Seaside Special - Bay Watch: South Wales

Near the end of June 2021 and the station car park at Berkhamsted was quiet for that time of day. Covid-19 was still gripping the country with the steely fingers of the new Delta variant. The 10.30am to Euston was empty and might have been an untimetabled ghost service that rail companies use to fulfil requirements of ancient transport legislation. 

Heading out to Cardiff was a different story though. A train curiously packed with passengers wielding wheelie trolleys and ruck sacks. Foreign travel was still an amber or red list hazard, so airports wouldn’t be seeing much action; and the train didn’t call at any obvious tourist destinations. Then it clicked. England were playing Sri Lanka in an international T20 that evening in Cardiff. That would be the reason for all the sports tops as well, then.

The seat reservations policy of GWR was designed to comply with social distancing restrictions. It was a causing problems. A restless couple relocated to the seats behind me after being shunted from further up the carriage. They were bagged up to the hilt, but they and thought they had lost one of them. They weren’t cricket fans though. In fact the bloke had a passing resemblance to a young Gareth Malone, choir-meister extraordinaire. He jumped up and explored the area around their previous seats for the errant rucksack, but came back empty handed and shook his head. His partner was starting to sound anxious. ‘Did we leave it on the concourse? Did we pick it up from Burger King? I had it at the ticket office…!’. Then, ‘Oh wait! It’s on my back!’ I chuckled. Gareth looked relieved. Almost enough for a spontaneous carriage sing-a-long of ‘Sweet Caroline’? Maybe not. 

This Cardiff trip was partly work related. I had a meeting planned with a theatre group based at the Wales Millennium Centre on Cardiff Bay. The building is a stunningly engineered arts complex and opened in phases between November 2004 and January 2009.  I didn’t get to see inside sadly, courtesy of our ever-present virus, but my colleague James and I had a stroll around the knot of landmark buildings on the bay front and settled over a coffee at Cadwalladrs on Mermaid Quay. Quietly enjoying the old and the new in harmony. The striking Gothic, russet-bricked Pierhead building, once the focal point of this tidal dockland’s exportation of coal, has been re-invented as a conference and event venue. It’s part of the next-door glass and steel Senedd complex, home to the Welsh Assembly. The transparent building material and clear sight-lines emphasising open-decision making, no doubt. It was closed that day...

The bay is now a freshwater lake following the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barage over at Penarth and is studded with marinas, wetlands and nature reserves, offices and various shopping and leisure opportunities in amongst the preserved dock paraphernalia. One operating commercial dock remains in business at the very north eastern tip the bay, beyond the barrage (sounds like a 1960’s war movie with Richard Burton…)

The Wales Millennium Centre replaced an earlier project for the site, the Cardiff Bay Opera House which had a dramatic, radical, avant-garde design by Zaha Hadid. Controversially, the project failed to win funding from the Millennium Commission and the finances didn’t stack up. It was never built. This subsequent design did, eventually, attract Commission funding. However, it took so long to get approval that Cardiff Council had to buy the land. The previous owners were threatening to build a retail centre on the site. How lovely would that have been in such an important location. 

Work meeting finished, I strode off westward to check out the other parts of the bay, only momentarily caught in verbal skirmish with of a bunch of lairy Cardiff ladies outside the Mount Stuart pub, already well-lubricated by mid-afternoon, sporting dayglo dresses wrapped around orange bodies and heavily made-up eyes that didn’t miss a trick, despite being shielded by thick, spidery lashes. 

‘Here’s a looker for you Ceri, sugar daddy and no mistake! Show us your wad boyo! My Mam likes the little ones. Come over and buy us some shots!’ I managed a cheery ‘Afternoon ladies’ in tandem with my best cheesy smile. And scarpered.  

I’d got my breath back by the time I passed the Graving Docks and then turned back towards the city centre through Butetown. This was a neglected, pretty rough area. So often regeneration only touches the public, obvious parts of a town and barely scratches the surface of estates that have known nothing but generational poverty. That was the feel around here. A lot of the housing in Butetown dated from a 1960’s estate design brief that emphasised cramped streets linked by dark alleys, cheap building materials, poor lighting and tiny outside spaces. I could see plenty of blocks that were in a poor state of repair. The open space that runs the spine of the area – Canal Park - was a bare, rubbish strewn stretch populated by knots of vaguely intimidating young people zipping about on bastardised bikes and older folks huddled round benches necking White Lightning. 

Butetown feels cut off, surrounded by expensive new developments around the Bay – such as Atlantic Wharf, built on the reclaimed West Bute Dock. The main route from the city centre to the docks bypasses Butetown along a newly constructed four-lane boulevard to the east. The housing needs renewing. Plans are afoot and it is to be hoped they deliver a better environment than the last attempt. 

The area has always been an integral part of the dockland and its fortunes closely tied to it. Formerly known as ‘Tiger Bay’ it was home to multi-national settlers who helped to build the docks, worked on the ships and serviced this industrial and maritime city. Alongside the red-light district and gambling dens, Tiger Bay has always been home to a rich mix of multi-racial communities and retained a powerful character of its own. Its most famous former resident is singer Shirley Bassey.

When the docks declined, so did Tiger Bay. This from Cardiff Docks archive: 

    “By the 1880’s, Cardiff had transformed from one of the smallest towns in Wales to the largest and its port was handling more coal than any other port in the world. On the eve of the First World War in 1913, coal exports reached their peak at over 13 million tonnes. 

    After the Second World War, demand for coal slumped and international markets were lost as other countries developed their own steel industries. Trade was increasingly lost to container ports and by the 1960’s coal exports had virtually ceased.

    By the early 1980’s Cardiff Bay had become a wasteland of derelict docks and mudflats. Its population suffered from social exclusion and had above average levels of unemployment.”

Mid-afternoon and I was back in central Cardiff and ready for the next instalment of Bay Watch, a short trip over to Whitmore Bay - possibly better known as Barry Island - for a flagrant homage to Gavin and Stacy. Lush. 

The train meandered south west from Cardiff, eventually running adjacent to Barry Docks, built in the late Victorian period to relieve congestion at those in Cardiff. They are now both owned by the same company. Building the docks involved excavating the sound between Barry Island and the mainland: pumping out the water, constructing dams, locks, port buildings, rail heads and marshalling yards that meant Barry was technically no longer an island. 

Most of the rail sidings and tracks have gone, buried beneath a housing estate and an Asda superstore, but enough remain to stir the hearts of pioneering rail enthusiasts up and down the country. Following the withdrawal of steam from Britain’s railways in the late 1950’s, many obsolete many locomotives were laid up here, ready to be chopped up in Woodham Brothers scrapyard. Dai Woodham had won a long term contract from British Rail for the disposal work. Over 297 locos arrived at the marshalling yard for scrappage. However, they became a magnet for the burgeoning rail preservation movement and over many years, groups and individuals negotiated purchases with Woodham Brothers and BR that led to 213 of the 297 locos being saved for restoration. The last one left this piece of hallowed industrial wasteland in 2013. 

Barry Island is magnificent. You step off the train and in to half-closed, all-rundown Island pleasure park, feet crunching on pot-holed gravel past a sign that proclaims the fair’s existence since 1920 alongside a broken down lorry that may have been there since it opened. 

Through the empty rides, slides and stalls and out onto the pristine lawned gardens that sweep down to the long, tidy (of course), prom. The beach is sandy, clean and well marshalled with lifeguards observing families dipping in the twinkling safe-swimming zone. Later I see members of a silver-surfer swimming club deliberately flouting the zone by splashing about in the spray under the cliffs towards the eastern end of the bay. Here the promenade ended in a series of well-kept beach huts, colonnades and open spaces. The concrete retaining wall of a zig-zag path up the cliff had been bejewelled with brightly coloured plastic shapes to spell out ‘Ynis Y Barri’ in four-foot lettering.

Ambling along the cliff paths westwards, I arrived at the bit of Barry Island that most folks would recognise: the café, funfair and particularly the amusements at the far end of the prom where the fictional Nessa terrorises the punters. ‘Guess where I am then!’ I asked on the family WhatsApp over a photo of an advert for ‘Nessa’s Slots – come and see what’s occurrin’!’ Daughter No 2 replied with grinning emojis. Daughter No1, on the other hand, said ‘omg, I didn’t even realise it was a real place!’ I threaten to bring back a tea towel listing Smithy’s personal Indian take-away order (see below).

Talking of curries. Back in Cardiff I hooked up with Steve who had recently become engaged to a family friend and whom I hadn’t known long. (Their 70’s theme wedding party was a splendid glamtastic mash up, featured in the previous episode of this series.) So this was a great opportunity to chew the fat out of a rather fine spread of sub-continental dishes at Spice Quarter. The restaurant was built on the site of the former Brains Brewery. An ideal re-purposing. Filthy muck. 

The adjacent area around Caroline Street was buzzing with late night bars and restaurants. Steve had moved from a small village near Newport to suburban Cardiff. He had taken well to city living and indeed Cardiff had plenty going for it. 

Next morning I picked up the trail at Caroline Street and up St Mary’s Street as far as Cardiff Castle, admiring Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades left and right: Morgan, Wyndhams and Royal were just three of the most charming. Where St Mary’s Street ran into High Street I couldn’t help but notice how inviting the boutique gin houses and speciality bars looked, even at 10.30am. There’s was time for a quick butchers’ through the imposing gates at Cardiff Castle and its timeline of architectural dabbling: 20th century reconstructed barbican and South Gate, Victorian Clock Tower and opulent Gothic revival house, Roman wall, and the Norman shell keep and banked earth defences. A fantastic hotchpotch of styles and trends set in superb grounds, much of the ambitious work carried out by the Earls of Bute who also gave their name to the area of dockland I’d visited the day before.  

Back at the station, I bumped into a few of the cricket fans returning home after England had beaten Sri Lanka whilst I was necking ale and smashing up a curry. They told me the game had been a bit of  damp squib amongst all the rain. I raised an eyebrow. I’d been in town for over 24 hours and hadn’t seen any bad weather. The curious micro-climate of Cardiff.  The supporters headed east and I climbed aboard a quiet westbound service to Swansea. 

Swansea city centre was not that much to speak of, to be fair, but walking over to Mumbles around the bay was an unalloyed joy. Why did no-one tell me how perfect this bay is? Sometimes you gotta get out there and find these things for yourself. I guess that’s the point of these posts. 

If you look at the bay on a map, the shape resembles a surfers’ wave in profile. Even though the day was dull and visibility far from perfect, I could easily make out the steel works at Port Talbot, venting grey smoke into a cloudy sky, framed by blue-tinged hills behind. Mordor anyone? This marked the most obvious point at the start of the bay, forming the base of the surfer’s wave in my mind’s eye. Panning to the left I could make out Aberavon, the mouth of River Neath and then round to Swansea Docks on the cusp of the bay-wave. This is where I’d begun my walk that morning. I had joined the path beyond the Civic Centre which ran next to brightly decorated guest houses. One b&b, resplendent in post box red walls and white corner stones was called Devon View. I scoffed. Then looked to my left to make out the undulating profile of the Lynton and Lynmouth coastline rising in misty greys over the horizon, which I’d mistaken for low cloud. I had stopped for a toasted ham and pepper ciabatta roll on the terrace of a bayside café and then carried on through the delightful Mumbles village up past the pier and onto Mumbles Head. Here I was recovering with a non-alcoholic fizzy pop. This is where the map bay-wave curled over and broke on the rocks of the promontory. In my imagination at least. 

Mumbles. No need to murmur. I’m saying it clearly: add this fine place to the list. I immediately created a Rightmove alert. Enough good looking pubs and eateries along the ‘Mumbles Mile’ to keep even the most thirsty and hungry in check; a smattering of culture and history courtesy of Dylan Thomas (the poet, not the race horse) and Oystermouth Castle; and that gorgeous stretch of rocky outcrop that forms two islets whose shape gives Mumbles its name – derived from the French mamelles for breasts. The headland also hosts the lighthouse and shields, on the south side the twin bays of Bracelet and Limeslade; and on east side the pier, the RNLI station and the boathouse. 

The pier was a stunning bit of Victorian engineering that previously served as the terminus for a rail service from Swansea. Opened in 1907 as a horse-drawn service, it was the first regular railway passenger service in the World, carrying visitors from the city centre to the headland. By the time the axe fell, in yet another act of 60’s public transport vandalism, the service had become tram operated. I can’t think of a better way to arrive at this splendid location. 

The town differed from other resorts I’ve seen on this tour because there was no sense of faded-glory or hastening decay about the place. Well-kept houses and shops, no obvious signs of run-down abandonment and streets so tidy even Nessa would have approved. But it was alarmingly quiet. As had been the walk over from  Swansea. I boarded a bus back to town (in the long absence of the tram from the end of the pier) and put this down to the variable impact of Covid and the stuttering, irregular reopening and recovery of pretty much everything. A year later, as I write up this trip, those sentiments still ring true. 

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous chapter: Ding-Dong, Avon calling

Next episode: Pembrokeshire


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