The Afan Valley, or Cwm Afan in Welsh, refers to the river valley through which the River Afan (Afon Afan in Welsh) flows; From it’s source at the confluence of the River Corrwg and the River Gwynfi near the village of Cymer, the Afan eventually enters Swansea Bay at Aberafan (aka Port Talbot). Along the way, the Afan encounters several tributaries, including The Pelenna at Pontrhydyfen, and the Ffrwdwyllt..
It is said* that the river valley formed the territory of the medieval Lords of Afan, and that a motte and bailey castle stood on the banks of the river as it passed through Aberafan during the medieval period. (* source: Wikipedia.)
According to Place names of the Afan Valley by Alwyn B.Jones ISBN 0 907117 481, the name Afan is of pre-Celtic origin, comprised of the elements ‘a’ (meaning from) and ‘ban’/’fan’ (meaning heights), suggesting the translation ‘river from the heights’ (or mountains).
Somewhat confusing for the visitor might be the fact that Cwmafan is also the name of one of a number of villages in The Afan Valley. Several sources suggest that the village was originally a hamlet known as Michaelstone Super Afan (Llanfihangel Ynys Afan), being in the parish of Saint Michael.
Worthy of reading is A brief history of The Parish of Llanfihangel Ynys Afan by Greville James.
Much of the original landscape of the valley was marred by the industrial revolution and the discovery of rich coal seams. The copperworks left everlasting scars on the lower half of the valley and surrounding mountains, while the upper half of the valley bore the scars of the unwanted byproducts of coal mining that resulted in “coal tips”.
Pollution and waste products from some of these industries and, later, from the nearby steelworks at Port Talbot, limited the growth of vegetation on the hillsides of the lower Afan Valley.
According to a timeline on the Port Talbot Historical Society web site, the first blast furnace in Cwmafan was built in 1819, the Copperminers works was built 1835-1838, and the longest continuous length of rail was made in 1851.
Railways were a necessary part of the Afan Valley scene for many years. Coal was transported from the upper valley by “coal trains”, and holidaymakers from the upper valley being transported to Aberafan Beach via the Swansea Bay line. As a lad, I used to travel by train to attend grammar school in Aberafan. Steam locomotives inevitably gave way to diesel electric.
The cessation of coalmining and the popularity of cars eventually resulted in the closing of the two railway lines that ran through the valley. Many of the bridges that carried the railway lines were demolished, but Y Bont Goch (the red bridge), a viaduct in Pontrhydyfen, still stands as a reminder of that era. Old railway lines throughout the valley were removed, providing miles of walking paths.
The South Wales Miner’s Museum, located at Afan Argoed Country Park (now known as Afan Forest Park), provides an interesting insight into coal mining in the valley. You can read more about the museum at their web site: South Wales Miner’s Museum.
Some excellent reading on the history of Cwmafan can be found in the publication Cwmavon Then & Now by A. Leslie Evans, Port Talbot Historical Society.
Another excellent publication is In The Valley Long Ago, industrial growth and the struggle for religious freedom in the Afan Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century, by John Rowlands, translated from the Welsh original by Graham Hughes.