Aberfan

  
   - darkometer rating:  4 -
 
A small ex-mining village in South Wales, Great Britain, and the site of one of the country's most tragic disasters of the post-WWII era, when parts of the village, and in particular its junior school, were engulfed in a catastrophic landslide.
  
Today, however, there's very little to remind visitors of this tragic past, except for a memorial garden in the village (at the site of the destroyed school) and especially the children's section in the local cemetery. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

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More background info: The landslide came from a spoil heap for mining debris above the village. On 21 October 1966, after days of heavy rainfall, a section of the artificial hill broke loose and came down the slope and in an accelerating surge demolished several houses in its path before crashing into a school, where the children had just arrived only minutes before. The surge could not be seen due to fog, only the rumble of the approaching 40 feet wall of mud could be heard. But it wasn't enough as a forewarning. Soon the buildings were filled with dark sludge.

A total of 144 people, 116 of them children died in the horror. The survivors were left traumatized. The village hasn't recovered from the nightmare to this day.

The aftermath was characterized by the agony of controversies over responsibilities, funding of and misconduct during the rescue work and the longer-term mental after-effects amongst the survivors (these days called PTSD). The coal mine at Aberfan was closed in 1989. And the remaining spoil heats were eventually removed. But the psychological scars from 1966 still linger.
  
Today there's a memorial garden, and a special section in the village cemetery with the line of graves of the children the most poignant element. But a proper dedicated memorial commodifying the Aberfan disaster is still under consideration. Some money for this was promised by the Welsh National Assembly in 2007. It remains to be seen what will become of this and what the site may develop into.  
   
PLEASE NOTE: up to now there's no commodification for tourism at all – and that's said to be deliberate. This also means that if you do visit you should be aware that you're not necessarily welcome by everybody and hence should make extra sure you behave with utmost respect and be discreet. Yet the very existence of a memorial garden with an information plaque suggests it must be for more than just the locals, who don't need reminding anyway, but for a wider world. Just don't forget that even after more than 50 years it's a difficult memory and a sensitive place. And you have to do it on your own. There's no visitor centre, no guides, and most certainly none of those secondary tourist traps like gift shops or on-site cafés. No, Aberfan's two memorial sites are still pure grieving spaces. You can join, discreetly and quietly, but something like taking selfies here would be a real crime. Remember that when/if you go.
  
What there is to see: The main focal point is a section in the village's cemetery high on the slope to the west – so you can see it from the main road already. It consists of two rows of white marble arches in front of which are the graves of the 116 children that perished in the disaster.
  
A few of the headstones make overt reference to the catastrophe, while most abstain from it and rely on the usual Christian approach of interpreting the disaster and the pain it caused as something God-given and the outlook of 'meeting again' in an 'afterlife' as a cause for joy rather than sorrow. I presume to those who share the prerequisite religious convictions this is all soothing and comforting. Since I do not share such a conviction, I find it a bit hard to get my head round. I just don't understand it, that's all.
  
What I do know is that, humble as this memorial may be, it's still quite touching. It is, however, rather an indirect dark site, and anything but touristy to begin with. So going there also involves a slight uneasiness of feeling like you're intruding on a private family affair. Not that anybody seemed to mind when I went there. The cemetery gardeners carried on with their business as if I hadn't been there and the two cyclists who were apparently visiting graves didn't seem to be bothered by my presence either (or maybe they were dark tourists too?)
  
The other place in Aberfan dedicated to the disaster of 1966 is the memorial gardens to the north of the village. This really is a public space. It is hardly anything more than just that, though: simply a modest garden that you wouldn't remotely associate with anything sinister if it wasn't for the memorial plaque on the wall by the entrance, which spells it out: "Pantglas Junior School / memorial garden / dedicated to the 116 children and 28 adults who lost their lives October 21st 1966 …"
   
The design of the garden may at first appear to be merely abstract, but that this is not the case: the paths and flower-beds have been laid out so that they follow the floor plan of the destroyed school. Parts of the surrounding wall are apparently also original, while others have been reconstructed. Knowing this (which could be spellt out more clearly by explanatory info panels, perhaps) could give wandering around those paths a rather more emotional quality ...
    
Other than those two memorial places there's nothing at all to remind you of the disaster and its causes. The hillside from where the landside had come has been reforested and is as now as green as any hillside in the area. Most signs of the former mining activity have disappeared at Aberfan and its surroundings. (Although a few "show mines" remain such as the Big Pit at nearby Blaenavon)
 
 
Location: ca. 4 miles (6.4 km) south of Merthyr Tydfil, 10 miles (16 km) north-west of Caerphilly, and 18 miles (27.5 km) north of Cardiff, Wales, Great Britain.
 
Google maps locator: [51.692,-3.348]
  
 
Access and costs: a bit remote, but not too difficult to get to; free.
 
Details: To get to Aberfan it's easiest to go by car. Coming from the south on the main A470 road between Cardiff and the Brecon Beacons, take the A472 at the third exit of the roundabout at Abercynon heading east, and then the first exit on the next roundabout into the A4054 heading north. After a few miles turn left into the B4285 at Merthyr Vale towards Aberfan. The turn-off is very easy to miss (I did twice) so look out carefully – if you've gone too far, turn round at the next village and drive back and turn right after passing several short dead-end streets in Merthyr Vale into the first road that looks like a proper one. This snakes down the valley floor and into Aberfan proper.

At the end of Bridge Street in Aberfan turn left into Aberfan Rd, and then slight right for the approach road to the cemetery and its small car park by the chapel.
The memorial garden is a bit further north at the end of Moy Rd.

Coming from the north along the A470, get off at the roundabout south of Abercanaid, taking the first exit into the A4060 and again the first exit at the next roundabout into the A4054 heading south. At Merthyr Vale turn right into the B4285 as described above.

The nearest train station is Merthyr Vale, from where it is less than a mile's walk to Aberfan along the B4285. There are half-hourly trains from Cardiff Central on weekdays (only two-hourly on Sundays) and the ride takes ca. 45 minutes (fare ca. 5 GBP). From Merthyr Tydfil it only takes 15 minutes (ca. 1.80 GBP).

The memorial gardens can be accessed freely at all times (during daylight hours). The opening times of the cemetery are: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. between October and March, and until 7:15 p.m. between April and September.
 
 
Time required: Not long – just a few moments contemplation at the memorial/cemetery. Getting there and back will invariably take longer.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing much in the immediate vicinity (unless you count the general coal mining industrial wasteland aspects of the whole area) – but the South Wales Police Museum has a section about the police's role in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, as well as sections about other disasters (air crashes, earlier mining accidents, etc.); admission is free but visits are by appointment only, Wednesdays to Fridays; phone 01656-303207; address: Police Headquarters, Cowbridge Rd, Bridgend, CF31 3SU.

See also under Great Britain in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Aberfan is just south of Merthyr Tydfil, the gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park, the No. 1 tourist destination in South Wales. South of Aberfan, Caerphilly, famous for its picture-book castle and for its namesake cheese, is not far either. Further south still is the proud capital of Wales, Cardiff. The border area with England along the Wye Valley is also renowned for the prototypical quaint Britishness of its villages and scenery.

  
 
  • Aberfan 1 - view up from near the chapelAberfan 1 - view up from near the chapel
  • Aberfan 2 - rows of white marble monumentsAberfan 2 - rows of white marble monuments
  • Aberfan 3 - the graves closer upAberfan 3 - the graves closer up
  • Aberfan 4 - memorial space by the cemetery for the children Aberfan 4 - memorial space by the cemetery for the children
  • Aberfan 5 - view down over the valleyAberfan 5 - view down over the valley
  • Aberfan 6 - broken angelAberfan 6 - broken angel
  • Aberfan 7 - from this hill in the background the disaster had comeAberfan 7 - from this hill in the background the disaster had come
  • Aberfan 8 - entrance to the memorial garden in the villageAberfan 8 - entrance to the memorial garden in the village
  • Aberfan 9 - memorial gardenAberfan 9 - memorial garden

  
 
  
  
  
   
  

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