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When The West Wind Blows

Sally Low | United Kingdom

Coal Depot

In 2007, as many communities continued to feel the ill-effects of previous mining closures, the Welsh Assembly granted planning approval for the Foss-y-Fran opencast mine in Merthyr Tydfil. It became one of the largest opencast mines in Europe, with a promise of long-term regeneration for the area. 

The following years of waste, poor air quality, illness and constant disturbances meant that when developers applied to extend the mine to Nant Llesg in 2011, thousands of people voiced their opposition. Nant Llesg, an ancient common North of Fochriw and West of Rhymney, provides numerous habitats of biodiversity, along with rare flora and fauna. No number of jobs nor promises of economic regeneration could compensate for the reality of living in close proximity to essentially another toxic dumping ground.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of local residents and support of environmental groups and campaigners, the planning application was  finally rejected in 2018.

This photo essay is a love letter to the people of Rhymney and those in the towns surrounding Nant Llesg – a celebration of resilience and community spirit in divisive times.

Coal is the ancestral lifeblood of Britain’s production history. During the Industrial Revolution it came to be known as ‘black gold’ and helped to propel the nation onto the global manufacturing stage. Wales’ role in the UK’s coal production history was pivotal and at one point employed some quarter of a million men who extracted the coal that kept not only the UK economy afloat, but provided critical support for the Welsh mining towns and villages.

These areas came to be dependent on coal for their survival, and so the eventual decline of the industry heralded economic disaster for regions that have now long since been forgotten by those that championed them in their mining heydays. Between 1947 and 1994, some 950 mines were closed by the UK government which deemed them an unnecessary expense. The miners' strike of 1984-85, did little to change the government’s course of action. They would simply import coal, more cheaply, from elsewhere.

Once-thriving mining areas were left decimated, hit by economic collapse that prevails to this day. Welsh towns in former mining areas repeatedly report higher levels of poverty and unemployment than their comparative non-mining counterparts. And yet, until recently several towns have been unable to escape the painful reminders of the past with opencast mining continuing against this backdrop of economic anguish.

Sally Low is a documentary photographer and cinematographer. Many of Sally’s projects engage with communities affected by industry or development. These are often marginalised communities living in “forgotten areas” where high levels of poverty, health and social issues make them an easy target for exploitation. Focusing on communities and individuals who confront big business against all odds and with great courage, hope and resilience.

Sally Low





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