The price of coal: Soma and Senghenydd

Senghenydd mining disaster victim

Senghenydd disaster casualty

Senghenydd colliery disaster victim

Another disaster, another victim












The world has been shocked by the terrible coal mining disaster at Soma in Turkey. It seems incredible in 2014 that hundreds can be lost in a colliery catastrophe.

My mind went back to a small Welsh village called Senghenydd, scene of Britain’s worst ever mining disaster in October 1913, which killed 439 men and boys and a rescuer. The tragedy came 12 years after 81 men died in an explosion at the same Universal pit. How could such a small community cope with such grief? But in those days – to the mine owners – life was cheap. British mining later became relatively safer, but as recently as 1960 45 men and boys died at Six Bells colliery in Monmouthshire.

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Remembering LTC Rolt

Nant Gwernol station, Talyllyn Railway

LTC Rolt’s legacy: the Talyllyn at Nant Gwernol

Few people did more to save Britain’s old railways and canals than LTC Rolt, who died 40 years ago this month. He was one of the founders of the Inland Waterways Association and the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and ran the Talyllyn in its early summers as the world’s first preserved railway.

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Cardiff City’s surrender to relegation

In the end, it was a relief. Cardiff City surrendered their Premier League status today with another heavy defeat, away to Newcastle United. Owner Vincent Tan’s sacking of manager Malky Mackay in December destroyed the Bluebirds’ hope of securing a second season in the top flight.

Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.

At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…

David Moyes, Frank O’Farrell and Cardiff City

David Moyes was fired as Manchester United manager today. The only surprise was that he lasted as long as he did. What are the chances that he follows in Frank O’Farrell’s footsteps and becomes Cardiff City manager?

Frank O’Farrell, like Moyes, took on mission impossible by following a legend as Man United boss – Matt Busby. He lasted longer than Moyes at Old Trafford, but also inherited a team that was in rapid decline from days of glory. He has described how Busby’s presence at United utterly overshadowed his unhappy time as manager. Moyes found Sir Alex Ferguson far more supportive, but Fergie’s extraordinary legacy of success would have been a formidable burden for anyone who took his place.

O’Farrell went on to become Cardiff City manager the season after losing his job at United. It was a big step down, as the Bluebirds were struggling at the foot of the old second division. He got the job at City days after Jimmy Scoular was fired after Cardiff lost the very first game I ever went to see: at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 November 1973. (That grim game was the perfect introduction to life as a Cardiff City fan in the 1970s and 80s. My Latin teacher said there was an easy way to remember what nihil meant: it was the number of goals City was likely to score.)

Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seemed totally out of his depth as a premier league manager since succeeding the popular Malky Mackay last December. Cardiff could do worse than to offer Moyes the chance to rebuild his reputation in Wales. For all their troubles this season, City are in better health than in November 1973 when O’Farrell was appointed. And Moyes remains a decent manager, as he showed at Everton.

In praise of Penarth Pier Pavilion

Penarth Pier and Pavilion

Penarth Pier and Pavilion

Today was a glorious spring day in Penarth, near Cardiff. The newly restored pier pavilion looked magnificent, and we had a family outing to the lovely cafe at the pavilion.

Morning tea at the pavilion

Morning tea at the pavilion

I wrote three years ago about the lottery win that made possible the pavilion’s rebirth. Mum and Dad live on the seafront, and we have loved waking up to the view of the pier in all weathers and seasons. But this piece of 1930s art deco seaside architecture had fallen on hard times. A tatty bar at the end of the building closed years ago, leaving just memories and dreams of what might be. Today, we saw how successfully those dreams had been fulfilled. We loved our tea in the sunshine – and would have indulged ourselves with the delicious looking breakfasts and wraps had we not been going to Penarth Yacht Club for lunch!

Beach cycle

Beach cycle

Finally, I loved the sight of the cyclist enjoying a shingly Sunday ride.

Flintshire detached: remembering our old counties

Flintshire detached county

Flintshire detached: our old blurred county lines

Forty years ago today, many of Britain’s most cherished counties disappeared under local government reorganisation. The changes also ended a curious historic anomaly: ‘Flintshire detached’: the area of Flintshire, Maelor Saesneg, which was detached from the rest of the county of Flint and surrounded by the Welsh county of Denbigh and the English counties of Shropshire and Chester.

Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’) was one of the very last ‘exclaves‘: detached county territory. Most of these exclaves were tidied up in the 19th century. For example, much of Minety, Wiltshire, was part of neighbouring Gloucestershire until 1844, the year parliament started the tidying process.

I remember being curious about ‘Flintshire detached’ on childhood maps of Wales. I had a reminder of those long-gone days last Sunday on a bike ride in Buckinghamshire. Near Amersham, I passed a handsome property called Hertfordshire House. Its name reveals that it was once in an exclave of Hertfordshire in neighbouring Bucks, centred on the village of Coleshill. Centuries ago, the house was owned by Thomas Ellwood, who held illegal Quaker meetings there, safe in the knowledge that it was too remote for Herts justices of the peace to interfere. (It was Ellwood who rented a cottage for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles, where the great poet lived during London’s great plague of 1665 and completed Paradise Lost.)

Back to 1974. An even greater historical anomaly was Monmouthshire. Until 40 years ago, that border county was regarded by many as technically part of England rather than Wales, having been annexed as an English county following the forced acts of union in the 16th century. The 1974 local government reorganisation in Wales put an end to such nonsense. Never again would acts of parliament refer to South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Newport County back in the Football League

I’m delighted that Newport County are returning to the Football League after 25 years. It completes an unforgettable season for Welsh football, with Swansea winning the League Cup and Cardiff promoted to the Premier League. It’s just a shame that Newport pipped another Welsh club, Wrexham. (Wrexham have some consolation in winning the FA Trophy at Wembley.)

Growing up in South Wales, I was familiar with County’s precarious existence. In 1976, Manchester United played against a South Wales XI at Ninian Park to raise money to save the club from bankruptcy. BBC Wales Today filmed the then County chairman Cyril Rogers playing the piano to sooth the tension of fighting for the club’s existence. The campaign succeeded, and just five years later County narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final against Carl Zeiss Jena. But it was a mere stay of execution: Newport lost their league status in 1988 and went bust the following year. It’s little short of a miracle that the club has now regained league status.

The big question: has any other playoff to enter the Football League been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition? (Wrexham also narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final, to Anderlecht in 1975/76.)

Cardiff City, Premier League

Cardiff City are in the Premier League. Over 50 years since relegation from the old first division, we are once again in our neighbour’s football top flight. It’s also 86 years almost to the week since City became the only club from outside England to win the FA Cup.

Almost a year ago, I blogged my criticism for Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners’ decision to change the club red.  That reaction now seems churlish. Red looks like City’s lucky colour. And we should thank the Bluebirds’ Malaysian owners for helping the team make history.

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final, April 2008

Our family has spent many hours cheering on Cardiff City. My father, Bob Skinner, took me to my first City game almost 40 years ago. (Against West Brom, on 3 November 1973 – we lost 1-0.) He was born within a goal kick of West Ham’s ground, which meant I grew up with affection for both clubs. (By coincidence, West Ham adopted a City song, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.) Family loyalties were stretched when we went to West Ham to see City in November 1979, but Cardiff lost 3-0. West Ham did well against the three Welsh teams in the old second division that autumn.

Five years ago, we watched City win an FA Cup semi final against Barnsley to reach a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1927. Another breakthrough in City’s renaissance. We should pay tribute to then manager Dave Jones for that revival.

Cardiff join Swansea in the Premier League. It’s the first time Wales has had two clubs in the top flight. A special moment.

Six Nations Champions: Wales smash England

Six Nations Champions

Six Nations Champions

England entered Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on the brink of winning a grand slam. They left with their dreams in tatters after Wales destroyed the old enemy * in one of the finest displays ever from a Welsh team.

A Welsh victory seemed likely after England’s deeply unconvincing victory over Italy last Sunday. But few could have imagined that we’d win by a 27 point margin.

Wales may not have won a grand slam today. (The opening half against Ireland ensured that wasn’t to be.) But it felt as good as a slam: our most convincing win ever against England; the first time we have retained the championship since 1979; and the most enthralling game in years.

The only disappointment? I didn’t have any Brains SA in the house to toast an amazing victory.

Cymru am byth!

* Note to English wife and friends: ‘old enemy’ is a term of endearment. We’re the best of friends and neighbours. We forgive you for Edward I, the imposed act of union, the Welsh Not and much more…

PS: credit to BBC Wales for its witty rebranding of BBC One (below) to mark our famous victory….

BBC Won Wales

BBC Won Wales

Proud of the NHS


Llandough hospital in the snow

Today has been a stressful yet wonderful day.

My amazing 84 year old mother has had a major operation at University Hospital Llandough at Penarth, just outside Cardiff. It followed months of health worries – with my 86 year old father bearing the brunt of the worry.

We were concerned that today’s snowfall would lead to the operation being cancelled – but Cardiff & the Vale University Hospital Board and its staff did a magnificent job keeping things going.

Mum will spend a long time recovering from today’s operation. But we’re so glad to see her tonight sleeping peacefully on the ward.

Dad and I thoroughly enjoyed a pint of HB tonight at Penarth Yacht Club, followed by dinner washed down by a fine bottle of Rioja. Dad even reminisced about his 1930s childhood, in particular how deadly dull Easter Sunday was. He also remembered how his father listened to the football pools news on Saturdays on Radio Luxembourg – once winning £70! A lot of money before the war.