We had a quietly pleasant catch-up day yesterday, including lunch in Penarth and a stroll on the pier and the promenade. The Newport town band was playing beautifully outside the pier entrance, and the sun made an occasional appearance between the clouds. The August moon rising to fullness in the middle of the night means that the tide is out at its furthest point currently, a good hundred yards out beyond the pier end, exposing every submersible sandbank and mud-flat, the length and breadth of the estuary, seventeen metres below the highest tide level. It's so different from the Mediterranean, which barely rises and falls a metre without a backing wind. There's such a wonderful rich difference between the Delta de l'Ebre and the Severn Estuary with their hugely diverse ecosystems. What they have in common though are the species of migratory birds that can make a home in both places.
This morning I drove up the A470 and into Merthyr Vale on the slow minor road at Quaker's Yard, following the river Taff northwards, towards its source in the Brecon Beacons.
The main highway by-passes all the villages for five miles above the valley, rising high along the steep green hillside contours, sparing the inhabitants the noise of one of Wales' busiest roads. My first stop was at the St Mary & Holy Innocents Parish Church Nixonville, just outside Aberfan. It was rebuilt with a modern design in the 1960's following the demolition of the original building due to subsidence. I believe the Holy Innocents were added to the dedication in the wake of the tragic collapse of the coal tip on to a school and houses in 1967, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
The last time I preached here was 27 years ago when I was working for USPG. Taff Merthyr colliery was still in operation, just across the road from the church, and the river Taff ran past behind the church. Then, it was black with coal dust and lifeless as a result of pollution. Today salmon and trout can be fished along the river's length. There are herons, and otter sightings have been reported near Aberfan, competing with local anglers. The colliery was closed in the late eighties. The site has been cleared and leveled. It was zoned for housing, but none has been built, so at the moment all you can see is acres and acres of coarse grass, a field of pale gold fringed with trees. A pleasure to the eye in a quiet verdant valley.
There were fifteen at St Mary's. Afterward, for the Eucharist of the day at St John the Baptist Troedyrhiw a couple of miles up the road, thirty were present. They were friendly and hospitable with a cup of tea after both services. It was lovely to hear people talk and joke together in the accent I grew up with in another mining village Ystrad Mynach, not far away in the next valley. St John's is a larger building built further up the hillside in the mid 19th century. It has an interesting Victorian organ which, like the building itself has been renovated since I was last here, a credit to the commitment of congregations and pastors.
Merthyr Vale suffers from high long term unemployment. Anyone who does work must commute to Cardiff, Pontypridd or Methyr Tydful, a town which was as big and important as Cardiff in the heyday of Victorian iron and coal. Now it struggles to survive economically, and suffers population drift, as do all the former mining valleys. The imaginative development of holiday accommodation and leisure activities cannot really fill the void left by heavy industry, despite the vast improvement of infrastructure since the pits and iron works closed.
My round trip to take these two services was much the same as it has been these last few months in Costa Azahar, where some church goers also travel considerable distances to worship. The majority of the congregations in Merthyr Vale belong to their villages and are deeply rooted in them, although the presence of people with non local accents was also detectable, families moving to the region to work, rather than retire. In both settings, it's people's dedication and the bonds of mutual regard and affection which make them alive and active as members of the Body of Christ.
This morning Fr Hywel replaced me at St John the Baptist L'Ampolla, as I was ending my morning at St John the Baptist Troedyrhiw, Merthyr Vale. Churches dedicated to the Forerunner are to be found everywhere, co-incidence weighted by frequency. In so many and different situations of Christian witness, all we can and must do is prepare the way for the Lord to come. Just like St John.