FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals. Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country […]
Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely. Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, […]
MANCHESTER, England — Situated among gently rolling hills about 185 miles northwest of London, Manchester was one of the outposts for Rome’s legions in the late First Century A.D. They stayed about three centuries, to be followed by Vikings, Scots and other Europeans.
It’s fair to say none of them would recognize the place now.
The development really started in the 17th century, when forward thinkers decided to import cotton from the New World to build Manchester’s textile business, according to docents in the city’s Museum of Science & Industry.
When the Industrial Revolution arrived in the 1700s, and steam power replaced water wheels, Manchester was launched.
A canal was built to bring the cotton from the docks of mighty Liverpool, 38 miles away. Manchester’s population roughly tripled between 1770 and 1800. Among the newcomers: mechanics and inventors, who understood Manchester could offer them work and pay for experimenting.
They developed machines to speed the processing of the raw cotton; it arrived in bales that still contained leaves and twigs from the ground of America’s South. The machines refined the cotton thread, then strengthened it before it was used in looms to create cloth. The museum docents demonstrate the processes on clattering machinery left from Manchester’s heyday.
The world’s first train dedicated to hauling both freight and passengers arrived here in 1830; that station, in rebuilt form, is one of the museum’s buildings.
Manchester became the de facto mechanical laboratory for the Industrial Revolution.
The bustling city’s roughly 100 companies turned out millions of square yards of cloth – an estimated 70 percent of all the world’s textiles. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli nicknamed it Cottonopolis.
To host the visiting monied crowd, huge hotels went up in the most ornate Victorian and Edwardian styles. City Hall, created by Venetian craftsmen and occupying a city block, opened in 1877 and is still in use.
There would be eventual decline — the city hasn’t produced a significant amount of cloth for more than a quarter-century. But oddly, it was a huge truck bomb, detonated by the Irish Republican Army in 1996, that led to the rejuvenation or rehabilitation of the city core:
The blast, which injured about 200, angered enough people with money that they decided to invest in Manchester’s future.
Now the lively town is home to an estimated 85,000 college students, Great Britain’s largest Chinese community after London’s, a bubbling cauldron of pop music creativity (everyone from Herman’s Hermits to Morissey and the Smiths), an acclaimed symphony orchestra, and a vibrant arts scene.
And then there’s world-famed Manchester United, the soccer team that lost David Beckham, and its arch-rival, Manchester City.
If you’re coming to take in England’s glorious Lake District, a couple of hours’ drive north, you can fly nonstop from the U.S. to Manchester. Spend a couple of days here, to get a feel for this great-again city.
For all the starting advice you’ll need, including help with reservations, go to the city’s official tourism site, .
GREENWICH, England — Kings and queens vacationed here for nearly five centuries. The world sets its watches from here. Sailors successfully navigate using a device on display in this town. All of it is a half-hour’s narrated boat ride down the Thames from the Tower […]
LONDON — Career paths, marriage or divorce choices, perhaps even whether to continue with life itself … surely all of these issues are contemplated time and again in the spring sunshine that caresses London’s glorious St. James’s Park. One end of the park’s 93 acres […]
Blaenavon, Wales — In 1833, A Topographical Dictionary of the Province of Wales stated that the tall hills defining the handsome landscape of southern Wales’ Rhondda Valleys had earned the “description of the Alps of Glamorgan. This neighborhood is singularly wild and romantic. The tourist, as he ascends, is gradually more and more delighted.’’
But the next sentence foreshadowed an immense change: “The Dinas colliers (coal mines) are in the vicinity …’’
Discovery of a high-grade coal soon would eradicate the place where tourists once had come to admire the bucolic life.
Ironically, a series of museums on the actual industrial sites now boosts Wales’ tourism into a significant economic factor, helping to offset the revenue lost when mining ended in the late 20th century.
At the height of the period roughly between 1780 and 1980, about one in four Welsh were miners. For more than half of that time, that meant all Welsh people, not just men: Children as young as 5, and women, also went below ground. They worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
As still-remaining cottages show, miners and their families usually lived in company-owned housing – six to 10 people somehow crammed into four small rooms. Well into the 19th century, these hovels had no running water.
Step back in time
Life above and below the ground is demonstrated in several well-done presentations in South Wales, including those noted here:
The basic ingredients of iron are iron ore, coal, limestone. All of these were in abundance beneath the Valleys. And deposits of all three were discovered fairly close together near the village of Blaenavon (bly NAH vin).
Industrialists set up mining operations and also constructed blast furnaces – in which the three minerals were heated together at about 2,700 degrees.
Now a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Blaenavon Ironworks opened in 1789 with three blast furnaces, but within years it was among the largest iron manufacturing facilities in the world.
What had been an isolated village of perhaps 100, before the ironworks opened, by 1871 had soared to 9,736.
Now, grasses grow atop the chimneys of the four remaining furnaces. Visitors can walk up to the mouths of the furnaces and a couple of subsidiary buildings, listening to explanations of the process at five audio stations.
Just a few yards from the furnaces and outbuildings are a row of stone cottages built at the end of the 18th century to house the most-skilled of the workers. Two of the cottages have been furnished to show life here in 1791 and 1841.
About 700 yards down a steep hill is the contemporary village of Blaenavon, home to about 5,800 people living in modernized row houses built for ironworkers. The excellent Heritage Center has interactive displays, black-and-white illustrations and photos, and an excellent timeline, bringing the hard era to life.
In the mines, 300 feet down
The Big Pit National Coal Museum eliminates a lot of the guesswork about life in the mines. Outfitted with a helmet — you’ll need it, unless you’re shorter than 5 feet – a helmet light, and a leather belt holding the light’s battery pack and an emergency breathing device, you’ll be led for about an hour through shafts as much as 300 feet underground.
When the guide – all are former coal miners – instructs his visitors to turn off their lamps, you will experience a darkness like no other.
The Rhondda Heritage Park offers a different sample of the miners’ life, taking visitors through buildings that once supported below-ground operations and now uses recordings and mannequins placed in period clothes to discuss another era.
The tour here, also led by a former miner, is briefer and less physically challenging than that at the Big Pit. It includes discussion of deadly accidents and how miners used specialized lamps to detect deadly gases.
For more information
Getting there, staying there: British Airways and several other airlines fly between North America and London, which is about 2 hours’ drive or train trip from Cardiff, Wales’ capital and formerly the No. 1 coal-shipping port in the world. Cardiff’s cutting edge hotel, in the recently rejuvenated Cardiff Bay area, is the handsome St. David’s Hotel and Spa.
For more information: Check these web sites on the places described here; only Rhondda Valley has an admission charge, because it is operated by the county, not Wales’ national historic-sites agency.
I hadn’t been to Cardiff, Wales’ working-man-tough capital, for 10 years. My, what a change. The formerly defunct dock area around Cardiff Bay began its rejuvenation in 2000 with the opening of the cutting-edge St. David’s Hotel & Spa. But while it glistened, it was […]