Carl Hier’s – ‘A Pilgrimage’

The kilns at Blaencanaid

The definition of a pilgrimage is ‘a devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot, toward a specific destination of significance.

And so it was, fifty years after the subject of the devotion had first been discovered, I began my ‘pilgrimage’, back to The Secret Pond. Still living in the town where I grew up brings a number of benefits. Most notably, a good knowledge of some of the local hills, woods, paths and tracks.

It’s true that they too have aged somewhat in the last fifty years, though I would like to think we have both ‘matured nicely’ and gained valuable experience in the process.

Whilst there have been many special days spent near water and generally enjoying the countryside, it’s fair to say that life, work and family commitments have all provided sufficient distractions to keep me well away from numerous childhood haunts.

It takes a number of hours to reach this place. It is by no means an easy walk. The track is steep in places. Loose stones are easily disturbed and can send you sliding uncontrollably if care is not taken. Experience from many years ago tells me that in autumn and winter, the track can become a stream, with some areas definitely categorised as ‘not for the faint-hearted’. The downward slope en route to The Pond is only surpassed by it’s upward slope on the return. It could be described as ‘good exercise’ by some, or ‘extremely challenging’ by others, depending on weather conditions.

A Challenging Path On The Return Journey

The landscape has changed somewhat over the years. The forestry industry is at the heart of most changes but these hills remain full of history and heritage. Industries of bygone years have left their scars, with some momentous events prompting difficult memories. Aberfan is only five miles south. Coal was king and before that, iron masters lived in their castles, their sprawling works feeding the world’s needs for iron.

Industrialists found the area provided the limestone, coal and iron ore that was needed. Iron produced here would subsequently provide engines, ships and railway tracks worldwide. As a result, by the end of the 1800’s, thirty miles to the south, the port of Cardiff had become the busiest in the world, with the world’s first million pound cheque written in it’s Coal Exchange in 1909.

Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr Tydfil was originally the home of an Ironmaster and later became a museum and school.

Mother Nature found herself second best for long periods of time. The hills, streams and rivers formed a blackened backdrop, with coal slurry tips becoming a regular feature. There was no place for flora and fauna.

Occasional signs along the hill-side track still urge “Caution – Restricted Access – Derelict Mine Works”, with particularly critical areas fenced-off from walkers and ramblers who perhaps being less familiar with the area may divert from the established paths.

You have to look, but evidence of by-gone industries can be seen just a few minutes walk away from the track to The Secret Pond.

Blaencanaid kilns
Blaencanaid kilns. The 4m high walls of this 16th century furnace stand as proud today as the day they were built.

The natural world’s recovery had begun in the seventies, with the demise of various industries. Nature blinked, opened it’s eyes, and saw the opportunity to reclaim areas that had been ‘out of bounds’ for so long.

Walking the track and exploring the hills brought back so many memories. Life’s complications gradually faded. Some areas had changed beyond recognition, others were untouched, as if time had stood remarkably still. Deciduous woods sit aside the forest pines and now provide rich habitat for nature’s representatives. The whole food-chain appears to be fully operational. Insects, birds and mammals abound.

Butterflies, moths, foxes, badgers, squirrels and a rich multitude of birds call these hills home.

The track eventually levels off and is shrouded by oak, hazel, hawthorn, rowan, holly and silver birch trees. Occasional gorse bushes offer a bright yellow splash of colour. Even though my memory guided me to within a hundred yards of ‘the place’, I will admit to walking past it at my first attempt.

On the walk, robin, hedge sparrow, blackbird, thrush, blue tit, bullfinch, nuthatch and chaffinch all showed themselves and said good morning before flitting away to a safe distance. Calls of green woodpeckers were a regular feature. Tree creepers, sparrowhawks, kestrels and buzzards were all regular companions here fifty years ago and I’m sure they still thrive here. These days, if you’re lucky, the surrounding areas will share the occasional goshawk and red kite. The sightings I’ve been privileged to witness represent only a fraction of the creatures that live there. Countless other species are no doubt making their home there these days.

Somewhere Down There Lies The Secret Pond

Leaving the track and jumping across a stream, a short incline is negotiated and there, keeping itself safe from everything the world has thrown at it, is The Secret Pond. Approximately thirty metres long and ten or so metres wide. It’s waters appear dark and deep, with generations of vegetation blanketing it’s bed. Surrounded by mature trees, their long tentacle-like branches reaching out over the water, casting their shadows and when the time comes, shedding their leaves into the water below.

The Secret Pond Today

As it was fifty years ago, insects and amphibians flourish. A multitude of toads are coupling up along the margins. Hundreds of long strings of toad spawn can be seen, together with large clumps of frog spawn.

This special place appears to be intact and remains home to new generations of frogs, toads, newts, damselflies, dragonflies, whirligig beetles and pond skaters. Crested newts were real-life dinosaurs to us as young children. Dipping our nets into that watery world provided so many treasured memories. Jam jars of dragonfly larvae, great diving beetles and great crested newts provided much better viewing than anything on TV.

Despite our many visits to the pond as children, we had never seen any fish here, not even sticklebacks in our small hand nets. Certainly nothing of relevance to the apprentice fishermen that we were becoming. Now, however, it’s different. Young anglers of today’s generation have evidently discovered this place and to the surprise of everyone who knows it, small roach have been seen and also now call it home.

Today, The Pond is a scene of contentment and continuity. In fifty years, the seasons have come and gone. Man, his industries and his imperfections, have changed the surrounding areas, but the gleaming jewel that is ‘The Secret Pond’ continues to serve its very own community of amphibians, insects, birds, plants and now fish.

In Welsh there is a word that has no direct English translation. Hiraeth. (Pronounced ‘Hir-ithe’). It is something stronger than mere homesickness. It is a deep longing, a feeling of nostalgia, a pull on the heart that conveys a distinct emotion of yearning for something or somewhere. It’s not exaggerating to say this place generates such a feeling. The fascination of a ten year old has evolved into utmost respect and gratitude for this place. 

I’m sure birds and animals can also have a strong sense of ‘hiraeth’ for their chosen home. I for one hope that time continues to stand still here, and that ‘The Secret Pond’, together with it’s surrounding woods, remain a safe sanctuary for all its inhabitants for many years to come.

Needless to say, the pilgrimage had been well worth it. Turning to begin the trek home, I left with a wry smile on my face. After all, my fifty years of knowing this place only scratches the surface of it’s ultimate timeline. Predecessors of today’s creatures, above and below its water-line, called this place home long before I was ever aware of it.

With the advancement in new technologies in the last twenty years, ‘MySpace’ came to be defined as a social networking platform which originally competed with Facebook. I am fortunate to have a number of very different definitions of ‘My Space’, one of which happens to be ‘The Secret Pond’.

Writing & Images Carl Hier – South Wales 2022