The imagination can be fired by what we see as we travel - this seems particularly true of those journeys where we are simply passing through. The visual inspiration for Ridley Scott’s dystopian cyberpunk movie Blade Runner was, some say, based on his memories of the view of Port Talbot’s steelworks at night seen as he journeyed along the M4 motorway.
Similarly, the A465 road, also known as the ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road, which converges with the M4 at Neath just a few miles from Port Talbot, inspired an earlier work of the imagination. The Victorian traveller George Borrow undertook a walking tour of Wales and wrote of his journeys including that from Neath towards Merthyr Tydfil. Catching his first glimpse of ‘Merthyr’ at night he witnessed a “glowing mountain” that illuminated the stones scattered upon the darkened road in front of him. Looking more terrible as he journeyed towards it, he eventually reached the point where “I had blazes now all around me. I went through a filthy slough, over a bridge, and up a street… [where there were] throngs of savage-looking people talking clamorously”. Here we have yet another dystopian image inspired by journeys through industrial Wales – such images became a particularly popular subject within visual media and literature during the twentieth century. The contemporary photographs of the A465 by Matthew Harry not only provide us with views of a road that follows a similar path to the one once trod by George Borrow, they also offer the potential for the emergence of many new and different imaginings.

For those of us who know the area well, or have travelled the road over many years, the photographs have the potential to trigger long forgotten memories. The Dukestown Workingmens Club photograph transported me back decades to another club that orbits the A465, ‘Bavistocks’. With its reputation for a night of trouble it is easy to recall seeing seated crowds exchanging flying bottles before the inevitable brawl on the dancefloor. Of course, you can mis-remember things too. I had always thought that the car accident that killed the 1950s/1960s pop star Dickie Valentine had happened on the Heads of the Valleys, a road notorious for accidents at one time. This was not so. It actually happened on a minor road that joined the A465 at Abergavenny. He was on his way to a gig at the Double Diamond Club in Caerphilly, a club often frequented by my mother who was a one-time fan of Valentine.

The A465 photographs remind us that routes of travel are always emerging, evolving and transforming. They also reveal the three speeds of time – geological time as seen in the landscape formed by glacial erosion; social time as seen in the workers’ settlements and the associated industrial (re)landscaping, and; biological time, our own short span of life in which we experience what we can of the world. Somehow this seems a logical process, yet we should not forget that the individuals who established the water reservoirs feeding the now long-gone iron and steel works in the area would not have envisioned that they were creating leisure amenities for the future. The people fishing the reservoirs today will no-doubt enjoy the far-reaching views of dramatic landscapes, but they must find the noise of the traffic on the A465 a distraction. But then the ironworks would have undoubtedly been noisy too.

History is also about politics, commerce and power. As the traffic busily speeds along the A465 it passes over an old Roman road, itself once an important component in the building and maintenance of empire. According to the twelfth century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (better known in Wales as Macsen Wledig) became the King of the Britons in the fourth century. The tale of his dream is told in the important early collection of Welsh texts known as the Mabinogion in which his obsession for a maiden he sees in a dream leads him to north Wales. He eventually marries the maiden who is no less than Helen, a daughter of a Caernarfon-based chieftain - it is she who orders the building of roads across Wales including one connecting the north with the south. This particular road is now known as Sarn Helen, parts of which can be seen to this day. Roman power would eventually wane but the Saxons and later the Normans would find these old Roman routes essential and subsequently reworked and extended them.
Routes are essential to commercial activity and those across Wales have included the drovers’ roads necessary for driving livestock to markets in the Midlands and the rest of England. In their book The Drovers’ Roads of Wales Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson provide a fascinating insight into the character of these roads. Fay Godwin’s photographs exploit the capacity of black and white imagery to clearly delineate these once important landlines - a strategy that Matthew Harry also applies to his work on the A465. Drovers’ roads are not used as such anymore – there’s no need really – meat ‘processing’ take place closer to home such as at the abattoir located alongside the A465 - an efficient supply-chain is essential today. As well as the work of Fay Godwin, Matthew Harry’s photographs offer a nod to the those of John Davies, a photographer of international standing who was commissioned in the 1980s to photograph the Rhymney Valley as part of Ffotogallery’s Valleys Project. Some of his photographs from the head of that valley offer occasional glimpses of the A465.
As with that of the Romans, the British Empire would rely on resources from Wales to fuel its colonial expansion. The early industrial phases saw the construction of canals soon to be followed by the railway. The pioneering international wonder of the Crumlin Viaduct built in 1857 to connect the Midlands to the coalfields of south Wales became redundant in the 1960s as freight took to the road and motor transport. The A465 became the preferred route to the Midlands and as it evolved it subsumed many of the earlier canals, rail routes and tracks. Matthew Harry’s photographs reveal this historical process as much as they show a contemporary road in its landscape. In their detail they can also point us to the future.

We are reminded that the vast sums on money spent on upgrading the A465 came from the European Union. There’s unlikely to be more like that coming to Wales from Westminster. We are also reminded that one of the greatest politicians from Wales, Aneurin Bevan, is having his monumental achievement of a National Health Service dismantled by those profiteers both supporting, and being supported by, neo-liberal politicians. Indeed, the whole structural integrity of society seems as unsustainable as the planet itself in terms of our unrelenting drive to consume and generate profit.

But there is hope – there’s always that. Some have suggested that artificial intelligence and emerging nanotech could allow us to live good lives without the need to work in what might be called a post-capitalist world. Machines will build themselves and then sustainably make all we need in terms of shelter and food. There will be little need to travel as drones will efficiently deliver all we need. If we should need personal transport it is unlikely to require a road – just think of those multi-faceted ‘Spinner’ vehicles in Blade Runner. Whether the future is utopian or dystopian, the path to it will have been shaped by routes just like the A465 road that runs across the Heads of the Valleys.

©Paul Cabuts 2021

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