#Digital Bridgend is a new and innovative smartphone application that challenges users to find almost 300 places of historical interest throughout the County of Bridgend. Using augmented reality to find your way around, there are no less than 17 trails to follow, games to play, quizzes and scavenger hunts to unearth the unique heritage of this fascinating part of Wales. This series of blog posts reviews each trail in turn on location. The app is now available on Apple and Android platforms.
Today's trip saw me take in one of the three valleys north of the M4 in Bridgend, known as the Ogmore Valley. There are three trials to enjoy in this neck of the woods, the first one I was sampling was the Blackmill trail, a village located in the heart of the valley around 8km away from Bridgend.
The first location that the app was challenging me to find was the former railway station in the village, but first I had to park my car. When you arrive in Blackmill, there's a couple of pubs behind which there is plenty of room to park on the road and a car park that's adjacent to the famous sheep sale site that we'll learn a lot more about later I'm sure. So, car parked with ease, it's off to find the station.
The app leads me on a pleasant short walk around 500m away through the trees along the former railway line, which is now a well used community cycle and walking route. I arrive at the former site of the station where I can clearly see where the platforms once stood. The commentary kicked in for the app, and I learn that Blackmill as a village in 1865 only had 30 people living there, before the railway and industry arrived thereafter. In its heyday, Blackmill saw 5 trains a day and 7 on a Saturday but in 1958, the last passenger train left the station. A nice setting by the side of an ancient woodland, but the next stop for me was to go back towards my car and the site of the Blackmill Sheep Sales.
During my time working in Bridgend, the Blackmill Sheep Sales is something that I heard people often speak about so was intrigued to find out more. As I arrived at the site, just behind the two pubs, the commentary is once activated as I walk within 20 metres of the icon on my screen, that I've become so used to following on the app. I discover that the Sheep Sale at Blackmill was a massive event, more like a festival with music, dancing and lots of drinking in the nearby pubs no doubt. It's the oldest and probably one of the most famous in South Wales. The app also challenges you to a scavenger hunt at this point, there are three points to find so I'm led all over the site to unearth more information. Really interesting to learn that sheep stealing was rife in the 1700s and a law was passed to help curb the crime, the penalty for which was death! More than a 1000 people were sentenced to death in the UK for sheep stealing in 6 years between 1825-31. Fascinating. Next stop, the Fox and Hounds Pub, around 100 metres away.
I pass my car once again, and arrive at 'the Fox'. Just outside the front door, the commentary plays and tells me that this Georgian building has been a pub since the 18th Century and was the meeting point for the Llangeinor Hunt since 1895, hence the name of the establishment.
Onwards and upwards. There's a short walk up a gentle hill to the next site, which is something I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't know existed in the area (despite having driven through here so many times over the years!)…..the impressive Blackmill Viaduct. This construction is almost hidden from the road but worth a visit as you can walk around the base of some of the 7 dominant pillars that were built to take coal by rail to the new docks in Barry that were developed so that extortionate fees and tolls could be avoided through Cardiff. The line from Nantymoel to Barry was open in 1876 and closed in the 1930s. The viaduct is very much intact today and another example of a great feat of engineering of the industrial era in this part of South Wales.
Up to this point, I've been able to tap into Blackmill's past on foot but I think I need the car, as the next point, St Tyfodwg Church is around 2km away. So, back to the vehicle, and I head up the Ogmore Fach valley to find this ancient church. When I get there, it's on the main road so not difficult to spot at all. On-street parking is easy too. Once again, the commentary plays on schedule and I'm told the history of the church as I walk around the graveyard and immediately observe some ornate carvings in the walls and a medieval fortress like tower. There is certainly an air of history about this place and I'm not surprised to learn that there was probably a church on this site as early as the 6th Century. A mini scavenger hunt takes me on a walk through the grounds and the church itself and I discover a rare Pilgrim effigy dating back to the 14th Century. Incredible place, and once again, way off the beaten track and somewhere that I would have never have known about if it wasn't for this app.
Returning to the car, I'm directed back down the valley to Blackmill again, and this time to Paran Chapel, just opposite the viaduct. Non conformism was of course dominant in these parts and such was the popularity that this chapel, built in 1825, was extended numerous times in the 19th Century increasing its capacity to 200. Being a Baptist chapel, records show that baptisms took place in the nearby river Ogmore and on some occasions even having to break the ice in the middle of Winter! Great to hear that that this chapel is still used today though, conducting services in Welsh.
I re-park my car behind the pubs once again, and set off on foot to find the last two points of interest on what has thus far been an incredibly interesting journey through the Ogmore Valley. The next point I have to find is an ancient bridge, and I'm told by the app that its quite difficult to find, nevertheless, it points me in the right direction and tells me it's around 600m away. I walk along the former railway route, and realise that I could have taken my bike on this trail as most of the trigger points are minutes from the cycle path. Maybe next time.
The Bridge 'Pont Y Frithau' was a little difficult to find but I got there in the end. The arch dates back to the early 18th Century and was the old crossing of the River Ogmore, and there was probably a wooden construction or a ford here predating the bridge that we can see today. You can view it from the road but carry on along the cycle path and there's a convenient gap in the fence that will take you straight to Pont Y Frithau where you can observe it at close quarters. Just above this bridge, there was once a millstream that ran off the Ogmore to power a water wheel of the mill owned by a certain Ifan Ddu ap Gryffydd Goch, which gave the mill its name, Melin Ifan Ddu (or in English, Ifan's Black Mill). So having discovered how the village was named, we now head off on a short walk up the hill to the final point on the trial - the former Blackmill Isolation Hospital.
Bit of a climb this, and be careful as you have to cross a busy highway and walk up another road where there's no pavement (at least on the side I was walking anyway!). Just before the top of the hill on the corner, the commentary starts outside the former hospital. It is hear that I learn about a dark year for Wales in recent history, the 1962 outbreak of the killer and highly contagious disease smallpox. The app displays a timeline at this point where you can click on each of the dates shown in 1962 to find out more about the outbreak and how this building that we are standing outside was used as an isolation hospital. 19 died in the 1962 epidemic and fortunately, smallpox was eradicated in 1980.
OK, trail completed, back to the car. Very enjoyable, interesting and revealing. I learned a lot more about this part of Wales and visited places that I would otherwise not have known existed. Highly recommended, takes about 2-3 hours max and can be enjoyed by bike too.