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Opinion: The tragedy of Aberfan: a pain that will last forever

PUBLISHED: 13:33 25 September 2018

The scene 21 October 1966 at Pantglas Junior School at Aberfan, Glamorgan, where a slag heap collapsed engulfing the school and killing 116 children and 28 adults.

The scene 21 October 1966 at Pantglas Junior School at Aberfan, Glamorgan, where a slag heap collapsed engulfing the school and killing 116 children and 28 adults.

James Marston visited Aberfan, 52 years after the tragedy that claimed so many lives

This week I have ventured away from the confines of Suffolk and Norfolk and struck off to discover fresh climes.

I am on holiday – motoring through the Welsh marches. It is the sort of holiday I enjoy – looking at things, visiting historic houses, seeing what’s about.

I have, as I write, managed Hereford Cathedral, a cider mill, and the historic towns of Malvern and Monmouth – where, in the town museum, I note there is an interesting collection of memorabilia associated with Norfolk’s very own Horatio Nelson.

As part of my travels I have been exploring the valleys of South Wales – once one of the industrial and mining heartlands of the UK.

And as I drove, with my father, down the Taff valley I found myself in the pit village of Aberfan.

It is a place that will be forever associated with the disaster there that claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults as a vast spoil tip slipped onto the Pantglas Junior School.

That disaster was in 1966, long before I was born.

To visit a grave is one of my interests and something about which I have written. I like graveyards because they offer an insight into the history of a community, they tell me something about the people who lived there, they can have fascinating, even amusing inscriptions, one can come across the occasional famous person, or even the infamous.

Visiting graveyards is one thing, but to visit the mass grave of 116 children? I wasn’t sure whether this was simply fuelling my journalistic interest or blatant curiosity – perhaps it was.

But after a visit to the memorial garden which now occupies the site of the disaster, I determined to drive on, up the side of the valley, to the white stone arches that mark the graves.

The Aberfan cemetery is on a steep incline. It is cool and fresh, and overlooks the village where many of those buried there lived.

Halfway up and to the right is the mass grave where the children and many of their parents are laid to rest.

As I made my way up we spotted a couple laying flowers.

I felt a little uncomfortable – I suspect because while I was curious, I wasn’t there to grieve for a loved one. We pressed on.

It was when I began to read the gravestones, read the powerful words of grief and love, that I got an insight into the awful pain and loss that had been the legacy of the disaster. It brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. It wasn’t like any other graveyard I had been to, not even like the vast cemeteries of northern France where the youth of a generation lie. Aberfan is a moving place, a place where emotion is unavoidable.

These were 7,8,9,10 and 11 year olds, their lives snuffed out before they could really be lived at all.

It struck me that although I knew about this disaster, I suspect there are many younger than me who have never heard of it at all.

My father struck up a conversation with the lady who had been laying flowers. He remarked that we wanted to see, to visit, to observe and to make our own pilgrimage there but that it wasn’t easy to explain why.

The lady’s eyes filled with tears as she said she lost two small brothers in the disaster now more than 50-years ago.

“We get people coming here from all over the world. I like it that people come here to see,” she said.

Unwilling to pry despite every journalistic bone in my body wanting to hear her story, she went on to say that it was a day she could never forget and the conversation moved on.

It was then she said thank you, thank you to us for making the effort. It was as if she gave us permission to be there.

Aberfan remains a moment in British history that was so shocking and so horrific not just because so many died but because it was, probably, unavoidable. The inquiry afterwards looked at issues of public accountability and responsibilities of those in authority over those whose voices were often unheard – and perhaps some good came from it.

Aberfan resulted in legislation that began the health and safety measures that we can often, too easily, decry.

But perhaps it is worth thinking about, the next time we moan and carp about things that might seem silly to us and unnecessary, that woman I met on a Welsh hillside, whose pain was etched into her face, as she went back to the day, as a 13-year-old, when her little brothers were taken away.

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