Follow the River Taff

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After we found the Kings Head, we drove the few minutes to a town called Abertillery.  Most of my Welsh family grew up there, including my cousin Gill who was driving us around.  Abertillery is a tiny town and one of the few streets is called Princess street.

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This is where Gill and her brother, Arthur, and my late cousin Joyce lived as children and where Walter, Gill and Arthur’s stepdad still lived at the time.  Sadly, Walter has since passed away, but I remember him as a warm, generous, quiet man.  He was strong and stubborn and lived in his own house until he died, in spite of Gill’s urging him to move to somewhere that would do his housework and cook his meals for him.

 

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You may have noticed in the picture, that Arthur – second from the left – is a larger than life kind of guy.  He spent his career working for Adidas as their liaison with the Welsh National Rugby team.  He could have taken a promotion, moved to London, and made scads more money.  Adidas certainly offered this to him.  But Arthur loved (and still loves) rugby so much that he chose to stay in what was his dream job.  Rugby is an important sport in Wales.  Every town has at least one team and Abertillery is no different.  My mother, amongst all her junk precious articles, has a book on Rugby in Abertillery.  That is one thing that I know I will keep once she has passed.

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Arthur was an amazing host.  This is when he is truly in his element – showing off the country that he loves and making sure the people around him are having a great time.  He took us for a lovely lunch in Cardiff, drove us to Penarth (lovely town right on the water just north of Cardiff), and then we hung out with his friends who announced, that even though my daughter and I were born in Canada, we were still Taffies.  The word Taffy refers to the people of south Wales and derives from the River Taff.  I have since learned that it is a derogatory word.  I apologize for using it but my story would fall flat if I said that we had been called T*****s.  I am quite sure that there was no insult meant when they used the term.  In fact, I could see the Welsh pride on their faces when they all agreed what we were and we took it in the spirit that it was meant.

A story that Arthur told me had to do with a branch of our family with the last name Walbyoff.  Many of them shortened the name to Walby.  According to Arthur, the Walbyoff branch of the family is descended from a Polish prince by the name of Prince Ralph.  I have googled Prince Ralph of Poland and couldn’t find any reference to him at all.  I suspect this is one of Arthur’s wonderful tall tales.  It doesn’t really matter – it’s stories like these that that make Arthur the larger than life guy that he is.

Just a note on my cousin Joyce.  She was the first of my family living in Wales that I met face to face.  Joyce came to British Columbia to meet family.  She stayed with me in Victoria for about a week, and my mother came over to visit with her too.  One of my favourite memories of Joyce was going shopping with her to find some culottes to wear.  I took her to the Bay.  She found a lovely pair of culottes, white with big tan polkadots.  She wore those everyday with such joy and panache.  Sadly, when she was packing her things to return to Wales, she left the culottes out.  When I asked her why, she said matter-of-factly, that she couldn’t be seen in them back in Wales.  Her neighbours would talk and her friends wouldn’t be seen with her.  This was back in 1988.

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I am very proud of my Welsh heritage.  My aunt, who was born in Wales, didn’t speak English until she was 13 and then she completely gave up Welsh as she was teased so badly by the other children.  I used to ask her to teach me some Welsh, but she never would.  She passed away when I was 17.  An opportunity and a beloved aunt lost.

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Following the Wales

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Have you ever watch the film “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain“?  It’s the true story of a town in Wales.  During WWI, the English government sent surveyors around Britain to create accurate maps.  When the surveyors come to this little town, they tell the townsfolk that what they had always thought of their mountain was actually a few feet short of mountain. So they request a remeasure, but, in collusion with the younger surveyor, they conspire to keep the surveyors in town.  In the meantime, the whole town carries stones and sod and wheelbarrows full of earth to the top of the hill until they have added enough height to make it a mountain.

There is so much that I love about this film, not the least of which being a young Hugh Grant.  But, I shall put my hormones away for the moment.  I love this film because it is such a great portrait of the Welsh character: hardy, proud, inventive, stubborn and strong.  How could so many people survive the coal mines (and they were terrible places) without this kind of character?  I’ve had family members lost in the mines.  My cousin Gillian lost her father in a mine cave in when she was just five.

My family story is interesting.  My great grandmother was the first woman in Wales to be given a licence by a brewery to run a pub/hotel.  I still have the medal that they awarded her.   This goes back to the late 1800s.  The pub was called the King’s Head and it sat in the tiny town of Blaina.  Back in 2005, my daughter and I went to Wales and one of the things that I wanted to find was the King’s Head.  As far as I knew, the King’s Head closed sometime in the 1970s.  I didn’t even know if the building was still standing.  Gill was driving us back to Blaina and then on to Abertillery where most of my family came from, and where a few still lived.  As we drove down the main street in Blaina (Blaina is pretty small – if you blink you’ll miss it), I looked up at an old, abandoned building.  “STOP!”  I yelled at Gill who slammed on her brakes.  “Look!” I said not quite so loudly.  On the top of the old abandoned brick building was a sign that said “King’s Head”.
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It was my great grandmother’s pub and we almost had driven by it.  Sadly, someone had stuccoed the front of the building, making it a dirty grey-brown, but the sides and back were still the original brick. The first floor windows were boarded up but the glass in the second and some of the third floor windows was gone. At the back, high at the top a sign proudly stated “Kings Head, Rhymney Beers.  In spite of being derelict, there was something proud in the way the building stood, especially knowing how long the Kings Head had been there.

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I did a little digging on the Kings Head.  The earliest reference to the pub was in Pigot’s 1844 directory of South Wales.  This tells me that my great grandmother was not the first to run the Kings Head.  She would have run it at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  To the best of my knowledge, the last person to run the pub was a Welsh Rugby player by the name of Jack Gore.  Jack was born and raised in Blaina in the 1920s and 30s and played on the Wales National Union Rugby Team.  When he retired, he returned to Blaina to run the Kings Head.  He passed away in 1971.  Sadly, the last thing that I found online about the Kings Head was a newspaper article from 2012 saying that the United Welsh Housing Society had applied to demolish the Kings Head to make way for the development of flats which would operate as a kind of transitional housing for people suffering with depression and anxiety.  While it makes me sad to think that the Kings Head may already be gone, I think this an appropriate use of the space.  I suppose I won’t know if it is actually gone until my next visit.