Eisteddfod opens in former steel town Ebbw Vale

Only Boys Aloud and Only Men Aloud Pic: Patrick Olner
Image caption Boys to men: Only Boys Aloud join forces with Only Men Aloud at the Eisteddfod's opening concert

The National Eisteddfod welcomed 14,702 visitors on its first Saturday on the former steelworks site in Ebbw Vale.

It is the first time the week-long festival has been to the Blaenau Gwent town since 1958.

The choirs Only Men Aloud and Only Boys Aloud, were among the acts at Friday's opening concert.

Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan was an early visitor and said it showed the "phoenix-like qualities of our valleys".

Billed as a festival for the whole of the heads of the valleys region, free tickets for Sunday have been sent to local people who applied for them.

More than 160,000 people are expected to visit to the week-long festival.

Mrs Gillan, who was given a tour of the Maes and the underground art pavilion by Eisteddfod chief executive Elfed Roberts.

She also met Meri Huws, Welsh Language Board chair and the new interim chief executive of S4C, Arwel Ellis Owen.

Mrs Gillan said: "What is wonderful is having the Eisteddfod on a site which is being regenerated which shows the Phoenix-like qualities of our valleys.

"I hope that the visitors will come here to sample real Welsh life and real Welsh culture at the heart of the valleys.

"It's important that the Eisteddfod continues to travel and visit different areas of the country. It shows you, particularly coming to this area which is not traditionally being a Welsh language-speaking area, that the Welsh language and Welsh culture belongs to every corner of Wales so it's particular a strong message.

"I also hope there will be a legacy here."

Mrs Gillan also said she would like the profile of the Eisteddfod outside Wales to be higher.

"I've being talking to the chief executive this morning and it's 150 years old next year and we have been talking about how to extend the profile. I think it's a show that should be a destination for people across the UK and abroad. It really has everything here, art, music, poetry, language, and even food."

In addition to the musical, literary and artistic events, there are more than 350 stalls and shops, with other attractions including an art exhibition in an underground bunker, robots playing football and giant talking human models.

A special guest over weekend is a two-tonne cast iron pit pony.

It is one of five pit pony sculptures to be put up in Blaenavon later this year, as part of an assembly government regeneration initiative to encourage tourism in and around Blaenavon.

Although Ebbw Vale is outside the traditional Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, the organisers hope that people from across the Heads of the Valleys will become involved.

Image caption It is hoped that the pit pony sculptures will become visitor attractions in the head of the valleys area

Research into the 2006 and 2008 eisteddfods indicates the event can generate as much as £8m for the local economy of the host area.

The annual cultural festival is taking place on the 185-acre former steelworks site before construction begins on the £300m regeneration project, including housing, education, arts, leisure, business and transport.

The American singer and activist Paul Robeson was guest at the festival when it was last at Ebbw Vale.

He was a guest of the town's MP, Aneurin Bevan, the former Labour cabinet minister.

Paul Robeson's granddaughter Susan will attend as a visiting fellow of Swansea University, which is unveiling an educational resource based on his life and work and inviting people to share their memories of him.

Visitors to this year's eisteddfod field - the maes - who are carrying an iPhone can to download an app with the details about the events being held.

The Blaenau Gwent and Heads of the Valleys National Eisteddfod is held at The Works, Ebbw Vale, from 31 July-7 August.

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