Round and round we drove. We turned so many times that it seemed we must have done at least 3 laps of Neath town centre. Finally, we found a road out that got us onto the A465 dual carriage way. We were only on it a short while before turning off for Aberdulais.
Aberdulais Tin Works and Waterfall is managed by the National Trust. I visited several years ago but didn’t remember much apart from a couple of ruined buildings and a waterfall. The Trust has done a lot of work since then to create a museum, exhibition and a small film theatre explaining what an important part of Britain’s industrial archaeology this is. Europe’s largest power generating waterwheel has been restored to provide electricity for the site. The original waterwheel was built more than 400 years ago and powered a corn mill which predated the tin works. Later, the Victorian tin plate works utilised a rotary wheel to power the rollers.
We entered through the ticket office and headed for the exhibition, which explained the history of the tin plate works and how it came to be located here when the tin was mined far away in Cornwall. Water power was the answer to this question along with abundant supplies of local coal and timber. Fast running rivers and waterfalls made the Vale of Neath an ideal location for such activities. A navigable canal was built which met the sea near Swansea. In what today would be considered an act of environmental vandalism, a huge rock adjacent to the waterfall was blasted away to provide material for the canal. Prior to that, many artists including JMW Turner had travelled to the Vale to paint what they considered to be the idyllic and picturesque falls.
We also learned about the people who used to work there, including children as young as 6 doing 12 hour days. I reminded my daughter F how lucky she is to live in a more enlightened age! We walked out to look around the remains of the tin works and the huge chimney that has been restored. We stopped to look at the large new waterwheel before climbing on up to see the waterfall.
Beyond the falls, the scene of the river flowing through the woods appeared so tranquil and rural. It must have been a rude shock for it in the past to pour over the waterfall and suddenly arrive in the midst of such a heavy industrial environment. Today, nature has reclaimed much of the area and Aberdulais provides a home to bats, herons, dippers and wagtails.
Turning away from the falls, we stepped back into history in the film theatre to learn more about the industrial past. At various times, the site had also been used as an iron works and a textile mill. Copper smelting was performed in the era of Elizabeth 1st. Tin plating was the industry that really took off with products exported across the globe, particularly to North America. It began to decline towards the end of the 19th Century when the United States imposed large import tariffs to protect its own industry. The works just about managed to hobble into the 20th Century but the game was up.
After the film, we walked down the riverbank to the cafe, housed in the old school house. In a nod to its original use, the room contains a blackboard with sums written in chalk and schoolbooks dotted around the walls. The school was a product of more enlightened ownership in the late 1800s, provided for children of workers and also some of the younger employees.
Having had a large cooked breakfast at our hotel, S and I just had a piece of cake and a drink. Our daughter F, however, was not deterred from having a proper lunch! We left via F’s favourite part of any tourist attraction – the gift shop!
The National Trust has done a good job at turning the falls and industrial remains into a decent tourist attraction, worth an hour or two of anyone’s time.
On the way home, I did an accidental detour. At least it was more interesting than endless laps of Neath!
Aberdulais Falls is in the Vale of Neath, just off the A465 road
The Vale of Neath has many waterfalls that can be incorporated into pleasant walks of varying difficulty. For further information on Aberdulais Falls and Tin Plate Works, click here