Blaenavon Blues v Ebbw Vale Town
Memorial Ground / Preseason Friendly / 28th July 2016
“It’s a ghastly place. Huge gangs of tough, sinewy men roam the Valleys, terrorising people with their close-harmony singing. You need half a pint of phlegm in your throat just to pronounce the place names. Never ask for directions in Wales, Baldrick. You’ll be washing spit out of your hair for a fortnight.” – Mr. Edmund Blackadder.
In his sweeping critique of my homeland, Blackadder presents to Baldrick many of the Welsh stereotypes that have been presented to me (usually in jest) while living on the other side of the border over the past few years: unpronounceable words; a sort of brutish patriotic streak; and a country of choir singers. Alongside these you can usually throw in sheep, rugby, Brains beer and coal mining – the latter 3 perhaps institutions that would be fairly alien to the incarnation of Blackadder who delivered this rant in Georgian era England. No doubt presenting Wales solely in this light would be narrow-minded, but at the same time the ingredients of our country do need to be celebrated. If you seek to celebrate Wales’ heritage then you can do far worse than visiting Blaenavon. In fact, Blackadder’s rant was clearly not visceral enough towards Wales, as Baldrick did eventually end up visiting the valleys and even Blaenavon a few centuries later. More on that later though.
When it comes to discussing Wales’ sporting heritage, most will dub Wales a ‘rugby nation’ (although that’s debatable following the football-mania that has swept Wales during and since the Euros), but we don’t really do rugby on these pages and so that part of Welsh culture will be missed out today. Obviously, as I’m writing here now, football was on the cards and in Blaenavon that means a visit to Blaenavon Blues and their Memorial Ground. With kick-off not until 6.15pm though, I decided to make a Welsh ‘heritage’ day of it in a town that simply and proudly declares itself ‘Heritage Town’.
The generosity of a lift from my dad saw me rolling into Blaenavon around 1.30pm, but the town itself would not be my first port of call as we veered right of it and up the hill towards one of South Wales’ most renowned tourist attractions: Big Pit. Between 1880 and 1980, Big Pit was a fully functioning coal mine with it employing close to 1400 workers at one time and producing 250,000 tonnes of coal at its peak. Big Pit and the surrounding South Wales coal mines were arguably considered the greatest engine room of the industrial revolution and the entire world. However, that industry would soon diminish and eventually disolve completely in the 1980s. Today, Big Pit is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and preserved largely as it was when it was a working mine for the public to see what life was like working in the mines.
For years and years I had heard friends tell me of how they had visited Big Pit and how they had thoroughly enjoyed their trips there (my cousin even resorting to taking girls on dates there bizarrely) and I’m still unsure how it has taken me so long to visit. But that would be corrected today. Undoubtedly, the largest draw for me visiting was going on the underground tour, where you are sent 300ft down a mineshaft and under the Welsh earth to see the mines themselves. This was the main reason I was here and so once I was kitted out in my miner’s helmet and safety belt (as well as having my electronic devices taken from me) I was ready for the descent.
The 50 minute tour in the depths of the mines is superb and the guide – an ex-miner himself – who led us around was very knowledgeable and delivered the information and the history of the place in an interesting and passionate way. I can’t recommend a trip to Big Pit enough if you are in the area. As well as the underground tour, there is a museum and other exhibits, but I was a little bit pushed for time so I left them for today; although my parents, who recently visited, declared they were also excellent and fascinating too.
My rush to leave was largely down to the fact that I had another stop on my Welsh heritage tour. I mentioned Brains beer in my introduction of Welsh stereotypes; well that’s more of a Cardiff-based ale – in the Valleys we have the highly lauded Rhymney cask ales produced at the Rhymney Brewery in Blaenavon. Conveniently, the brewery is located a 5 minute walk down the hill from Big Pit.
I arrived to a plush, but empty reception area at Rhymney Brewery, before a lady came scuttling down the stairs to greet me. I had a choice of just visiting the bar or paying £2.50 to go on the tour and get a free half at the end of it; I figured I may as well do the tour. The poor lady there was a one man(woman) show as she had to start me off on the tour and serve the couple in the bar. Fortunately for her, the tour is largely self-led and so I let her shoot off. It’s not an extensive repertoire on show, but enough to go through the history of the place and how the ale is actually made. I’d just absorbed 60+ minutes of information about coal mining at Big Pit, so I’m not sure my brain was in the mood for anymore history to be honest. This led to me rushing through and heading straight for the bar for my free half. I will say that Rhymney beer is glorious and after my free half of bitter (I’m not a huge bitter fan but this was ace) I moved onto a bottle of their new Rhymney Gold; this was also superb. Once again, if you are in the area, and love your ales and beers, this place is definitely worth a visit.
As the 5pm closing time of Rhymney Brewery approached, I began making my way towards the town of Blaenavon itself. I did have the option of adding more ‘heritage’ to my itinerary, but I gave the Ironworks a glance and ploughed on ahead.For those seeking even more out of a Blaenavon trip, there’s also the steam railway nearby all of this. But I was slowly moving away from such culture and towards the culture that dominated my late teen years in the valleys: pubs.
At the bottom of the main hill I discovered the Castle Hotel pub. This would do for me I decided, as my research the previous night suggested that there wasn’t too much in regards of pubs in Blaenavon. The pub proved to be a classic example of a valleys pub: a bit rough and ready, but did the job and was accommodating enough. Typical to the pubs back near my South Walian home, the locals were surrounding the TVs watching the horse racing with their Racing Posts wide open in front of them. I revelled in the familiarity of this scene whilst sipping a rather vapid pint of Foster’s (no ale available here). Apparently, equally insipid, were the chips from the chip shop across the road – predictably named ‘Heritage Place Fish and Chips’ (they couldn’t be bothered with the ‘Plaice’ pun it seemed) – as the locals took turns in describing how the establishment’s quality had sharply plummeted over recent months. This had been my chosen chippy to feed me before the football, but I decided to trust local know-how and snub it and head up the hill instead with fingers crossed I’d find something else.
Back on the subject of local traditions, us Welsh do love chip shop curry sauce. So when I did find my food place of choice – a Chinese/fish & chip shop called Lotus – I should not have been surprised to find my chow mein drowning in curry sauce. It was bloody magnificent though! Sod your gravy northerners!
The next task was finding the football ground – a task tougher than I expected. Google Maps was leading me further up the hill away from the town, but something was telling me that the ground wasn’t going to be there. I went up and down some alleys, before recalling photos of the ground I had seen on Laurence Reade’s excellent blog about his visit here. Remembering that in his photos the ground sort of looked out on to Big Pit, I veered down another alley and found a small opening leading right into the ground. The enveloping trees made this one of the more hidden away grounds and of course there were no floodlights to aid my search.
I wasn’t surprised to find a basic ground here, but a pleasant enough one at that. There is one small stand on one side of the ground, whilst the rest of the ground is submerged by the surrounding trees. I did like the fact though that the only seating in the ground came from two park benches on the grassy banking of one side of the ground. Cute. The only other structure in the ground is the building to the right of the entrance which houses the changing rooms and clubhouse. It’s the area surrounding the ground though that is perhaps of the most historical significance, as we come back to our friend Baldrick, or as he is known in our time, Tony Robinson.
Robinson, the actor who played Baldrick in Blackadder, has become famous these days for his presenting of Time Team – a programme centring on historical events and archaeological digs.Time Team tookan interest in the fields directly next to the Memorial Ground in 2001. I’ll let the football club’s website finish off the story:
“The team excavated down to 15m and on the final day of the dig discovered the very top of the viaduct which was built 1790, but was never demolished; it is thought that the viaduct runs underneath the part of the Memorial Ground and the Coke Yard towards the Ironworks. The valley in which the viaduct is sat was filled in using it as landfill site of the 1800s.”
Interesting stuff. Well done for not listening to Blackadder Baldrick. If you are so inclined, you can watch that full episode of Time Team on YouTube here.
On walking into the small clubhouse, I was greeted by eyes trying to work out who this stranger was. A kindly gentleman then headed over to the food hatch to offer drinks to me, to which I received a can of Fosters for £2.
Whilst the Blaenavon coaches were debating who was to start tonight, tonight’s opponents, Ebbw Vale Town, were already out on the pitch warming up in their Shakhtar Donetsk-esque attire (suppose Ebbw Vale and Donetsk are fairly similar with coal mining being prominent in both). “Don’t train in the goals though lads! There are seeds on there!” bellowed the fella who had served me.
Minutes before the ref was signalling for kick-off, the Blaenavon team were warming up with them deciding to play a rather youthful first XI in the first half and more of the first team in the second half. It also sounded like the team were missing players through injury and holidays; two different players called ‘Spud’ were talked about a lot, as well as some sort of legendary figure named Terry Farmer (it may have been ‘Falmer’ but I preferred thinking of him as ‘Farmer’). With my can of Foster’s I wandered over to the stand, dodging flying footballs from the kids having their own game behind the goal.
Ebbw Vale Town currently frequent the North Gwent Premier League, while Blaenavon Blues play a couple of tiers higher in the Gwent County Division 1. However, with a young team out for the home team, the playing field was levelled. As the apparent first team went for a run in the fields nearby, the second string were slow starting and Ebbw Vale came close to scoring with a freekick.
However, the young guns, supported by some senior players, slowly came into the game. It was proving particularly difficult to tell apart the two long-haired twins playing centre midfield and centre forward and the left-winger seemed to be going for a Gareth Bale impersonation with his small ‘man bun’. Sadly for them, they just seemed to lack cutting edge in the final third and soon Ebbw Vale had the lead. An appeal for a penalty by the away team was ignored, before seconds later a close range cross across the six yard box was headed in past the young stopper. 1-0.
The goal, scored in the 30th minute, seemed to deflate the home team and they were to concede 2 more in the final minutes of the half. The first of those goals was particularly harsh as the Ebbw Vale attacker was definitely fouled outside the box only for the ref to give a penalty. As the Blues appealed, the sub goalie, acting as a makeshift linesman tonight, strutted onto the pitch. This act didn’t go down well with one of the Blaenavon Blues officials who bellowed from the clubhouse, “Get off the pitch you fucking muppet.” Words were exchanged but off the pitch he headed. Ebbw Vale converted the penalty and it was 2-0.
The 3rd goal came from a corner and a free header leaving the keeper with no chance. The keeper would get a chance to make a fantastic save moments later though when one of the Ebbw Vale attackers went through one-on-one, only for the keeper to fingertip his sidefooted effort onto the post and out. Superb save to finish the half.
Half-time: Blaenavon Blues 0 – 3 Ebbw Vale Town.
“So it’s 3-0 to your boys then?” came the inviting comment from the gentleman who had served me earlier. It seemed that as I was a stranger in these parts they had assumed I was with Ebbw Vale. I explained that I was not an Ebbw Valian and was here on groundhopping duties, a comment which seemed to shock him even more as he quickly asked me what I thought of the place. Whilst this was going on, the other lad in the Blaenavon polo shirt was telling everyone that the injured Terry Farmer was in attendance tonight and they were trying to get him in the clubhouse to sign up for the new season; this Farmer guy seemed to be quite the catch. More Foster’s was purchased to accompany me for the second half.
As I heard the coach say earlier in the evening, the first team were out for the second half and they immediately took up the challenge of trying to comeback from the 3 goal deficit. They came flying out of the blocks and threw everything at Ebbw Vale, but nothing seemed to be going their way. Their attacker even took the ball around the keeper, had an empty goal to fire into, only for a heroic retreating tackle to deny what looked a certain goal.
The Blues would be punished for their floundering in front of goal when Ebbw Vale scored a 4th against the run of play. A ball upfield saw the keeper make a save at the edge of his box, but the rebound fell to an Ebbw Vale player, who delivered a curling lob over the retreating goalie, which fell into the back of the net. 4-0 to the away team.
There were a few heated moments throughout the closing stages that the ref had to deal with as frustrations mounted. The home team opted to bring back on some of their youngsters for the closing stages to defuse things and it would actually be one of them who scored the only goal for the home team. The goal came from a goalkeeping nightmare, as a standard inswinging cross was caught and then dropped by the keeper, leaving one of the long-haired twins to tap into an empty net to round off the scoring for the evening. At least the keeper saw the funny side.
Full-time: Blaenavon Blues 1 – 4 Ebbw Vale Town.
A quite enjoyable preseason friendly with goals and a bit of grit to it too. It was also nice to see some of the players involved in the more heated moments go over to each other, shake each other’s hands and laugh about it all. Exactly how it should be. I wasn’t to hang about though and I made my way back down to the statue of the town’s local rugby hero Ken Jones, where I was picked up by my taxi for the day – my dad – and headed off back over the Heads of the Valleys towards home.
Overall a great day out in Blaenavon. The football was enjoyable and the ground was pleasant enough on this dry July evening. However, if you are a groundhopper looking to visit, I think it’d be rude to not delve into the heritage surrounding the area.
(Postscript: my cousin who takes girlson dates to Big Pit has asked me to add that those dates “worked every time.” So there you go – Big Pit is the place to make romance blossom apparently).
Highlights: Big Pit, Rhymney Brewery (ale was spot on), chow mein in curry sauve, decent game for a friendly, friendly locals.
Low Points: not many pubs in Blaenavon, small clubhouse.
See all of my photos from my day at Big Pit, Rhymney Brewery and Blaenavon Blues here.