unit, the roastery’s open-plan design allows visitors to watch the entire roasting process. The hipster vibe, urban edge and vintage furnishings have brought a dash of Brooklyn to this once down-and-out former mining town.
There’s an under-the-counter brew bar, a wood-fired oven churning out pizza and a gleaming 1950s roaster from Italy – a rare model that has taken two years to restore and is Scott’s pride and joy. The barista training happens at mezzanine level, with three-hour courses on espresso making, latte art and filter brewing.
“Our high-grade beans are ethically sourced,” says Scott, as he serves a cappuccino that is rich and biscuity in aroma. Coaltown has scooped multiple awards for its small-batch coffees and he now counts Selfridges among his outlets, which would surely have made his great-grandfather very proud.
Heading east, on the other side of the Brecons, Big Pit National Coal Museum keeps the flame of the miners and their stories alive. Forming part of the Unesco World Heritage Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, the free attraction races back to the height of the coal and iron industry in the 19th century, with moving exhibits displayed in mining galleries and at pithead baths, and underground tours 300 feet down a mineshaft.
The guides are former miners who seem to have happily exchanged 12-hour shifts cutting coal for sharing their past experiences of hardship, bitter cold and camaraderie with visitors.
Big Pit is well known in these parts, but not necessarily for its cheese. That, however, is changing, thanks to Susan Fiander-Woodhouse, who came up with the ingenious idea of maturing cheddar down a mine while working as a development chef.
“In 2006 I decided to go for it and set up a family business,” she says. “I knew that the dark, dank conditions of a mine would be perfect, with its constant temperature of between 10.5 and 12°C. The manager of Big Pit agreed and Blaenafon Cheddar was born.”
“A miners’ lunchbox typically contained bread, jam and cheese – or ‘miners’ wedding cake’ as it was known,” Susan tells me. Her shop in Blaenavon has put its own creative spin on cheddar, with varieties pepped up with taffy apple cider and onion marmalade, leeks, mustard and ale, and – in the case of the feisty Dragon’s Breath - chilli and Brains beer.
But coffee and cheese are not the only innovative new ways of embracing Wales’ mining heritage. Swinging north along lonely, dry stone-walled lanes patrolled by sheep, the landscape becomes starker and the mountains higher in Snowdonia National Park.
Here Blaenau Ffestiniog crouches below dynamite-blasted slopes of slate waste. This was the Welsh capital of the slate industry until the early 20th century, prized for its fine-grained, blue-hued slate. But the town fell into decline from the 1950s when the number of quarrymen dwindled, the industry dried up and slate became cheaper overseas.
Mining is long gone, but the scarred landscape keenly evokes its past presence – a legacy that it is hoped will soon secure it World Heritage status.
A raft of attractions have wrested the town from the fate of many blighted ex-mining towns. There’s Slate Mountain, offering deep mine tours on Britain’s steepest cable railway and off-road quarry tours.
Close by, Zip World has seriously upped the adventure ante by transforming vast slate caverns into a huge, surreally lit underground playground, featuring giant nets and trampolines at Bounce Below, as well as obstacle course-style challenges, with tunnels and climbing walls engraved with miners’ graffiti. To cap it off there is Titan, three heart-pumping zip lines strung precariously above a deep quarry.
Much further south, it’s a very different story in the rough-edged steel town of Port Talbot, whose belching smokestacks are one of the last-remaining signs of heavy industry in Wales. Threatened with closure in 2016, the steelworks have secured future investment from Tata, at least temporarily, following a successful ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign.
If the skyline of Port Talbot appears bleak to some, its abandoned factories and bare walls have proved irresistible to street artists, not least Banksy. As an unexpected Christmas gift to the town, one of his inimitable works appeared on a garage overnight in December 2018, and was later snapped up by art dealer and gallery owner John Brandler for an unnamed six-figure sum.
“I own a dozen Banksys, but I’m most proud of this one. It’s amazing,” enthuses John. “It shows what appears to be a young boy in the snow, sled at his side, but then you realise that the snowflakes are in fact ashes from a rubbish bin fire. Just beyond you can see the steelworks. It’s a globally relevant message about pollution that everyone deserves to see.”
John has promised to keep the Banksy in Port Talbot for a minimum of two years, and has big plans to make it the centrepiece of a museum of street art in the town, where it could feature alongside works by Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Welsh-born graffiti artist Pure Evil. Beyond this, he envisions a street art trail. “The empty buildings here are perfect. They are blank canvases,” says John. Besides this, he is planning a café and training kitchen providing local employment for the homeless amongst others.
There is no doubt that if John’s plans receive official approval and come to fruition, they could be a major game-changer for one of Britain’s most economically and socially deprived towns, bringing visitors in their thousands. “I’m handing them a crock of gold,” says John.
“Port Talbot could soon be one of the world’s street art hubs up there with the likes of New York and Amsterdam.” As Wales forges newfound creativity from a past of coal, slate and steel, this news is surely the icing on the cake.