The lost boys of St Athan

Joe Calzaghe is one of those fighting to stop the cenotaph in a holiday camp for young colliers being vandalised

The boys have long gone from St Athan Boys' Village. Its dormitories, church and the canteen that fed 200 boisterous young colliers enjoying a free holiday are now burnt and dilapidated. The ruin, on a windswept plot near Barry, south Wales, is the only known monument to a unique experiment aimed at giving teenagers a respite from doing the work of men, six days a week, in the filthy blackness of their country's coal mines. But nowthe former holiday village faces the threat of total erasure.

Founded close to the sea on the outskirts of West Aberthaw in 1925 by the Boys' Club Movement, St Athan was a place for the poorest boys of the mining community to take a week's summer holiday, a chance to be children again.

Now their teenage descendants in West Aberthaw use it as a different kind of playground: a focus for vandalism, drink and destruction.

One of their most popular targets is the cenotaph at the heart of the holiday village, dedicated to the memory of "the youth of all nations who fell that war might end, by the boys of the South Wales coalfield".

This year on Remembrance Sunday, just a handful of those who remember the memorial's significance scaled the broken boulders at the entrance to the camp to pay their respects. There is a steep decline in attendance from years gone by when (in 1962) the Queen Mother visited.

By next November there may be nothing left for even a handful to visit. An order protecting the cenotaph and central square of the St Athan village runs out – and the entire area is at risk of being demolished.

To Clive Thomas, 74, a former general secretary of the Boys' Club Movement and World Cup referee, the village is a symbol of the decline of the coal industry, once the lifeblood of Wales. "There's no money left in the valleys," he said this weekend. "The collieries are gone and people are moving out to work. There's no community any more. We need boys' clubs more than ever."

Mr Thomas, who officiated in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups and the 1976 European Championship, is spearheading a campaign to save the cenotaph. "I don't cry often, but tears came to my eyes when I saw it [earlier this month]. I looked at the old canteen, the dormitories, the church that was built by the miners when they were on strike – and I thought, 'How many kids have gone through these gates? How many of them fought and died?' What's happened to the place shows a complete lack of respect."

He and the former Welsh international football players John Hartson, Alan Curtis and Clayton Blackmore are just a few of the now-famous names who honed their skills at the St Athan football, cricket and rugby pitches after they were opened up in the 1960s to all local community, including girls.

The retired world boxing champion Joe Calzaghe has "fond memories" of the place.

"It's really sad that it has been left to decay like this," he said, "particularly with the war memorial at the centre. I fully support the campaign to get it cleaned up as it's a fitting tribute to people who died fighting for our country. It should be looked after."

At one time the holiday village had international appeal, receiving visitors from Germany, America and Japan. But the advent of cheap package holidays in the 1970s marked the start of its decline. In 1990 the land was sold to developers, then abandoned.

Joff Carroll, acting chief executive for Clubs for Young People Wales, the body that took over from the Boys' Club Movement, has formed a save-the-memorial committee, but said it would cost £10,000 to get the monument cleaned and re-sited. "It's very important to the families here. It's the only one in the area. We've got no intention of letting our cenotaph be bulldozed."

But there is disagreement between those who want it to remain in situ and those who want it moved to a museum. Alun Cairns, MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, said removing the stone should be the final resort. "When I saw the memorial I was absolutely livid," he said. "Relocation is the last option. It's one of the last links between the miners and the community they died trying to protect."

According to Clubs Young People UK, the decline of the village is "unique" to St Athan – there are few reports of other villages across the country even existing, let alone suffering similar decay.

Amy Davidson, conservation officer for the War Memorials Trust, said any decisions depended on the future of the site. "It is very sad to see the condition the memorial is in, compared with when the village was in use. The trust recommends that relocation of memorials should be a last resort, so as to retain the link between those commemorated by the memorial and the site, which also holds significance with Wales's industrial heritage."

There was a glint of hope four years ago, when a property firm sought permission to build 12 houses on the site. But work has not started because of what the developer R Thomas Esquire calls "impossible restrictions".

Until then, the monument will stay where it is, at the mercy of drunken teenage vandals and the ravages of time. It will wait, amid squalor, for someone to stand by the pledge made by the boys of the South Wales coalfield to "dedicate themselves to complete the task so nobly begun".