The rain seeps down the train window in flecked torrents. There are only five disparate passengers in the carriage, but the combined body heat forms a steamy fog on the glass, obscuring the view as we cut through the lush south Wales countryside between Cardiff and Port Talbot.
Awaiting us is a sodden spectacle. An early Saturday morning wash out. Shoppers are so scarce on the semi-covered pedestrian thoroughfare that one could be forgiven for thinking that some nuclear apocalypse had taken the steel town down. The bright lights of the up-and-at-‘em-early charity shops illuminate the watery pavements. Somewhere behind me, steam evaporating into the Tupperware sky, the vast Port Talbot steelworks belches and hums. An ever-present feature of the landscape, now threatened with the same fate which has befallen other steel plants across the United Kingdom.
Under a sturdy canvas canopy, sandwiched between a giant Tesco and the town’s shopping centre a group of people gather to shows solidarity, gather signatures and mutter darkly under the funereal sky about the fate of the plant. Interspersed between talk of saving the steelworks are more common complaints: “bloody weather. I can’t wait for summer,” intones one woman. “But summer’s just like this,” comes the retort from a man who looks as if he’s spent the morning in the shower, fully clothed. Competing with this throng is a man with a bicycle laden with onions for sale: ‘Last day’ reads a mournful sign attached to the bike.
I decide to grasp the soaking nettle and walk out towards the Tata-owned steelworks, by way of an arterial road which leaves the town behind me like a broody, surly neighbour. There’s not much to see, except the sights and sounds of industry: a faint wheezing noise and steaming plumes swirling towards the watery heavens indicate production continuing. But for how long, in the wake of 700 redundancies, it’s hard to know.
My next stop is the town’s homely little football club. South Wales football competes bravely against its more illustrious cousin rugby union. Nevertheless, the passion amongst the small, colourfully-hatted supporters of Port Talbot Town FC is tangible as they cheer their team on to a cup win on a pitch which has been lined using baking flour at the referee’s insistence in order that the match may proceed.
I learn that the club was formed by a Scottish family who came south to work in the steel industry. it’s a poignant discovery for me as it forms a link with my photographs from the project The Fall and Rise of Ravenscraig which I opened at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre two days previously. The parallels between Motherwell and Port Talbot are striking. Let’s just hope that their fates are not the same and that Port Talbot can survive the loss of part of its major industry with less damage and despair that engulfed Motherwell when Europe’s largest hot strip mill was closed in 1992.
I’m wished well and sent on my way by smiling football fans. Their team has won three-nil. A small slit in the sky reveals a short pause in the rain, however, it proves to be just a hiatus between downpours. By the time I board the train back to Cardiff, Port Talbot is fast disappearing into a gloomy gloam. Here’s hoping the sun is shining in more ways than one tomorrow.