The South Wales Valleys and upland mountain ridges were once a very rural area of great natural beauty, noted for its river valleys and ancient forests and lauded by romantic poets such as William Wordsworth as well as poets in the Welsh language, although the interests of the latter lay more in society and culture than in the evocation of natural scenery. This natural beauty changed to a considerable extent during the early Industrial Revolution when the Glamorgan and Monmouthshire valley areas were exploited for coal and iron. By the 1830s, hundreds of tons of coal were being transported by barge to ports in Cardiff and Newport. In the 1870s, coal was transported by railway networks to Newport Docks, at the time the largest coal exporting docks in the world, and by the 1880s coal was being exported from Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The Marquess of Bute, who owned much of the land north of Cardiff, built a steam railway system on his land that stretched from Cardiff into many of the South Wales Valleys where the coal was being found. Lord Bute then charged taxes per ton of coal that was transported out using his railways. With coal mining and iron smelting being the main trades of South Wales, many thousands of immigrants from the English Midlands, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and even Italy came and set up homes and put down roots in the region. Very many came from other coal mining areas such as Somerset, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and the tin mines of Cornwall such as Geevor Tin Mine, as a large but experienced and willing workforce was required. Whilst some of the migrants left, many settled and established in the South Wales valleys between Swansea and Abergavenny, English speaking communities with a unique identity. Industrial workers were housed in cottages and terraced houses close to the mines and foundries in which they worked. The large influx over the years caused overcrowding which led to outbreaks of Cholera, and on the social and cultural side, the near-loss of the Welsh language in the area.
The 1930s inter-war Great Depression in the United Kingdom saw the loss of almost half of the coal pits in the South Wales coalfield and this number declined further in the years following World War II. This number is now very low, following the UK miners' strike (1984–1985), and the last 'traditional' deep-shaft mine, Tower Colliery, closed in January 2008.
Despite the intense industrialisation of the coal mining valleys, many parts of the landscape of South Wales such as the upper Neath valley, the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys of the River Usk and River Wye remain distinctly beautiful and unspoilt and have been designated SSSI, Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In addition to this, many once heavily industrialised sites have reverted to wilderness, some provided with a series of cycle tracks and other outdoor amenities. Large areas of forestry and open moorland also contribute to the amenity of the landscape.
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