Audrey Syms is old enough to have known Ferndale when its name evoked pride and its bustling streets made it feel like the throbbing heart of a great national project.
The coal mines that employed more than 15,000 men on the outskirts of the town at the turn of the 20th century had begun to wind down by the time she was born in the 1930s, but Syms remembers her town as a thriving community where shops filled the main street and the working men’s clubs heaved with activity.
“There was plenty of work in those days,” the 78-year-old says, looking out the window of the charity shop she runs on High Street. The place she describes vanished long ago. On the shabby street outside, every second shop unit is boarded up and the area is deserted but for some pensioners chatting.
A melancholy air hangs over the town. “All we’ve had around here are closures,” she says. A day centre for the elderly shut its doors before Christmas; before that it was a skate park and a community centre.
“There are no jobs. There are no shops . . . All we’ve got are fish-and-chip shops. If you want to get fat, live in Ferndale.”
Nestled in a parting in the mountains north of Cardiff, Ferndale’s terraces have become a symbol of the post-industrial bleakness that has settled over South Wales’s valleys. Each year Ferndale appears high on a list of British towns with the cheapest housing.
At Lanyon's estate agents on High Street, the asking price for a two-bedroom house ranges from £35,000 (€47,000) to £55,000. More generally, the valleys – home to a third of the population of Wales – consistently top league tables for poverty, ill-health and education inequality. A report last year found that 17 per cent of all adults of working age were on benefits and that the rate of disability allowance claimants, at 10.7 per cent, was double the national average.
These problems were compounded by a lack of skills and training: more than one in five of the working-age population had no qualifications. Finding work involves leaving or commuting to the cities.
Successive governments have promised regeneration, but progress has been limited. More than a century after the first pits closed, local political debate still centres on how to reverse the chronic legacy of de-industrialisation.
"It's a forgotten town," says Leigh Biddiscombe (23), who is on a visit home to Ferndale. Like most people in Ferndale, she and her family have always voted Labour, for whom the local constituency of Rhondda has been one of the safest seats in Britain. But she likes the sound of Leanne Wood, the Rhondda-born leader of Plaid Cymru.
A 40-minute drive to the east of Ferndale, a similar scene plays out on the main street in Tredegar, a pleasant town of 15,000 people. More than half the shops are closed and the paths are eerily quiet.
Tredegar has a unique place in the annals of collectivism and left-wing radicalism. It was here that Aneurin Bevan, minister for health in the post-war Attlee government, was born. And it was the Tredegar Medical Aid Society that he took as inspiration for what became the National Health Service.
Millions of lives
A stone monument commemorates the town’s revered son. “Bevan was a cornerstone of local identity,” says historian Rhian E Jones, who grew up in Tredegar. “It provided comfort. However bad the town might have been at the time, we could still think, ‘we produced something that changed the world and saved millions of lives in this country.’”
The valleys’ support for Labour has held firm, but the party’s ascendancy is under growing threat. Plaid Cymru, which under Wood’s leadership has positioned itself as a left alternative to Labour, is making steady inroads, while most votes for Ukip and the Greens come at Labour’s expense. Traditionally, the Welsh nationalists found little support in the valleys.
“Generally in the valleys, class carries much more weight than nationality does,” Jones says. “We always voted Labour . . . and that’s kind of changing at the moment due to this sense that Labour has abandoned the working class and Plaid Cymru presenting themselves in a more palatable, socialist way than previously.”
Not everyone is tempted to shift allegiance, however. Josh Coombs (30), who works in the pharmacy in Ferndale, comes from a family steeped in the left-wing radicalism of a constituency that in 1979 elected a communist mayor. The wounds from the miners' strike never quite healed, he says. "Here, if I didn't vote Labour, they'd probably castrate me."