As the days count down to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral Monday, Gaynor Madgwick has been of two minds: Should she watch the ceremony from her home in South Wales or join the crowds in London to pay her respects in person?
Her brain says stay. Madgwick, 64, has feared crowds and confined spaces since an avalanche of slurry — a mixture of debris from a coal mine and water — cascaded down the hillside above her village of Aberfan in 1966. One of the worst civilian disasters in contemporary British history, the avalanche crushed the village school; killed 144 villagers, 116 of them children; and left Madgwick trapped, but alive, beneath the rubble.
Her heart says go. The queen built an unusually strong relationship with Aberfan, beginning in the days after that very disaster and extending through four visits the queen made to the village.
“She was the guardian angel of Aberfan,” Madgwick said one afternoon last week. “It was a lifelong friendship.”
To many Britons, the death of Elizabeth — the ever-present backdrop to a century of dramatic social change — has felt like a rug snatched from beneath them, even if they never met or saw her.
The mood in Aberfan, with its rare connection to the queen, is an acute illustration of that feeling.
To be sure, the queen’s death and the resulting pageantry, set against fast-rising costs of living, have also been met by some in Aberfan with relative indifference and even frustration. As in other parts of Britain, it was a jolt that has awakened in some people a sense of alienation from the monarchy; frustration at the central government in London; and a gentle reassessment of national identity that, in Wales, includes calls for an independent Welsh state.
But the dominant mood in Aberfan — a village of gray roofs and sandstone walls in a narrow Welsh valley — is one of quiet loss. The four visits the queen made are an almost unimaginable number for a village of roughly 3,500 residents.
In the process, she made many villagers, hundreds of them still traumatised from the devastation of 1966, feel blessed and recognised by the highest person in the land, even as they felt betrayed by other arms of the British state.
“She looked over us; she protected us; she had sympathy; she had empathy,” Madgwick said. “The queen has never let us down.”
The queen first arrived in Aberfan, a village built mostly in the 19th century to serve the local coal mine, in October 1966. Her visit was later reenacted in “The Crown,” the television series inspired by the queen’s life.
Eight days earlier, waste from the mine, dumped for years on the hilltop above the village, had suddenly slipped down after a period of heavy rainfall. It was shortly before 9.15 am on the last day before the school year’s half-term break, and the students, ages 6 to 11, had only just arrived.
Madgwick was 8 at the time. As her class began a math lesson, a wave of debris — almost 10 yards high in places and roughly the volume of 15 Olympic swimming pools — thundered through the school and the houses near it, killing just under half of the children there that day.
Madgwick survived, her leg broken by a dislodged radiator. Her sister and brother, Marilyn and Carl, both died.
The scale of the disaster quickly made it a moment of national introspection and trauma, and the queen soon decided to visit.
One of the biggest regrets of her reign was that she did not go sooner, a leading aide later said, and some villagers say the eight-day delay rankled the community at the time. But today, the residents largely remember her arrival as a moving gesture of solidarity from someone they never expected to lay eyes on.
Citing eyewitnesses, villagers say she briefly cried after receiving a bouquet of flowers from survivors — immortalising her in village folklore by appearing as a mortal.
“When I close my eyes, I can see her,” said Denise Morgan, 67, who lost a sister in the disaster and was among the crowd that welcomed the queen.
“She didn’t come as a queen — she came as a mother,” Morgan said. “The loss, and the anguish, was just etched on her face.”
That alone would have been enough to guarantee the queen a place in the folklore of most villages. But she returned in 1973 to open a community center, in 1997 to plant a tree on the site of the disaster and in 2012 to open a new school.
Over the years, she also hosted wives, mothers and sisters of the victims at Buckingham Palace, heard recitals by a choir led by male relatives of the victims, and gave chivalric honours to several villagers. The connection lasted until even the day before she died, when teachers at the new school opened a letter that courtiers had sent its students on the queen’s behalf.
Throughout those decades, changes to the economy and social fabric of Aberfan epitomised wider shifts in the country at large. The coal mine, once the hub of the community and driver of the local economy, shut — along with hundreds of mines across Britain. That drove many people to find work outside the village, often in the service industry, thinning out communal life. Several chapels and churches closed, amid a wider drop in religious belief, as did the village tailor shops and hardware store.
The pivot from a coal economy “ripped the heart out” of the community, said Dai Powell, 61, a former miner and a childhood friend of several disaster victims. “Now we don’t want coal; it’s basically destroying the planet,” Powell added. “But it was livelihoods, wasn’t it?”
There were other costs as well. Nearly half of the survivors were found to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Other wings of the British state angered the village by refusing to prosecute any coal industry officials for negligence. Successive governments also declined to cover the whole cost of removing other dangerous slurry tips near the village, forcing villagers to dip into donations intended for survivors, until they were finally fully reimbursed in 2007.
But the queen’s concern for Aberfan meant that she was seen as separate from the state’s indifference, despite being its titular head.
Elsewhere in Britain, people have debated whether the queen could really ever rise beyond politics, given the monarch’s interest in maintaining her own role in Britain’s political system. But in Aberfan, there was less doubt.
“There’s no political agenda there,” said Jeff Edwards, 64, the last child to be rescued from the rubble. “The queen is above all that.”
In Aberfan, most people expressed sympathy for her family and respect for her sense of duty. But there are those, particularly among young generations, who have had a more ambivalent response to the queen’s death.
For some, the accession of King Charles III — as well as the abrupt appointment of his son William to his former role of Prince of Wales — is more problematic.
“I should be Prince of Wales; I’m more Welsh than Charles or William,” said Darren Martin, 47, a gardener in the village, with a laugh. Of the queen, he said: “Don’t get me wrong; I admire the woman. But I do think the time has come for us in Wales to be ruled by our own people.”
The abruptness of the queen’s death was a psychological jolt that has prompted, in some, a rethinking of long-held norms and doctrines.
“If things can change drastically like that, why can’t things change here?” asked Jordan McCarthy, 21, another gardener in Aberfan. “I would like Welsh independence.”
Of a monarchy, he added: “Only if they’re born and raised in Wales — that’s the only king or queen I’ll accept.”
Generally, though, the mood in Aberfan has been one of quiet mourning and deference. The local library opened a book of condolence. Villagers gathered in the pub to watch the new king’s speeches and processions. Some left bouquets beside the tree planted by the queen.
On Monday night, a men’s choir, founded by grieving relatives half a century ago, gathered for their biweekly practice. Proud Welshmen, they were preparing for their next performance — singing songs and hymns, some of them in Welsh, on the sidelines of the Welsh rugby team’s upcoming game.
But halfway through, the choir’s president, Steve Beasley, stood up.
“We all know about the queen,” Beasley said. “Please stand up for a minute’s silence.”
(Written by Patrick Kingsley)