The forgotten community people desperately want to see thrive – Wales Online
Twenty years ago Ystalyfera was a hub of activity. A thriving, bustling community, this quaint village nestled between mountains and valleys in the upper Swansea Valley in Neath Port Talbot county was home to everything locals needed – cafes, clothes shops, furniture stores, butchers, ironmongers, and even a lido so locals and visitors could go for a refreshing dip in the midday sun. Now, though, residents say it’s “like a ghost town”.
Walking down the village’s main road, Commercial Street, it’s a struggle to even tell which businesses are open and which have closed down – and with some closing for a lunch hour every day residents have to think ahead plus plan when they’re going to visit the ailing high street. While the village is just a seven-minute drive (or quarter of an hour bus ride) to the next town, Ystradgynlais , locals say the two communities are worlds apart. Whilst Ystradgynlais boasts banks, bargain stores, and a host of independent businesses there isn’t much to be found on the main street in Ystalyfera – although business owners and community volunteers are doing what they can to inject some life and passion into the village.
Local resident Kelvin Davies, 65, who has lived in the area all of his life aside from a few years away with the military, thinks the village has steadily got worse over time. “I get frustrated as I remember what it was like growing up here, ” he said. “There were local corner shops, two ironmongers, butchers’, cafes – there was once 21 pubs and clubs [between Ystaylfera and the neighbouring villages] but the village just looks rundown. It used to be thriving. ”
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Kelvin, who as soon as worked as a special constable in the police force but now works in security, said the lack of businesses and opportunities within the village means few people have reason to stay. Many have to travel out of the village for work as well as for entertainment and leisure facilities.
“The community spirit has gone from the village, ” he stated. “A lot of people here have moved on. Families born and bred here possess moved on because there’s nothing here. ”
“Nothing” is mostly accurate. On our visit to Ystalyfera we were greeted by warm and welcoming smiling faces at pubs, salons, plus community organisations – even though it was certainly clear you’d be hard pushed to have a “day out” in the town. The lack of parking means even the most dedicated of residents who want to “shop local” find it difficult and people from neighbouring communities just stay on the bus past the village and onto the next town.
When we spoke to local residents and business owners, the same few words were uttered time and time again: “There’s nothing for the kids. inch Aside from rugby and football clubs there’s very little with regard to young people to do locally.
Paula, a staff member at Davies Chemist in Wern Road who asked us not to use her surname., said Ystalyfera was similar to most other villages in south Wales – it doesn’t have as much as it used to. “At one time there was a roller-skating coliseum at the bottom of the road by the bakery, ” she said. “It used to be really good – there used to be a bingo hall. My children are all grown up now but I’d like to see things for the kids, for the grandchildren. ”
There’s so little for young people to do that the landlady of one pub offers started offering out two small otherwise unused rooms in the pub to youngsters to hang out with friends and play darts plus pool. Suzanne Powell, owner of The Flying Pig, is perfectly situated for occupants at the top of the Commercial Street hill to pop in for a drink or two – or for visitors to regroup before they descend over the steep hill into the rest of the village.
Suzanne moved to Ystalyfera from Kent in England four years ago after a relationship breakdown. Though she’d never run a pub before she wanted a new challenge to sink her teeth into. After “sticking a pin in a map” to decide where to move to, Suzanne found herself in the village and taking on a well-known local pub, previously named the Ystalyfera Arms.
Since taking the pub on Suzanne has expanded the particular outdoor area and extended how much of the indoor area will be open to the public. As well as the main pub room there are 2 smaller rooms for groups of friends to hang out. “Young people have nowhere to go but they can come here and hang out and play pool plus use the wifi, ” she said. “That way they’re off the street and their parents know where they are. There’s nothing for young adults in the village unless they are into sport. We’ve got two rugby clubs and two football clubs [between Ysalyfera and nearby villages] but nothing else. ”
The Pig is named after the slag heap within the mine nearby and the well-known locals miners’ joke to their wives: “Oh I’m off to the Pig” – in order to suggest they’re going to work when they were actually heading to the pub – and how Suzanne felt when she obtained her licence and was permitted to open the pub with no prior experience: “if pigs could fly”. While the pandemic closed the bar for months at a time Suzanne is usually optimistic for the future and hopes to start offering food in the pub later in the year, increase the number of live music events on offer, and wants to set up glamping and camping provisions in the garden behind the pub.
Years ago you would find it easy to find a pub offering live music within the village – some inhabitants remember when there were more than a dozen pubs and bars – while in the 1960s plus 70s the Capitol Cinema in the village ran film nights and bingo evenings before its shock closure in 1980. If you wanted a film night with buddies in the village now your best bet would be getting the75-minute coach to Swansea city centre or having your friends over to watch something on TV or Netflix. Not ideal.
Walking down Commercial Street we stumbled upon Trysor community charity shop, part of the Ystalyfera Development Trust. The shop is a great size and well organised into different zones for different items. There’s a kitchenware/homeware room, the children’s and entertainment room, a room with furniture, and a room with lots of bright-coloured and good-quality clothing – even a couple of gorgeous wedding dresses. It makes a good visit but certainly one clothing shop isn’t enough to attract people to the community.
There were three volunteers working in the shop on the day of our visit and each was welcoming and smiley and stopped at nothing to help customers no matter how many times they asked for assistance. The ladies explained that the shop has become something of an unofficial social spot for local people and especially the older generation. With no coffee shop or café in the village older people often pop in to Trysor for a natter with the volunteers – something they welcome.
“We used to have so many things in the village – clothes shops, sweet shops, several butchers. It was a thriving little town, ” shop volunteer Anne Christie said. “You didn’t need to go anywhere else – you could get everything you needed in the community. ”
Anne would like to see landlords offer a few months of free rent to new businesses to help them set up and to encourage more businesses to open in the village for the long term. “Landlords should offer businesses six months free rent to help companies get on their feet, inches she said. “We need to revamp Ystalyfera and brighten the place up – it’s like a ghost town. It really is the forgotten village. I used to get so embarrassed when people asked where I was from – I used to say Ystradgynlais. I’m from Ystalyfera but I’d say Ystradgynlais. ”
Anne and her fellow volunteers would like to see the streets of Ystalyfera cleaned plus neatened up and bollards and streetlights re-painted brighter. “Ystalyfera needs a facelift – it needs to be clean and inviting. It’s just deteriorating all the time, ” they said.
Meanwhile Paula associated with Davies Chemists said she’d like to see a coffee shop or even café open – somewhere people can go for a chat rather than the pub or their own homes. “It would be nice to have somewhere to have a coffee like a café. We need somewhere you can stop and have a chat and a coffee – not everyone wants a drink within the pub, ” she mentioned.
Hannah Barron, 21, proprietor of new business Barkingdales Pet Spa in Commercial Road, would also like to see more businesses open. “There’s absolutely nothing to attract people here, inch she said. “There’s never been much here [since I was growing up]. ” Hannah launched her pet spa and dog-grooming business in March 2022 after taking on the particular empty unit in 2019 but having to delay her business plans due to Covid. She hopes to expand her business and start offering cat grooming services next year and wants to see a lot more shops and businesses opening locally.
For Liann Davies of Kerry’s Bakery in Gurnos Road one of the main issues with the village is the parking provisions. Without adequate car parking people aren’t able to stop regarding very long and so don’t have the time to peruse the businesses around – or, if people leave their cars for hours on end, there’s no where for customers to park.
Liann, 39, provides run the bakery intended for seven years and took it on from the girl father Kerry who set up the business almost 25 years back. She said some people park in the spaces outside her bakery which have a three-hour limit but leave their particular cars there for hours at a time – stopping other customers through parking up and visiting.
She said: “I’d like to see it [Ystalyfera] brightened up. In Ystradgynlais [Powys Council] spend a lot more money than [Neath Port Talbot Council do] in Ystalyfera. All there is here is hair salons – we want boutique-y places. inches
Liann added that the supermarkets Asda and Tesco upon either side of the village also pull people away from the village itself, the sentiment echoed by Nigel at Valley Butchers. “Tesco and Asda, they’re one-stop shops. It’s drawing people out, ” he said.
In the heart of the community, about halfway down Commercial Street, you’ll find the Ystalyfera Development Trust, referred to by some locals by its former name “The Hwb”. A three-storey building offering classes, workshops, and social groups for people of the community, including computer workshops, sewing and craft classes, the trust is a welcoming space open to anyone in the community yet mostly used by older people who want to socialise with like-minded individuals. Among the most popular classes are crochet and knitting groups which meet every week and there was clearly a circus skills workshop for children earlier in the summer.
The building also houses two treatment rooms which can be rented out for beauty treatments or healthcare treatments like reflexology and the trust can be fitted with a stairlift, making it more accessible for many. There’s also a “community car scheme” which offers locals lifts to doctors and healthcare appointments along with a drop-in centre for people in order to ask staff for help with technology like their mobile phones.
The centre used to offer Zumba classes, staff member Elaine Williams said, but as numbers depleted the class was eventually cancelled simply by its instructor. In order to offer you more opportunities more people need to use the trust and what it currently offers, the girl added.
In terms of activities to get young people Ystalyfera RFC has been highly praised by local people for its junior senior rugby section and for offering social activities to the community too. Explaining what’s available, secretary and director Noir James said: “As a local amateur sports club we are very conscious of the need to support the community of Ystalyfera, Godregraig, and other local villages. We have a strong bond with the local Welsh school and the community council and consequently, as we are one of only two clubs in the village, we are constantly looking to offer our club pertaining to private functions at very good booking rates.
“We can provide a bouncy castle, a large concert hall, lounge bar, kitchen, and a beer garden and can accommodate up to 120-plus for various celebrations. We have bingo on a Wednesday plus Friday, which is well-supported by the senior citizens, also a ladies and men’s darts teams, a bikers club, and a recently-installed pool table which is constantly played our members.
“Our junior rugby section consists of an under-sixes, under-10s, and under-12s who play on a Sunday morning and train on a Thursday. Many of our juniors have got represented the Swansea Valley team. Our senior team plays in the WRU championship and train on a Tuesday and Thursday. We have a membership of approximately 200 and players make up the majority of that total – 90 in total). ”
Locals want to see the village celebrate the mining history both in the interest of locals and to appeal to more visitors to come by the particular village. “Industries have gone and for tourism people go to Swansea – why not start it up here? ” stated Kelvin. “Somebody needs to look at the tourism thing and tap into our history. ”
Work is happening locally to restore overlooked and forgotten walking paths and trails from the village and around the Swansea Valley. As part of a Wales-wide project charity Ramblers Cymru has selected 18 communities across the country to help restore paths, gates, plus walkways, offer guided walks and “introduction to pathways and maps” classes, as well as expand biodiversity, plant trees, and wildflowers and clear “invasive species, ” mentioned Zoe Richards, Ramblers Cymru’s south west Wales lead.
Locally it can hoped the restoration associated with local paths as part of the two-year Welsh Government project will attract more visitors to this part of the Swansea Area and encourage more locals to explore the gorgeous setting around their homes.
Some residents said antisocial behaviour has become a problem in recent years, but it’s not – contrary to other areas in Neath Port Talbot – an issue with teenagers, they said. Some locals said it’s “middle-aged people” plus “older people” that seem to be drinking to excess and abusing drugs, somewhat damaging the local reputation of the town.
One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It’s not the young is actually older people. [With] the lower rent prices in the region it seems we get more of the unemployed and there seems to be a lot of drug and alcohol use. I moved from Ystradgynlais to Ystalyfera 12 years ago as the house prices were lower but I did not realise that the anti-social behaviour was bad in the area.
“Some people are so intimidating you are as well scared to say anything. Our cars have been damaged from drunk people and when [we] phoned the police [they seemed to have] no interest at all. The smell of cannabis when you walk up the road is awful, people sitting on steps drinking and urinating. The particular walk for Route 43 [National Cycle Network] from Home Bargains [Ystradgynlais] to Commercial Street, past the river [there are] large groups drinking plus swearing – such a lovely walk but you really would not want to walk there unless you have to. ”
“The community apart from these issues is lovely but these issues are going to stop any investment. I myself is looking to sell my house and move out the village as I am just fed up of the drunk people. You do expect it on weekends but here it is during the week. The village needs to be cleaned up and maybe then there will be investment here. ” they added.
Another resident, who also asked to be anonymous for fear of retaliation, said: “There’s a drugs issue here – cannabis, cocaine. There’s been three drugs busts this year – and I’ve never seen a police officer aside from during the busts. ”
It’s certainly not all bad in Ystalyfera though. Some businesses are flourishing plus doing so well that their owners are looking to increase. While the Ystalyfera Development Believe in and its sister charity shop Tryfor plan a community garden meant for next year one pub landlord is midway through an epic transformation of a neighbouring lot.
Gareth Shell took on the New Swan Hotel within Gurnos Road back in July 2005 and, as a carpenter, was able to transform it into a bar and hotel that represents his interests. As well as greater than a dozen motorcycle helmets around the ceiling there’s a skeleton riding a motorbike in one part of the pub and a striking mural too.
The hotel currently has 22 areas but will soon present 40 rooms when work next door at the Old Swan Hotel and a former GP surgery is finished. Gareth is investing £500, 000 into the development to transform the empty and abandoned units into a welcoming and impressive resort with reception desk, breakfast and lunch provisions, another bar, and even some camping provisions outside.
”Other pubs have fallen by the wayside, ” Gareth said. ”But I’m investing half a million pounds into expanding the New Swan into the old doctor’s surgery and the Old Swan. We’re hoping for it to spread out at the end of this year or early next year and between the two sites [the current New Swan site and the Old Swan redeveloped site] there will be 40 rooms, sleeping 88.
”There’s always a good buzz in the pub. I love everything about it, I find myself in a lucky position. “.
Landlady at The Soaring Pig pub Suzanne stated the community jumps through hoops to help others. During lockdown people checked on their neighbours and those living alone plus recently people rallied together to raise funds for a member of the community who is terminally ill. There have also been several collections for Ukraine in recent weeks with people donating clothing and equipment for Ukrainian people in need.
Meanwhile there’s a real sense of community at the Ystalyfera Development Trust and Tryfor charity, increased by the trust’s monthly day trips out of the town. The trips are open to all but are especially popular with older people and take people to an UK town or city of interest such as Bristol, Stratford-upon-Avon, or Bath.
Local councillor Alun Llewellyn also speaks highly of the community spirit in the village. He mentioned: “There’s a lot of voluntary activity in the area. As well as the Ystalyfera Advancement Trust we have a local foodbank run by volunteers. There is a good community spirit in the area. But obviously the area does need investment. We recently had long-overdue investment in the school (Ysgol Gymraeg Ystalyfera Bro Dur, a three-to-18 college in the village) but the valleys in general in Neath Port Talbot need more expense.
“Now we have the new coalition in council they’re working on developing a strategy to guide investment into the towns. We need to build on Ystalyfera’s potential – we need to see the investment decision. ”