Exploring Blaenavon: A Welsh Town That Changed the World


Another family trip, another diversion to a UNESCO Heritage site – this one being our 78th.

For those of you that have followed the site for a while, you’ll know how much of an obsession they are for me (see all the UNESCO sites I’ve visited here), and whilst seeing them is, in part, due to my love of collecting things, they also strike me as the perfect way to start planning an itinerary to a new place, as anything protected ‘for the future of humankind’ must be worth seeing.

As ever, no real research was done on my part (other than how to get here, and it only added on 20-minutes or so extra on our journey from Calne to Llanwrda), as I have a disproportionate amount of faith in UNESCO sites, despite having my fingers burned occasionally (I’m looking at you Budj Bim).

Blaenavon proved to be well worth the trip, not just for us adults, but little Grace enjoyed it too, and we learned a lot about the history of the area.

Included for you is a mix of useful information, history and the story of our visit, I hope you find it useful.

The Geography

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It wasn’t immediately obvious how to visit Blaenevon, the Big Pit appeared on Google Maps, but driving through the town itself we noticed the World Heritage Site Visitor Centre and headed in.

The map on the wall shows 12 places in the area which are worth visiting, but we only had time for the World Heritage Centre (1), St Peter’s Church (10), Ironworks (3), and of course, the Big Pit (2).

If you’re a UNESCO geek like me, I’d suggest starting at the visitor centre, and then making your plans from there. The Big Pit has the most information, but for me, the Ironworks was actually more spectacular – the rest of the site I can’t comment on as we didn’t have time to visit them.

World Heritage Visitor Centre

There is parking directly opposite the visitor centre (though we missed it and ended up parking on a local estate), which sits in a stone building against the backdrop of spectacular South Wales scenery.

We were at the centre for about half an hour (it would have been longer if the wonderful looking café hadn’t been packed), as there isn’t a huge amount to do.

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For Grace, the main attraction was a little room set up as an old school house, where she got to give Daddy lessons – I must have been a model student as not only did I get a tick, but I was marked as an ‘A’ for my balloon drawing.

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The main hall was filled with displays about the area, and its coal mining past.

There was also another small room which contained lots of information about why Blaenavon became a UNESCO site, and about UNESCO sites in general – which is where I properly geeked out!

I also found the official UNESCO certificate on the wall outside, and an interesting newspaper article that shows just how much UNESCO status means to a community like this, and how much effort goes into putting together an application.

What I Learned About Blaenavon’s Industrial Past at the Heritage Centre

Whilst I rarely retain the information, I love the new pieces of history and statistics I pick up from visiting places such as this.

I share them here, partly in the hope you’ll find them interesting, but mostly for me to come back to in the future when I want to look clever!

In no particular order, here’s some interesting information, stories and stats that we found:

  • Blaenavon helped to lead the industrial revolution after it started just over the border in Ironbridge (another UNESCO site which I visited on our last trip to the UK).
  • It all kicked off here in the late 1700s, when a vast area was leased and had everything it needed to produce iron.
  • Skilled workers were brought in from England, but most of the people who worked in the pits and on the forges were farm labourers who changed careers. What a difference coming from the damp, muddy Welsh fields into the fires of the forges and darkness of the mines.
  • This small community grew to over 1,000 people in a matter of years, and was up to over 5,000 by the mid 1800s.
  • At one point there were 18 chapels and churches in town, one of which (St Peter’s) actually has an iron font.
  • A network of horse-drawn rails was built to move the iron out to canals and then to the ports to be sent around the world.
  • In 1878, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas solved how to use bulk iron ore and turn it into steel – and he solved that problem right here!
  • By 1913 a third of the world’s coal exports came from Welsh mines…
  • …but by 1921 onwards (post WW1) the demand collapsed, and by 1025 half the population of the town was unemployed.
  • No where in the world does the evidence of such large-scale coal pits and iron production still dot the landscape. This is why Blaenavon became a UNESCO site.

St Peter’s Church

St Peter’s Church is right beside the Heritage Visitor Centre.

We wanted to get inside to see the cast-iron font that we’d read about, but the doors were locked, so we had to settle for some photos of the outside and the graveyard.

If you visit the church, keep an eye out for some of the unusual graves, such as that of iron master Samuel Hopkins. They were clearly proud of their work, as they are buried in iron-topped tombs.

The Great Forge of Blaenavon

The Big Pit seems to be the most famous place in Blaenavon, but for us, the Ironworks were the most special.

Cut into the hillside, these great forges wouldn’t look out of place in the dwarven scenes of a Tolkien novel.

Only five-minutes from the visitor centre, the rain cleared just as we parked, a real bonus as most of this area is outside.

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Map of the Ironworks

I’ve got many pictures of me in front of UNESCO plaques, but few are as fitting as this iron one at the ironworks, which Grace and I showed off in understated fashion.

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UNESCO site 78!

After paying our £14 per person entrance fee, and collecting an Easter Hunt paper for Grace, we headed in.

The first views are impressive, with the main buildings and furnaces to the left and the huge Balance Tower at the back casting shadows over the whole site.

This area is preserved enough that it’s not difficult to imagine how overwhelming the noise, soot and fires of the huge furnaces would have been plonked in what once was a small farming community.

Inside space inside where the fires would have been lit is enormous, the heat here would have been immense.

the period cottages at blaenavon

Whilst Grace and Becca hunted around the forge for Easter egg pictures for the hunt, I walked up the steep hill to the right, and into the “famous” cottages which, if you’re into niche 2019 Welsh TV, you might recognise from the BBC Wales series Coal House. These white cottages are set against the harsh industrial surroundings and reminded me of my Nanna’s house in Devon which she used to whitewash every few years (it must be a Welsh thing)

Inside, each cottage is a little time capsule, set up to look as they would have done in the 1790s, 1840s, 1920s and 1940s. By this time, Grace and Becca and caught up, and Grace was confused as to where the washing machine and toilets were in these houses!

the great forges at blaenavon
The great forges – the people beside them give perspective

Further up the hill, the size of the forges became clear, even though the chimneys are long gone, they are still a few stories high. The proportions of these are epic, with just the “fireplaces” at least 20ft high. I know I’m repeating myself in this article (and probably because it was a cold Welsh day, and I was longing for warmth), but the heat that these huge fires would have pumped out would have been immense.

the water tower at blaenavon
The Balance Tower – taken from below.

At the top of the hill is the walkway out to the Balance Tower, which stands over the rest of the ironworks. Originally constructed in the early 19th century, the tower is part of an innovative balance lift system used to transport heavy iron ore wagons between the ironworks and the hillside mines. This ingenious system used counterweights to effortlessly move loaded wagons uphill and bring empty ones back down.

view from water tower at blaenavon
The climb was big, but the view from the top of the Balance Tower was worth it – you can see here one run of the cottages on the left and the big buildings beside the forge on the right.

The tower itself is almost 9 metres, so by the time I was at the top it was like having climbed a four-storey building.

top of the tower at blaenavon
Vertigo inducing walkways!

Whilst the views are worth it, my love of heights didn’t really love the decision to put some grated metal at the top, allowing a view through all the way to the base.

manhole cover at blaenavon

If you visit, before walking out onto the grate, look out for this manhole cover on the floor.

We saw manhole covers like this all over Japan, but I don’t recall seeing one in the UK before, and I love the detail – combining the Heritage Site messaging with images of Blaenavon.

And that was us done – you’ll be happy to know that Grace found everything for the Easter egg hunt, earning herself a chocolate egg which would come back to haunt us later in the day (let’s just say it took 20 minutes to clean up, and an entire can of Febreeze still hasn’t cleared the smell!).

The Big Pit

The Big Pit was another five minutes or so up the road, with a £5 parking charge the only entrance fee.

By entrance was the Blaenavon Heritage railway, which unfortunately only runs at weekends and on public holidays at this time of year (they also do some Wednesdays in the summer), otherwise we would have taken a trip.

view of the industrial landscape of blaenavon from big pit car park

The full name of this UNESCO Heritage site is the ‘Blaenavon Industrial Landscape‘, and no where did we see the landscape element as clearly as from the car park at Big Pit. Against the already lumpy Welsh countryside were numerous manmade hills, spoil tips, leftovers from digging out the mines.

There is one contraption that dominates the area around Big Pit, the 30 metres tall headgear.

Headgears are tall structures that house the pulleys and equipment used to lower and raise the mining cages, which transport miners and coal in and out of the mine.

If we’d signed up soon enough, we could have used the headgear ourselves, as there is an option to go on a coal mining experience 90 metres underground, wearing the same equipment the miners do. Unfortunately, there were no tickets available on our arrival.

We spent the time at Big Pit exploring the buildings, enjoying cake at the little café, playing on the old equipment (that was mostly Grace) and looking around the fascinating bath museum at the very top.

There was some interesting displays at stats in the museum – the two above I thought were fascinating – the left being the coal production output in Wales, and the right being a list of all the Welsh coal mines that have existed, it filled an entire wall!

Finishing Up

So there we have it, UNESCO site 78 done, and an impressive one that proved to be a great insight into Welsh history that I wasn’t aware of.

If you want more to see more destinations in Wales, click here.

If you’re a UNESCO site geek like me, then you’ll love this page.

the reeves family picture

AUTHOR – BEN REEVE

Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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Thanks – Ben, Becca and Gracie

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SiennaSketch
1 month ago

Loved reading about your venture into Blaenavon! It’s always fascinating to uncover the layers of history that places like the Great Forge hold. Makes you appreciate the industrial era anew. Did you sketch or photograph any part of the ironworks? I find industrial landscapes have a unique aesthetic.

mark_the_shark
1 month ago

hey, sounds like a crackin day out. i’ve been thinkin of takin the kids there, reckon it’d be a hit? they’re all into minecraft an’ i thought the big pit might be up their alley, ya know.

AdventureMum
29 days ago
Reply to  mark_the_shark

Absolutely recommend it for a family day out! My two were fascinated by the Big Pit. It’s educational but in a fun, interactive way. Just be sure to check the weather.

TJ_2021
1 month ago

i found the part about the heritage visitor centre particularly interesting. does the centre employ any advanced tech for its exhibits? interactive displays or augmented reality perhaps?

JulieBeans
29 days ago

I’ve always had a soft spot for St Peter’s Church; its proximity to the Heritage Visitor Centre just adds to its charm. There’s something quite magical about a place that holds so much history. Did you get a chance to take a look inside, Ben Reeve? I’ve heard the stained glass windows are a must-see.