The dark satanic mills (of the industrial revolution?)

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Around the time of the 2012 olympic games, the main site for which was Stratford in east London, I heard a fascinating talk about the “remediation” of the site from the pollution caused by its industrial chemical heritage. Here I visit another, arguably much more famous and indeed older industrial site.

The remediation of Stratford involved the removal, cleaning and returning of a vast amount of topsoil, something which was not cheap to do. About 190 miles west of Stratford lies what is called the lower Swansea (Abertawe) valley, through which the river Tawe runs. The remediation has taken 50 years or more using far less money than at the Stratford site. It is famous as being the world’s largest copper smelting area during the industrial revolution, using copper ore from Cornwall and coal from Welsh coalfields. An unfortunate by-product of using Cornish ore was that it contained large amounts of sulfur in the form of copper sulfide, which was liberated in the form of sulfurous and sulfuric acids. I remember hearing in the talk mentioned above that the acid rain produced from the smelting killed almost all plant life and trees in the locality. Unsurprisingly, the life expectancy amongst the workers was also low. Over the 200 or so years of smelting, what little plant life that did survive apparently developed an extraordinary tolerance to copper in the soil and no doubt the flora is nowadays of much interest for that reason to molecular biologists.

Well, nowadays it is certainly a green and pleasant land, but in the past it is tempting to associate it with the dark satanic mills of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem. To give a tiniest flavour of what the valley might have looked like, here is a photograph, with the river Tawe in the foreground. Apparently there were 100s of such chimneys along the valley. It has certainly changed now, and the walk along the river valley is very pleasant indeed!

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