The words, music and arts that they capture were created by participants in a range of creative workshops run by the BG REACH project at Aberbeeg Community Centre in spring 2020, and then made into films and digital stories by local filmmakers and community members.
By the BG REACH music group
This moving song was composed by members of the BG REACH music group. The original version was a longer piece (Cynefin 1) written for performance live, but that proved impossible due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Undeterred, the group continued to meet, compose and perform together online during lockdown. As the music evolved, each member recorded her or his part separately using a ‘click track’ and then the group’s facilitator Liz Lane edited the sound and film together. The finished product is a triumph of creativity in adverse conditions.
Cynefin is a Welsh word referring to a sense of connection with a particular place and its people. That comes through clearly in the song itself, which in lyrical terms reflects the musicians’ differing experiences of Blaenau Gwent. Some have lived there all their lives, others have moved away and returned, and some are new to the area. But all feel a bond to their home in the Gwent Valleys. The lyrics offer thanks for the beauty of the area and the community that inhabits it. There is an almost revelatory feel in places, with lines like ‘things I could not see’ and ‘now my eyes are open’. The accompanying images were taken by the group and allude to lives lived amidst natural splendour. This celebration of nature is all more evocative given that the ‘greening of the valleys’ was a consequence of the deindustrialisation that has sapped the economic vitality of the region over the past 40 years or so.
Cynefin 2 draws heavily upon Welsh folk music as well as original composition. The chorus is based on the Welsh-language lullaby Suo Gân, although the lyrics themselves are new and in English. Suo Gân was first recorded in print at the start of the nineteenth century but in all probability is considerably older than that. The closing sections, meanwhile, are a reworked version of the last part of Welsh-language folk song Ar Lan y Môr, first written down in 1937 but boasting a considerably older pedigree in oral tradition. Whilst Blaenau Gwent is one of the least Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, these influences reflect the performers’ feelings of connection to their Welsh heritage as expressed through traditional music and language.
One of the most compelling things about this film is seeing the musicians actually performing the piece. And the star of the show, of course, is little Lily-Evelyn contributing vocals and rattle in the mid-section.
Pat Tovey and Jacqui Bowditch
This short recording features two sisters, Pat Tovey and Jacqui Bowditch, discussing their childhood in Abertillery during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a reminder of how much life has changed in Blaenau Gwent over the last sixty years or so. Pat and Jacqui’s family was the first in their street to have a car, and the first to have a colour television. They also recall how, from a young age, they were able to play without supervision, ‘rolling down the mountains on cardboard for hours’. Their father’s well-paid job as an engineer would have been connected to the heavy industries which until the 1980s provided the economic lifeblood of the area.
This is also a wonderfully human conversation, with old rivalries over the destruction of long-lost toys laughingly revived. The images that accompany the recording are photographs of Pat and Jacqui as children and young adults. When they reflect on family towards the end of the clip, the sisters allude to both change and continuity. On one hand they recognise the declining significance of the extended family in many parts of Welsh society, as it becomes more and more common for children to move away from their parents when they grow up. But their own children (three apiece) have stayed in the area and are as close with their cousins as their siblings. The importance that Pat and Jacqui attach to family, community and place all come through strongly in those closing moments of the recording.
Words by Hilary Davie,
Film by Hannah Roberts, featuring Janet Roberts
Prompted by the first national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hilary wrote this piece on the natural beauty of the valleys around Aberbeeg. Local filmmaker Hannah then used Hilary’s work as inspiration and accompaniment for a short film of her mum Janet walking through Parc Arael Griffin, just north of Aberbeeg, in late spring 2020. Janet is also the one narrating Hilary’s words.
Hilary remarks that the human world has virtually stopped thanks to the pandemic, but nature carries on. She offers evocative descriptions of the plants that border the paths she walks down on a regular basis. She tells us how the wild raspberries she passes come from seeds brought by birds from nearby allotments. Her musings are a reflection on the connections between the natural and the human-made in the verdant valleys of her home.
Meanwhile it is the Six Bells Guardian that provides the visual centre point of Hannah's film. It appears repeatedly throughout, from six different perspectives. Unveiled in 2010, this 20-metre sculpture is a memorial to the 45 men who died in the Six Bells mining disaster in 1960. It is a towering monument to the tragic cost of industry, which Hannah juxtaposes against Hilary’s bright ruminations on the persistence of nature. That contrast is all the more powerful now that industry has receded from Blaenau Gwent, leaving nature to shape the landscape once more.
This is an admirably honest reflection on the BG REACH experience during the 2020/21 Coronavirus pandemic. It was written by Pat Tovey, one of the leading lights of the Aberbeeg Community Group who were the driving force of the project in Blaenau Gwent itself.
The piece records how lockdown threatened to undermine all that Pat and others had achieved on the project, in terms of both learning and confidence. But it also highlights the role played by BG REACH staff members Suzy and Sarah in helping Pat and her fellow participants to keep that progress going. However, Pat’s real saviour was her own community and her sense of connection with the local area; ‘our little world, our piece of heaven’, as she calls it. That said, there is a lot of humour here too, including a passing reference to Carol Vorderman’s boobs. The sped-up film of Pat in Aberbeeg Community Centre is a light-hearted depiction of the very real anxieties she is writing about.
By the community of Cwrt Bracty in Aberbeeg
This wonderful film was created entirely by people living in a single street in Aberbeeg. It displays the rainbows that their children and grandchildren created early in the first national Coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020. Those rainbows were placed in windows across the country and far beyond, as symbols of hope in difficult times.
Unlike most of the other pieces in this exhibition, ‘Rainbows’ is not a meditation on the heritage of Blaneau Gwent. Instead, it captures an extraordinary moment in history through the eyes of a tight-knit community in that area. It records history rather than reflects it. One rainbow is shown with a concerned looking politician in the background. Another is surrounded by slogans like ‘be safe’, ‘wash your hands’ and ‘socially distance’. These visual combinations of hope and fear, innocence and threat, vividly recall those uncertain early days of the pandemic.
This page is part of the Blaenau Gwent REACH online exhibition.