One of my earliest childhood memories was watching our crackling and fizzing little black and white television when the news of the Aberfan disaster was being broadcast. I am not going to pretend I remember the exact details – of course not: I was a young child – but the event is clear enough in my mind. On 21st October 1966, 116 children and 28 adults died when tip number seven above the town slid down and engulfed the local primary school. Yesterday, during a short tour of South Wales, we decided to pay a visit to Aberfan.
The only place we wanted to visit was the Memorial Garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School. Under grey skies and some occasional drizzle, we parked outside. There is a small plaque at the entrance, plus a number of benches named after various people. The paths and flowerbeds were not laid at random. They follow the classrooms and corridors of the school of which there is no longer a trace.
Aberfan is not a tourist attraction. There is no visitors centre, there are no guides; nothing apart from the Memorial Garden, which tells its own story. Next to the garden is the Coventry playground for young children, so named because after the disaster the people of Coventry clubbed together and paid for it. When we were there, small children were playing on the equipment which, we felt, was exactly right.
We covered pretty well every corner of the garden. It didn’t take long. There were trees planted by the Queen and the Prince of Wales. The story has been told that back in 1966, the normally stoical Queen was in floods of tears after seeing the aftermath of the disaster. I am not surprised.
Aside from the Memorial Garden and the playground, there is little to remind you of what once happened there. A few gardeners were hard at work when we got there but when their hedgecutters were switched off, the silence almost overwhelmed us. A few other people were there to visit, too, and we observed one woman taking photographs which, to us, just didn’t seem right. Or was that me just being over-sensitive? It had never occurred to us to take pictures because, like watching the news reports in my childhood, they were already etched in my mind. Nature has recovered from man’s plundering of the hillsides, although some still talk of risks from the other tips high above the town. I hope there are no risks. No town deserves this to happen once, never mind twice.
I don’t know if we paid our respects or not. I’m not sure what that actually means. But I’d like to think we were respectful as walked slowly around the garden, thinking about this most awful of tragedies. Our brief visit over, we drove out of town, having never had the slightest intention of visiting the cemetery where those who perished on that dark day rest in peace. I could justify visiting the Memorial Garden. The cemetery would, at least to us, have felt like intruding on private grief.
A day on, I close my eyes and the garden is crystal clear in my mind. I don’t think I will ever forget our visit and I don’t think I want to, either. The children who died would now be in their sixties. Who knows where their lives would have taken them, how many children they might have had. Almost 54 years on, it’s still too much to take in. And I live half the world away.