Merthyr Tydil, its name is explained by a legend that takes Merthyr back in time to the emergence of Wales as a national entity from the last days of the Roman world. Tudful, was a British princess, daughter of the Lord of Brycheiniog (Brecon), and grandson of the Cunedda who marched from the North to hold the centre of both Wales and England with the state of Powys. Tudful was a Christian, and she was martyred for her fairth. Martyrdom and faith have occupied a large place in the history of the town. It played its part in the wars that resisted the Norman penetration from the southern coastline along the deep valleys descending from Ellenith 2 miles away on Morlais hill a Norman castle that was never finished makes its ruins a monument to those times.
The A465 in this part of Wales acts as a dividing line: to the south are the historic valleys once dominated by coalmining and the iron and steel-making industries, while to the north are the untouched southern uplands of the Brecon Beacons National Park. This rigidly observed dividing line is explained by geology. The coal-bearing rocks of the valleys end along the line of this road, giving way to the lime-stone and old red sandstone rocks of the Beacons. Geology also explains the growth of industry in these parts. The iron-smelting which accompanied the coalmining was a result of the fact that limestone, a key part of the smelting process, was easily quarried locally. Iron ore was also to be found nearby. These ingredients all came together in the most productive way at Merthyr Tydfil.
In 1831 Merthyr become the largest town in Wales with a population larger than those of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea put together. When the Industrial Revolution first launched inself into an expanding world, large ironworks were built to exploit Merthyr's national resources to the full. They were built at Dowlais Cyfarthfa and Penydarren and Merthyr grew to be the greatest iron and steel manufacturer in the world, lined by rail and canal with Cardiff. By 1931 its people numbered 71,000 and when demand declined one-fifth of its inhabitants became unemployed.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s Britain was involved in various naval conflicts which increased demand for cannons and other weapons. Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson visited Cyfartha Ironworks in Merthyr, accompanied by Sir William and Lady Hamilton, to see the place were the 104 guns had been made for his flagship, 'HMS Victory'. By 1825 Cyfartha was then largest ironworks in the world and renowned for its high quality of output. Engineer, Watkin George constructed a water wheel which weighed 100 tons and used 25 tons of water per minute to work the four furnaces. The people of Merthyr Tydfil regarded it as the 8th wonder of the world.
The mock-Tudor Cyfartha Castle (shown above), designed by Richard Lugar was the home of the iron magnate Wiliam Crawshay II. The castle, which overlooked the ironworks, stands in 160 acres of parklands has 365 windows, fifteen towers and battlements, seventy two room, and cost £30,000 in 1825. The opulent luxury of the castle would have stood in stark contract to the workers' houses. The ownership of the castle transferred to Merthyr Tydfil Corporation for the sum of £18,000, and the family's chief entertaining rooms are now a museum and art gallery, and the major part of the castle is now used as a grammar school.
By way of contrast, the living conditions of the workers are also remembered at Joseph Parry Cottage. Parry was a famous 19th century composer. He wrote the hymn Myfanwy, which is a favourite performance-piece with male-voice choirs. He was born in this tiny terraced cottage, now renovated and open to the public and within close proximity to Cyfartha Castle.
The Brecon Mountain Railway is based at Merthyr Tydfil and runs a seven-mile scenic trip along the Taf Fechan Reservoir to Dol-y-Gaer. Generally in operation between April and October, it runs along almost the entire length of the Brecon and Merthyr railway which ran between 1859 and 1962.
The narrow gauge line, drawn by vintage steam locomotives, offers a seven-mile return journey through the forest and reservoir scenery of the southern part of the Park. Visitors can sample a ride on vintage locomotives as they puff and chug their way through the National Park. The 50-minute trip includes a 20-minute stop at Taf Fechan Reservoir.
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