25th March 2017
I’ve been looking for a way into Brynaman for almost a week. There is always an idea that submerges in my head when I visit a pool; the idea that starts the story. Brynaman left me with too many thoughts to readily sort, too many ideas to isolate just one… until it occurred to me that the way into Brynaman is, quite literally, the way into Brynaman.
Most of Wales rolls and tumbles away from the main roads like a child half running, half falling, down a hill. Eager to be away from the noise, eager for some independence and eager to be what it wants to be. It wants to grow and change, but not much and only on its own terms. Trying to foist unwelcome change on those parts of Wales will lead to tears before bedtime — and they likely won’t be Welsh tears. Brynaman epitomises that sort of Wales.
You leave the M4 west of South Wales’(now post) industrial heartland and strike out through the greenery. The roads become progressively smaller beyond Ammanford, Wales’ first Fair Trade town where the post industrial legacy of dilapidation mixes with more modern retail development. This part of Wales has more than its fair share of retail development; somewhat ironic given that disposable incomes in this part of the country have fallen as successive governments have failed to plug the gap left by the demise of mining and the changing face of agriculture.
Striking out of Ammanford towards Brynaman the countryside begins to show itself, and so does the concept of ‘change on its own terms’. The carpet shop whose proud signage confirms their Welsh speaking staff made my heart lift. Rising up beyond that, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park the landscape becomes devoid of trees and bleak in its beauty.
You roll and tumble on, through largely linear village life where pub, chapel, school and solitary shops are prominently positioned — not all of them still fulfilling the purpose for which they were built.
Dropping down into Brynaman you get a stronger sense of being cradled in the hills rather than strung out along them. This is a place that feels as though it offers shelter. It looks after its own, and continues to do so. It supports a thriving community run cinema, a feat that much larger towns have failed at, and the mere existence of the cinema is testament to the economic importance and affluence of Brynaman at the height of its industrial peak. The ongoing survival of the cinema is testament to the power of this community; their willingness, and ability, to look to themselves to get things done.
Brynamman Lido was part of the product of that heritage; built by the town, for the town, in the early part of the 20th century it has always been volunteer run. Tucked up against the banks of the river, from where it drew its water, the pool and the adjacent rugby club must have worked well to keep Brynamman fit, healthy and socially connected year round.
Until the point of closure 10 years ago the volunteers running the pool had been supported by Carmarthenshire County Council, but when repairs were needed they were unwilling to fund them and the pool did not reopen for the 2010 season. It’s a familiar story of an authority in straightened times closing a subsidised facility rather than investing to preserve it. The fact that the tank and infrastructure continue to sit idle, waiting to rise again rather than having been filled in, levelled and disposed of appears to be due to it not actually being owned by the council. I gather there is some lack of clarity around who exactly owns it, which rather complicates the campaign to restore it.
But the campaign are undeterred. Brynaman rarely hears its original cast iron turnstiles ring these days, so the chance to see behind the walls was a treat. A committed group of volunteers used the pool to showcase the campaign to reinstate it, while also promoting walking and Fair Trade. There were readings, story telling, a little stand up comedy from a very funny boy, poetry recitals and a music and movement piece; all performed in the tank, with a pop up Fair Trade Tuck Shop on hand to keep the wolf from the door. Vintage Penguin paperbacks were displayed in the changing cubicles and oral histories of the pool were played.
This event did exactly what lidos do so well — it drew community, creativity and other organisations with similar aims together for a common purpose. There was sunshine, and the sound of voices bouncing around this beautiful pool once again. It was a particular pleasure to me to hear so much Welsh spoken, and not all of it by people for whom I imagine Welsh was the language of the hearth. The willingness of a community to accept those who want to be part of it in every way is something that Brynaman seems to have in common with the lido community. Outdoor pools are places of tolerance, unquestioning acceptance and welcome. The only thing missing, that glorious afternoon, was the water in the tank.
But now for the cold hard facts. Wales has only one lido at present. Just one. Lido Ponty was redeveloped with huge funding input from a variety of sources including, it must be said in today’s political climate, the EU. Brynaman Lido will not benefit from anything like that, but it needs this facility at least as much. This is Wales’ best shot at securing a second lido. London alone has several, yet Wales in its entirety has only one. The injustice of that is not lost on me, and it shouldn’t be lost on you. When the campaign to reinstate this pool is in a position to really gear up please, PLEASE get behind it with everything you’ve got. Anybody who is interested in equality of opportunity, at a time when equality of opportunity is becoming harder and harder to achieve, should support this project.
And when you google Brynaman lido, as you surely will, you will wonder why I am not using the spelling Brynamman — for that is what will come up. The version that I am using is the Welsh way — and that is the way the volunteers want it. And it would take a braver woman than I to force on them something they do not want, despite what google might want me to do!
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