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Starting out as a sleepy hamlet before transforming into an industrial hub in the 19th century, Ystradgynlais in the north-eastern end of the Swansea Valley is forging a new path. You’ll still see traces of its coal- and iron-driven past, but glorious green spaces now cover a landscape once scarred by mines and furnaces. Today, it’s a friendly, close-knit community where history is intertwined with everyday life.

Framed by the hills of Varteg and Mynydd Allt-y-Grug, Ystradgynlais sits where the Tawe Valley begins its descent towards the sea. It’s an eye-catching location, but the town’s true claim to fame is as one of the crucibles of the Welsh Industrial Revolution. During the 19th century, workers flocked to its coal mines and ironworks, turning a quiet village into a thriving town.


Though the industries that changed Ystradgynlais are long gone, you can still feel their influence. Wander the streets lined with neat terraced houses and you’ll stumble across plenty of reminders, including an unusually large number of chapels and churches (a by-product of the town’s rapidly expanding 19th-century population).


While you can’t ignore the weight of its heritage, Ystradgynlais has much to offer in the here and now. The town centre’s streets serve up a selection of businesses, from shops selling sporting goods, groceries and gardening supplies, to cafés and delicatessens.


How green is my valley

The River Tawe runs through the heart of the town, offering plenty of opportunities for gentle riverside walks, nature spotting and stone skimming. There’s also a bountiful supply of tree-lined parks and grassy open spaces, many laid out on land that once supported industries that were anything but green.


Tracing the banks of the river in the south of the town is Diamond Park, a fertile expanse of wetland and wildflower meadows criss-crossed by a network of footpaths. It’s hard to imagine now, but this peaceful place was once the site of three busy coal mines, including the Diamond Colliery which closed in 1938.


While birdsong has replaced the sound of heavy machinery, you can still find reminders of Ystradgynlais’s industrial heritage. History buffs should keep an eye out for the Remembering the Miners Memorial which tells the stories of the old collieries and the people who worked in them.


The park’s southern edge borders Wern Plemys Nature Reserve. It’s another stunning example of the natural world’s regenerative power, where a blackened industrial landscape has been submerged beneath a sea of green. This untamed area of meadow and woodland is alive with birds, bees and bugs, drawn by the kaleidoscopic blanket of wildflowers that bloom in spring and summer.


Heavy metal

Ystradgynlais’s industrial past is a little more prominent at Ynyscedwyn Ironworks Heritage Park. Iron was made here as far back as the early 16th century, though the works’ true claim to fame came on 5 February 1837. On this day, ironmaster David Thomas first used an anthracite-fuelled hot blast in the smelting process – an innovative method that transformed the Swansea Valley iron industry.


By 1853, Ynyscedwyn would be home to six blazing blast furnaces producing hundreds of tonnes of iron each week. Thomas would later take his technique to the coalfields of Pennsylvania, helping kick off the Industrial Revolution in the USA. Not bad for a local boy.


Things have cooled down at Ynyscedwyn these days. A solitary chimney flanked by a series of soaring archways climbing from a lush swathe of grass is all that remains of this industrial hotbed. With a play area for younger visitors and benches where you can stop and relax, it’s now a place for picnics rather than pickaxes.


Rock stars

Close to St Cynog’s Church on the banks of the River Tawe, you’ll find yet another of Ystradgynlais’s green spaces. This one catches the attention due to its mysterious circle of standing stones, nine rugged monoliths arranged around a central ‘altar’. This is Parc Gorsedd and these are the Gorsedd Stones, erected to commemorate the National Eisteddfod – the annual Welsh festival of song, literature and dance – that was held in Ystradgynlais in 1954. Imagine the circle packed with people decked out in flowing bardic robes and elaborate headdresses to get the full picture.



For art and culture, head to The Welfare. Opened in 1934 to provide entertainment and education to Ystradgynlais’s mining community, it remains the beating heart of the town. There’s a busy programme of events to choose from, including music, theatre and cinema screenings – plus live broadcasts of hit plays streamed direct from the National Theatre in London.



  • Having a blast. The process of smelting iron with anthracite in a blast furnace was perfected at Ystradgynlais’s Ynyscedwyn Ironworks in the early 1800s. The technique made the production of iron quicker and more efficient, supercharging the Industrial Revolution in the Swansea Valley and beyond.


  • Play on. One of Ystradgynlais’s most famous sons was musician and composer Dr Daniel Protheroe, born here in 1866. As a child, he won prizes at a number of National Eisteddfods (conducting the Ystradgynlais Choir aged just 16), before emigrating to America and finding acclaim as a composer of hymns. A plaque was unveiled at his birthplace in 1954, the year the National Eisteddfod was held in his home town.


  • Latest tweets. Flourishing on the site of former coalfields, Wern Plemys Nature Reserve is now dominated by birdsong rather than the sounds of heavy industry. Almost 70 species of feathered visitors have been spotted here, including herons, kingfishers, green woodpeckers and tawny owls.


  • Metal works. From a single charcoal furnace erected in 1612, Ystradgynlais’s Ynyscedwyn Ironworks grew into one of the busiest industrial sites in this part of Wales. Iron bearing the works’ name can still be seen in bollards in Swansea and Bristol. You’ll also find it closer to home in the town’s St Cynog’s Church, where it was used to make the unusual supporting pillars that line the aisles when the church was rebuilt in 1861


  • A hall for all. Costing £9,000 raised from miners’ donations, Ystradgynlais’s Welfare Hall was designed as a ‘centre from which will radiate fellowship that will enrich the community’. It was opened on 7 July 1934 by Jim Griffiths, President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, who would go on to serve as the first Secretary of State for Wales in the 1964 Labour government.



There’s lots to see on a day spent exploring Ystradgynlais, so we’ve collected a few places that are definitely worth your time. You don’t have to visit them in any particular order, but we’ve arranged them here in a way that makes sense geographically. And don’t worry if you’re on a tight schedule and can’t spend a full day here – simply pick the places that interest you the most.


Ynyscedwyn Ironworks Heritage Park

See remnants of Ystradgynlais’s past at Ynyscedwyn Ironworks Heritage Park, once one of the busiest industrial sites in this part of Wales. The blazing blast furnaces are long gone, leaving just a solitary chimney and two rows of soaring archways (actually part of a proposed steelworks built late in Ynyscedwyn’s life).


Diamond Park

An expanse of green laid out over the site of the former Diamond and Gurnos collieries, Diamond Park is a powerful example of Ystradgynlais’s post-industrial rebirth. You’ll find pathways to explore through wildflower meadows and areas of wetland, plus the Remembering the Miners Memorial, a series of information boards that tell the stories of the industries that once flourished here.


Wern Plemys Nature Reserve

You’ll have to make your own path through Wern Plemys Nature Reserve, Diamond Park’s wilder and more untamed neighbour. Made up of woods and wetland and alive with birds and other wild inhabitants, it’s hard to believe it was a blackened coalfield not so long ago. Look carefully though and you can find the odd remnant of its past, such as the route of the former railway line that passes through the reserve’s southern edge.


Parc Gorsedd

Close to St Cynog’s Church on the banks of the River Tawe are the standing stones of Parc Gorsedd, erected to commemorate Ystradgynlais’s hosting of the National Eisteddfod in 1954. This circle of monoliths, surrounding a central ‘altar’ stone, was the scene for a dramatic ceremony involving bards and druids in brightly coloured robes, led by the Archdruid in his golden crown.


The park is also the site of Ystradgynlais’s striking war memorial, which records the names of local residents who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars.


Explore the streets

A range of shops, cafés and other local business radiate from the crossroads in Ystradgynlais town centre. There’s also plenty of history to spot as you wander a little further afield. Watch out for the large number of chapels, churches and temples that sprang up to minister to the town’s growing population in the 19th century.


The Welfare

Catch a show at The Welfare, Ystradgynlais’s theatre and community cultural centre. Opened in 1934 with donations from the local miners, it’s been serving the town ever since. These days it’s a venue for everything from live music, plays and film screenings to live streamed performances from London theatres and explosive wrestling competitions.

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