I had never visited Merthyr prior to starting work on Representing Communities, and indeed when I told people what I would be doing, I was warned to “be careful” and to not leave my car unattended in the Gurnos, the estate which comprises a large part of our case study area of North Merthyr in the project. When I first visited Merthyr town centre, I was not blown away with its beauty; it is small with a few key buildings and many closed shops. It was very quiet and seemed a bit like my own home town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire: nothing special.
However, eighteen months have now passed. Last weekend I took my family for an afternoon out in Merthyr. Two weekends ago we did the same. We went to Redhouse (read about the first time I visited it here) and bumped into a local historian and musician I’ve been working with in the research. We went to Canolfan Soar for lunch, where I have often had coffee or lunch with community partners. I am planning to bring my 4 year old daughter to Dowlais Primary school next week to see their Christmas play. It’s Frozen, so I know my daughter will love it, but it was actually the teacher’s suggestion to bring her along. The class at Dowlais Primary I have been working with is wonderful, and my daughter already knows all about them because I came home with pictures and Christmas cards that some of the pupils had made for me.
We don’t live particularly close to Merthyr, in fact we are far closer to Cardiff. But I find myself choosing Merthyr as a place to visit on weekends rather than our capital city. Why? Why choose Merthyr over the bustling excitement of Cardiff? Here’s why:
On our last trip to Merthyr, my partner and our two small children visited a Christmas Fair in Penderyn Square and Redhouse.
Parking was free, as it has been every Saturday in December in all council-run car parks in Merthyr. By comparison, we went to Bute park in Cardiff yesterday and had to pay £2.00 for ONE HOUR in the car park. In Penderyn Square we saw some entertainers, bought some Christmas presents and the children chose a Christmas tree garland each from the craft stalls inside Redhouse. My daughter got a dog made out of a balloon for free, and the garlands were 50p each. Ice skating was £1 each, compared to £9 / £6 for adults and children at Cardiff’s Winter Wonderland.
The fair was quite small and whilst it was busy, nobody was in a rush or getting stressed. Instead of getting withering looks when our 2 year old decided to have a tantrum inside the craft fair in Redhouse, one of the elderly stall-holders smiled at him as he outran us and then flailed around on the floor.
Having looked around the craft fair, we made our way back to the car (which was less than a 5 minute walk; important when you have 2 and 4 year olds on their little legs!) and on the way our daughter pointed to a church with a huge reindeer sign outside it. It was another craft fair. By this time my partner and I were gasping for a coffee and a sit down, but we went in anyway. I almost denounced my atheism when we walked into a warm, spacious room with coffee, cake, face painting, and various children’s activities. The children made Christmas crackers and cards while we sat down on the sofas sipping our coffee and thawing out. It was heaven.
We had change from £10 and had thoroughly entertained our children who had made beautiful home made Christmas cards for all the grandparents (50p each), Christmas crackers (with hat, joke and present for 50p each) for Christmas day, had their faces painted (50p each) and been fed and watered (£1 each). Whilst I do love our capital city, £10 would have got us parking and a sniff of a coffee in Cardiff, and we all would have been completely stressed out from the crowds of people, noise, shops and mayhem. I have lost count of weekends where we’ve started off going for a “nice day out” somewhere and we’ve ended up seeking refuge in the nearest Harvester, totally exhausted, drained and skint. Merthyr just isn’t like that.
For me, Merthyr beats Cardiff for a family day out any time of the year, not just at Christmas. Apart from Redhouse, Canolfan Soar and the town centre, there is Cyfarthfa Castle, the Blue Pool, Bike Park Wales and the Brecon Beacons just a little further up the A470. People are friendly, and you don’t feel like you’re being ripped off all the time. What more could you want?