Nestled at the top of the South Wales Valleys, Blaenau Gwent is best known for its industrial past as a coal and steel-mining region. However, amongst the many sites which attest to its more modern history are a number of old and even ancient ones which make for an essential visit.
Perhaps most striking is the Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery, one of the biggest and most famous cholera cemeteries in Britain. Another poignant site is the Six Bells Mining Memorial, which opened in 2010 and is made of 20,000 strips of Corten steel.
Here’s our pick of 5 of the best historic sites that Blaenau Gwent has to offer.
1. The Guardian Of The Valleys - Six Bells Mining Memorial
Completed in 2010, the Six Bells Mining Memorial, known as Guardian, was commissioned to commemorate the 1960 mining disaster in Six Bells that caused the deaths of 45 men. The 20-metre-high sculpture, which towers over the site of a former colliery where the tragedy occurred, was designed and created by artist Sebastien Boyesen.
It is constructed from 20,000 strips of Corten steel welded together to make the figure of a miner. The names of the men lost in the disaster are cut into panels wrapped around the memorial plinth.
2. Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery
Located on a remote mountainside to the west of Tredegar, the Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery is the resting place of at least 200 people who lost their lives to cholera outbreaks. In 1831, a highly-contagious form of Asiatic cholera reached the UK after spreading westwards from India. The burial ground was deliberately chosen for victims of both the 1832 and 1849 outbreaks of the disease.
In 1849, 203 deaths from the disease were reported in Tredegar alone. Today, the cemetery is a sobering sight.
3. Nantyglo Round Towers
Thought to be the last private castle built in Britain, the Nantyglo Round Towers complex was created in around 1816 by the Iron Masters of Nantyglo Ironworks. It was intended as a symbol of strength and also functioned as a means of keeping out the rioting workforce by protecting the iron master’s Ty Mawr mansion.
Today, only the foundations of the Ty Mawr mansion remain. While the south tower has been destroyed, the north tower is still intact. Though privately-owned, the towers still make for a scenic visit.
4. St Illtyd’s Church, Llanhilleth
The oldest standing building in Blaenau Gwent, the first mention of St Illtyd’s Church in Llanhilleth dates back to the Black Book of Carmarthen, a Welsh manuscript that dates to 1250. The book features a poem which refers to a grave which is thought to be a large mound near the church that exists today and is frequently referred to as a Norman Motte.
It is known that a ‘cell’ was built on the current site from 860 to 893, with the only artefact still remaining being the font, which is still in use today. The present building is thought to have been completed in 1213 when the parish was under control of the Cistercian Abbey. The church today is deconsecrated and is sometimes open to the public, or is used as a venue for community events.
5. Bedwellty House
The present Bedwellty House was first built in 1822 by Samuel Homfray, who owned the Tredegar Iron Company along with Richard Fothergill and Matthew Monkhouse. It was only when Homfray’s son Samuel Junior took over that the house and its 26-acre park was further developed, and took on its current appearance. Following Samuel Junior’s retirement in 1853, the building became the residence of the managers of Tredegar Iron Works.
In 1890, Lord Tredegar gave the house and gardens to the council to be used as a public park. Today, it is open to the public and features the biggest block of coal in the world, which was originally meant to be on display at Queen Victoria’ Greatest Exhibit in 1851.