Located in the Vale of Neath, Pontneddfechan was once a scene of great industrial activity and innovation.
Today, visitors are drawn here to explore the fascinating relics of its industrial past and access the waterfalls for which the area is renowned.
At the eastern end of the village, limestone was quarried out of the Dinas Rock and carted away by horse-drawn drams to the Pont Walby Brickworks where it was crushed for the production of lime for agriculture and building, and for road metalling. Near by is the
- one of the most famous industrial works in the area and the only example of its kind in Wales at the time. Initially owned by the Vale of Neath Powder Company, the site changed hands in 1862, when Messrs. Curtis and Harvey took over. They later merged into Nobel's Explosives Company and finally in 1926 the site became part of the Imperial Chemical Industries Limited. The gunpowder made here was principally for use in coal mines and quarries, including slate quarries in North Wales.
The site was chosen mainly for its isolation in view of the potential danger of explosion, for the plentiful supply of water to drive the machinery, and for the timber nearby used for charcoal making. In all the site covered some 180 acres and stretched for nearly two miles, thus ensuring any explosion or fire could be contained within a small part of the works.
Although largely in ruins today, visitors can see some massive stonework and the remains of many buildings. 0ften these buildings have only three walls remaining, because the fourth wall and roof were probably originally timber which would have blown off in any explosion, thus leaving the three substantial walls intact! Banks of earth with trees planted on the top were often constructed between buildings and most walls and buildings were whitewashed so that any powder accumulation could be spotted.
The water that powered the machinery was supplied via two weirs and a series of leats and the raw materials were carried by rail on a
tramway - trams were drawn by horses shod with copper shoes to prevent sparks. Work started at 7.30am and no items likely to cause a spark could be taken into the works. Workers in danger buildings wore special safety slippers made of leather held together with wooden pegs and women were not allowed to wear metal or celluloid hair pins.
The works closed in 1931 after the Home Office took black powder off the 'Permitted List of Explosives': The process buildings were set alight and demolished for safety reasons in 1932.
You can explore the site by following The Powder Trail.
Silica rock or quartzite was mined in the Pontneddfechan area from the late 18th century up until 1964. It is a hard rock composed of silicon dioxide (quartz) with very few impurities which gives it a very high melting point.
A man much associated with the Vale of Neath, William Weston Young, developed a method of producing high quality firebricks from the Dinas silica rock, and these were manufactured at the Pont Walby brickworks and exported worldwide. Even today the word for firebrick in Russian is 'Dinas'.
Mining was undertaken using the 'pillar and stall' method which means little propping is needed, and firing was undertaken at night to allow the dangerous dust to settle before the next day's work. One unusual feature of the mine was the use of an aerial ropeway where material brought out of the mine by dram was sieved, loaded and taken down from the mine in overhead carriers.
Today the remains of the old levels and tramways can still be seen, but the commercial prosperity has been replaced with fascinating industrial archaeology.
You can find out more about the area's geology and numerous waterfalls at The Waterfalls Centre in Pontneddfechan.