Pontardawe and Swansea Angling Society

© 2009-18

The Early Years by Howard Hopkin

Pontardawe Angling Society came into being in the post-2nd World War year 1946. Before this there was the River Tawe and its two main tributaries, the Upper and Lower Clydach Rivers; their populations of brown trout, genetically pure and abundant; and some (comparatively few) fishermen, an estimated number amounting to some 40-50 men and youths.

Some of the fishermen were members of the Tawe & Tributaries Angling Association, which had been in being since prior to the 1st World War and was concerned mainly with fishing in the Upper Valley fishery, ie above Godre'rgraig or Ystalyfera. Others were "free spirits", ie members of no Association.

The River Tawe was also a "free" river, subject to no fishing licence; no Fishery Board bailiffs nor Flood Management control. It was as free as nature itself and demonstrated this each wet winter with violent flooding. On a really big flood it was commonplace to see lakes of floodwater stretching almost unbroken over the valley flood plain from below Panteg down to Clydach and beyond. The eastern half of Pontardawe shopping centre in Herbert Street was periodically under water from the winter flooding. The record flood mark was reckoned to be halfway up the entrance door to Matthews' Billiards and Snooker Hall!

The nearest River Authority was the Tywi Fishery Board but the Board's writ ended on the River Llwchwr. The only control over fishing on the River Tawe was by the Association bailiffs of Tawe & Tributaries AA. Fishermen were expected to take out the Association fishing Permit. Below Ystalyfera this control was weak and, as opinion had it, only the very loyal and honest fisherman took out a Tawe & Tribs fishing permit.

Pollution in these early years was an emotive subject to fishermen in the valley, though to few others! Pollution sources were clearly recognised:- from the various tinplate and sheet mills on the banks of the river down to and including Morriston (dilute pickle acid from sheet and plate pickling baths); coal dirt from colliery washery lagoons; and effluent from overloaded sewage treatment works. There were periodic and repeated pollution "accidents" from these sources, when the river ran coloured black from coal or brown from pickle acid. In retrospect such incidents were periodic nuisances, interruptions to fishing for a short period of time, but no more.

From memory, in these early years there was never any great fish kill as a result of coal, acid nor sewage pollution. It was when cyanide treatment was used in the metal bashing firms, which came to the Valley when Industrial Estates were established, that major fish kills came about. Inco effluent into the river in Clydach at this time was always a major pollution problem but as Pontardawe fishermen had little interest in the main river below the Upper Clydach confluence (as was the attitude of their upper valley Tawe & Tributaries neighbours to the main river below Ystalyfera), no-one bothered about this.

The even greater poisonous pollution from industry in the Lower Swansea Valley - the Swansea Vale and the Copper Works - was also unseen by the fishermen upstream. That this pollution was the major cause of a dearth of salmon and sewin came to be understood as industrial history turned its pages in the 1960s and 1970s and salmon and sea trout returned to the River Tawe.

Before 1946 the youth of Pontardawe and the valley swam every summer in the main river without succumbing to any kind of mortal illness. The brown trout in the river continued to enjoy a tremendous abundance and quality. Kingfishers flourished as if in their own Garden of Eden; otters were so many as to reach almost "vermin" proportions; minnows were present in their hundreds of thousands. The main tributaries - the Upper and Lower Clydach Rivers and the Cwmdu Brook - were crystal clear and full of brown trout, dippers and wagtails.

Against this benign environmental background the Pontardawe Angling Society was "an accident waiting to happen". It happened, quietly enough, when the feeling of dissatisfaction with and neglect by the managing committee of Tawe & Tribs AA (over the Tawe fishing below Godre'rgraig) reached a peak among its Pontardawe membership. At the same time, a Pontardawe committeeman on the T&T committee quit on the grounds that he was unsupported in his efforts to develop the fishing on the lower waters. This was Bryn "Ginger" Jones, ex Welsh Boxing Champion, then Insurance Inspector with London & Manchester Assurance Company for Pontardawe and District with contacts all over the middle valley. He was the catalyst who energetically set about forming a Pontardawe Angling Association to repair the alleged "neglect" of the fishing environment in the middle waters of the River Tawe. He was enthusiastically supported by Dr Lewis Watkins, a local GP learning to fish for the first time, and a few like-minded individuals who came together as a "steering committee", in order to form their own Angling Society.

The Steering Committee who formed around Dr Lewis J Watkins, as Chairman, and Bryn Jones, as Hon Secretary, were: Hon Treasurer - Glyn Phillips, accountant (Barclays Bank were our first bankers); Committee Members: Gerwyn Griffiths, local chemist; EPH Hopkin, undergraduate; Wm Parkhouse, newsagent.

As the news spread around Pontardawe, via the daily energies and enthusiasm of the Steering Committee, the first Committee was voted into office in the Commercial Room of the Dynevor Hotel. Bryn Davies, the landlord, was well known to be an enthusiastic angler of many years standing. For many, many years, once per month, on a Wednesday, the Committee met in the same Commercial Room for free.

The club now firmly established set about recruiting members, writing a constitution and, after acquiring verbal permission to fish Cwmdu Glen from Mr Charles Gilbertson, printing and issuing Fishing Permits and setting our Annual Membership Fee. It was the constant aim to increase the availability of fishing water for our members. Mr Charles Gilbertson became our first Life President.

It was during these first 10 years that the Pontardawe Angling Society not only enjoyed dynamic growth internally but also made its presence felt externally in the wider world of Welsh Angling Circles.

1952 saw the setting up of the South West Wales River Authority and the River Tawe came under the control of Statutory Authority in such matters as Fishing Licences, Fishery Management, Pollution Control and drainage control. River Authority bailiffs walked the banks and established law and order.

In order to represent fishery and fishing interests on the SW Wales River Authority, the South West Wales Federation of Angling Clubs was formed on the prompting of Mr JCK Mercer, a Swansea solicitor, and Mr Tyrrel Morgan, a Swansea tea importer. Needless to say, both were fishermen. EPH Hopkin was ultimately to become Hon Sec of this Federation. Ray Lockyer, our present Hon Sec, succeeded EPH Hopkin as Hon Sec of the Federation. Our Association's contribution to fishing on a wider front than club waters was established during these early years.

Dr LJ Watkins was appointed to be a member of the first SWW River Authority and elected to represent our club on the SWW Federation. He was followed by our second Elected Life President, Mr Gildas Llewelyn.

1954 saw the birth of the Welsh Fly Fishing Association in Aberystwyth. The Pontardawe Angling Society was authoritatively instrumental in its formation. EPH Hopkin was elected to become its first Hon Secretary and Treasurer. This was the beginning of the process of establishing a representative Governing Body for the fishermen and fishery owners in Wales and to establish democratic entry to the Welsh International Fly Fishing Team.

These years provided good fishing locally, all on a verbal permission basis, and good fellowship among a growing membership motivated by the twin aims of providing fishing for the men and youths of the Valley community on an "open door" basis and entry to International fly fishing on the basis of ability only. The routine of two fishing trips per season became established - venues were to the River Teifi upper and lower waters; the Usk in Abergavenny; the Wye in Builth wells; the River Irfon in Llanwrtyd Wells. Each Autumn the Annual Dinner was held in a convenient hostelry, was well attended and enjoyed by all members who attended.

However, the growing and mature Association suffered its first major pollution challenge - the sinking and operation of the Abernant Colliery in Rhydyfro, on the headwaters of Cwmdu Glen. The Association lost this battle and suffered for it for 20 years or more. Only now (1996) is Cwmdu Glen slowly recovering from the effects of the Colliery after its shutdown.

It also lost the fishery management battle with the S W Wales River Authority over the decision to stock the river with sea trout ova once the pollution in the estuarial and lower waters of the river had diminished. Both angling clubs had feared the loss (or deterioration in the quality) of the brown trout fishing and despite extensive consultation had vehemently opposed the proposal. The Water Authority went ahead however and today, with an established run of sea trout and salmon in the river, who remembers? More appropriately - who cares?

Finally, a few human interest stories from the early and first years of the Pontardawe & District Angling Society.

Two of the finest flyfishermen on their own waters were a Mr Stan House from Alltwen and Tommy Lewis from Trebanos. Stan House was a superb wet fly fisher. He used to carry a sack with him when he would walk over Gellionen Mountain to plunder the little Lower Clydach River of its brown trout. Tommy Lewis was an equally skilled dry fly fisher who only fished his own flies on the river and seemed incapable of not catching fish. His routine, followed during visits on 4 or 5 evenings every week when the water was clear, was to bus up valley from Trebanos to the old Workhouse bus stop in Brecon Road, Pontardawe. He then walked down to the river in Glantawe and fished upstream to the confluence of the Cwmdu Brook. One half pint in the "Quiet House", The Ynysmeudwy Arms, then bus back to Trebanos and home with a creel full of fish. Tommy Lewis was a dry fly purist more extreme than any chalk stream fly fisher. He fished without a net (deliberately in order to give the fish more than an even chance of escape) and with a cast of the lowest possible breaking strain. The onset of monofil nylon casts was a godsend to him - 1 lb b/s cast immediately. His split cane fly rod, incidentally, was as soft as a cows tail, through fair wear and tear in use and in playing fish on low b/s casts.

In pre-war years I remember watching Tommy catching the largest trout in the Factory Pool near James St, routinely using a 10 ft greenheart rod with a cast of finest rabbit snaring wire shaped in an open loop. Once caught, snared over the tail, the fish was landed then released and returned unharmed.

Finally, no-one on the Llanwrtyd Wells annual trip, if sufficiently early in the season to catch the end of the rabbiting season, will forget the experience of travelling on the coach at peace with the world until suddenly one would be aware of a furry fearsome companion on one's shoulder. Dai James' ferret "Butch" was surveying his fellow travellers and making his acquaintance with any newcomers on the coach. His presence on the river bank was essential. If his owner failed to catch fish, Butch made sure that there would be a bagful of rabbits. This was the "Fur and Fin" trip.

In conclusion, this has been an attempt to present a snapshot picture of the river, fishing and the club and its business in the beginning of its life. As a snapshot it automatically omits more than it reveals. It is inevitable that the snapshot process mentions some names but omits very many. Many Officers, Committeemen, Club Bailiffs who have given loyal and meritorious service for free over many years have not received a mention. I hope they will understand why and forgive. Their reward is (for many) and will be in Heaven?!

As the last surviving Founder-Member, I am conscious of how fortunate a fisher I have been to have enjoyed 50+ years, an integral part of the club organisation and of continual contact with fishing on club waters. "There's much more to fishing than catching fish" is a truism that I can vouch for 150%.

It is a striking fact also that the basics underlying fishing remain the same. Yet the last 50 years or more have been a period of very dynamic change. The river and valley environment has changed and is changing almost week by week. The salmon and sea trout are back and accepted as a normal fact (itself a miracle of nature); scientific control on pollution; and historical changes in industrial processes and manufacturing have had on balance a benign influence. The coal pits have gone; individual travel by car has supplanted public transport; technological progress with new science made materials has revolutionised fishing tackle. Change continues apace. Overall and despite failures and tragedies with the environment such as Dieldrin and opencast coal development, the fishing available is probably better than ever. More importantly it is available to all who wish to fish, despite the problems. Problems in a changing world will continue. As long as our Association maintains its dynamism and the support of its members, the problems will, as in the early years, be contained.

Howard Hopkin


6 Feb 2009