Last week I was stopped and spot checked by police on the way to the supermarket. This is all part of the new “Stay At Home” policing policy to stop the spread of coronavirus; was the journey essential? Once satisfied that the trip was legitimate, the officer browsed the vehicle and told me that my front tyres would need changing very soon, along with the renewal of the MOT. Thanks for letting me know, I thought!
In this time of lockdown I wasn’t sure how I was going to replace the tyres or indeed renew the MOT? However, after some local research I found a garage that was still open for business in a village called Clydach at the foot of the Swansea valley, six miles north east of Swansea city centre .
I’ve driven past Clydach and through it on many occasions, but had no real knowledge of its history, although there are many visible reminders of its industrial past including the centrepiece of the village, a large almost ugly red brick building known as the Mond. Until yesterday I had no idea what this structure housed or indeed its significance to Clydach’s history.
Friday the 24th April, was another beautiful spring day with lots of sunshine and temperatures above 20 degrees. I arrived at the back street garage, hidden away from the deserted main road and asked the owner if he could recommend anywhere where I could take a walk, whilst waiting for the car to be completed? “The canal that runs alongside the Mond – it’s a short distance from here, it’s peaceful has lots of things to see and you’ll be amazed with its natural beauty,” said John.
I’ve since learnt that the Swansea canal has a long history, dating back to 1794. Constructed by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company it was built to serve collieries, iron and copperworks along the Tawe valley, plus a channel for the movement of the materials these industries produced.
Boats built in yards along its route transported huge quantities of coal, down the valley to serve the metallurgical industries and to waiting ships at Swansea docks for export. From the docks this precious cargo was shipped all over the world. The canal’s decline was sealed with the creation of Swansea Vale Railway and it’s written that the last commercial journey took place in 1931. The canal and railway were key logistical transport functions of this area’s industrial past, but the canal itself is still very much alive, with clear waters teaming with small fish and tourist trails and cycle paths alongside its banks.
After a few minutes walking I arrived at the main entrance of the big red brick building and noticed on the other side of the road a powerful statue of a lone figure draped in a long coat and wearing a large hat. This is the statue of Ludwig Mond, situated close to the canal itself and overseeing the entrance to the Mond works that he helped create.
Ludwig Mond was a German Jew, who studied chemistry and came to England as a young man and set up a research laboratory in the stables of his London home. His assistant was an Austrian called Carl Langer and in 1889 Mr Langer discovered a process that separated nickel from ore. This was the spark that ignited the plan to create a refinery in Clydach and production began in 1902. It was the perfect location to build a nickel refinery as the process required good quality coal and the Swansea Valley had an abundance of top quality anthracite. Swansea docks was located just 6 miles south of the village and was ideally placed for world export of this precious metal.
At its height it is written that over 40% of Clydach’s population were employed at the Mond works and although it remains open today, the workforce is now limited to just over 200 people. The refining process produces 99.9% pure nickel which is then used in specialist applications such as stainless steel products and a wide variety of nickel alloys.
Again after doing some basic research, I’ve learnt that the plant remains a world leader and it’s nickel has been in high demand for over a hundred years, including the second world war, when nickel was needed to build ships and battle tanks. Ludwig Mond died in 1909, but his contribution to Clydach’s development including employment and housing is remarkable and his influence remains today. His statue stands majestically overlooking the Mond refinery and it’s testimony to his vision and foresight that the Mond continues to produce world class nickel in the 21st century.
It’s amazing what unforeseen circumstances can unfold each day. Coronavirus has changed all of our lives and things happen as a result of its dreaded presence, some bad and ironically some good. Living in Swansea it is unlikely that I would have travelled to Clydach to buy tyres or to renew an MOT on a car. However, having had to do something that was out of the norm I discovered a whole new experience of fascinating history, natural beauty, industrial heritage and a world class refinery at the heart of a local community.
This really was a memorable journey.