“The thing that fascinates me about them is how anyone in their right mind thought they were okay,” Jon Pountney says.

For the past seven years, the Trefforest-based photographer, has been capturing coal tips in the Valleys and beyond, as part of a project he calls “The Allure of Ruins”.

The title, he says, is inspired by an architectural trend of the 18th and 19th century - “follies” - decorative structures, often in gardens or parkland, built to look like historic buildings or ancient monuments.

The National Wales: Perhaps Wales's most famous folly is the Italianate village of Portmeirion (Photo: M McBey, CC BY 2.0)Perhaps Wales's most famous folly is the Italianate village of Portmeirion (Photo: M McBey, CC BY 2.0)

“The rich landowners would have them because it was kind of a fashion - ruins built in your land, to make it look like there had been ancient habitation there,” Jon says.

“There was a kind of romance to it.”

This tendency, he says, sits in stark contrast to the people of the Valleys - who for decades have lived among the ruins of the British coal industry, with very little say in the matter.

READ MORE: Welsh coal tip legacy: 'Doesn't anybody care?'

Jon says the pyramid-like shape of many spoil tips are reminiscent of Silbury Hill – a large man-made mound of chalk in Wiltshire, which dates back to prehistory and is theorised by some to be an ancient burial mound.

The National Wales:

The National Wales:

The National Wales: Photos: Jon PountneyPhotos: Jon Pountney

"I find it really interesting that you know, the spoil tips are now almost like, the burial mounds for the mining that took place in the Valleys,” he says.

“On the one hand, they’re the waste produce of the actual end prize of mining, but in a lot of ways they symbolise the death of that industry.”

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The National Wales: Top: Merthyr Tydfil; bottom: Llanbradach (Photos: Jon Pountney)Top: Merthyr Tydfil; bottom: Llanbradach (Photos: Jon Pountney)

Pountney was born in Yorkshire; his grandfather was a coal miner and photographer. He moved from the area at seven years-old, and after a spell in Stratford-on-Avon, settled in Cardiff and then Trefforest.

READ MORE: Dr Kathryn Speedy on eco distress

His photographs, most of them taken in Rhondda Cynon Taf, emphasise the sheer scale of the spoil tips.

Some, taken from the air by drone, take care to display how the tips often tower directly above the maze of terraced streets on the valley floor – particularly those featuring “Old Smoky” – an enormous spoil tip located in Llanwonno, so-named for its former tendency to give off steam in the rain.

The National Wales:

The National Wales: Llanwonno's gigantic "Old Smoky" coal tip, visible from miles away (Photo: Jon Pountney)Llanwonno's gigantic "Old Smoky" coal tip, visible from miles away (Photo: Jon Pountney)

Old Smoky sits just minutes away from the site of February 2020’s tip collapse in Tylorstown, which is still being cleared more than a year on.

Jon says: “I think if you're not from the area, you know, it’s quite shocking. You can see [Old Smoky] from Nantgarw.

“I think a lot of people are kind of blind to them. If you've been in that community all your life, the tips are there every day, and they’re just sort of part of the wallpaper, part of the landscape.

“But just consider the effort it must have taken to get all that waste up to the top of the valley - it’s just mad.

“They just put them anywhere, they didn’t give much thought to safety at all.”

The National Wales: Old Smoky, Llanwonno (Photo: Jon Pountney)Old Smoky, Llanwonno (Photo: Jon Pountney)

At the time that most tips were constructed, there was no policy on coal tip safety in the mining industry, and no real regulation written in law.

READ MORE:  Remembering the Aberfan Disaster: Neglect, horror, trauma

Coalfield historian Dr Ben Curtis told The National recently: “Extraordinarily, under the provisions of the Coal Mines and Quarries Act 1954, the Aberfan Disaster wasn’t technically a reportable incident, because it didn’t affect the colliery, and no colliery employees were injured.”

Mr Pountney, who says he’s been reading a lot about the Aberfan Disaster, visited the Tylorstown site to photograph the landslide as it was happening.

The National Wales: Scarring at the site of the Tylorstown tip collapse (Photo: Jon Pountney)Scarring at the site of the Tylorstown tip collapse (Photo: Jon Pountney)

“The sound of it was absolutely nuts,” he says.

“There were boulders as big as houses, just rolling down the hill and smashing into the river at the bottom.

“Once you see the force of it, you realise – of course houses and stuff are not going to stand a chance.”

There are more than 2,000 coal tips left in Wales, most of them in the south. New data released this week confirmed that around a quarter of tips in RCT, and half of those in Merthyr Tydfil, are classed as “higher risk”.

The National Wales: Llanbradach, Glamorgan (Photo: Jon Pountney)Llanbradach, Glamorgan (Photo: Jon Pountney)

Calls by the Welsh Government for greater funding help from Westminster were firmly rejected in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review on Wednesday.

Welsh Finance Minister Rebecca Evans commented: “Throughout this process we have been absolutely clear about the need for a package of investment to remediate coal tips.

“This funding has not come, and I’m deeply disappointed the UK government has turned it back on communities whose efforts created huge wealth for the UK - and who deserve so much better from the UK government.”

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The National Wales: Top: Ystrad, Rhondda; bottom: Risca, Caerphilly (Photos: Jon Pountney)Top: Ystrad, Rhondda; bottom: Risca, Caerphilly (Photos: Jon Pountney)

In Mr Pountney’s view, lack of UK government funding should not be a barrier to action.

“It’s like… Just get on with it,” he says.

“These kind of academic arguments about who's responsible… Just start the work, stop prevaricating.

“If something does happen again - that argument [about funding] is going to look totally stupid, isn't it?”

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