Tag Archives: caught by the river

A trip up Asbo Hill (aka Asda Hill, aka Grangemoor Park)

For the past year, I’ve been writing a column for Caught By The River, exploring the River Taff. My latest piece veers off course from the Taff and heads for the land in between the Taff and the River Ely, a place known as Penarth Moors – unassuming marshland before being turned into a municipal dump in the 1970s.

Here’s the piece in full – Wandering the River Taff: A Detour

But as usual, there was loads of stuff I couldn’t fit in the shorter piece, so I thought I’d sketch out all my research here. This is the area I’m talking about.

This was taken on a sunny day in late autumn 2017 …

At the end of their river flows, both the Ely and the Taff dump their waters into the same large basin (formerly the estuary – now the grander container that has given its name to the area surrounding it: into Cardiff Bay).

As well as ending in the same place, the Ely and the Taff have other parallels. Both have suffered the same extreme pollution problems: declared “dead rivers”, flowing black with sewage, coal dust and industrial waste they had picked up from the heavy industry of the valleys they flow through. Thanks to regulation and a lot of effort, both are in better shape than they were, and are now home to a variety of flora and fauna.

Both rivers have also had their natural courses altered by man: each straightened in sections to better fit our urban plans. The Taff was straightened by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th century to build Cardiff Central Station, while the Ely was straightened over a century later – less glamorously, to create more space for the Ferry Road landfill site.

Here’s a map of the same place from 1956 (From this NLS Map: ST17 (includes: Cardiff / Caerdydd; Penarth), published 1956). Note the mad wiggling of the River Ely as it heads out towards the Severn and compare with the map above.

The Ferry Road landfill was created in 1969 when the Ely was straightened by cutting off one of its bends. The empty river channel became a hole for Cardiff to throw all its crap into. The city  soon outgrew this hole, and we started dumping our waste across the salt marsh. By the time the tip was closed in 1994, it was one of the biggest in Britain.

At the height of its seafaring power, Cardiff was the biggest port in the world. But the city’s decline in fortunes over the 20th century was so severe, the topic was debated in Parliament repeatedly. After years of discussion, eventually, in 1987, the UK Government created the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, whose job was to improve or upgrade south Cardiff’s infrastructure and develop a plan for its future use. The Ferry Road and Ely Fields redevelopment was part of the much bigger project of building the Cardiff Bay Barrage, creating an artificial freshwater lake around the city’s waterfront area, covering 490-acres formed from the impounded waters of the Rivers Taff and Ely. It was a hugely controversial project, contested throughout its life. It still draws mixed reviews from residents.

The Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill only just squeaked through Parliament – you can read some of the debate (including discussion about what would happen to the Ferry Road tip) in the Hansard from 25 November, 1991.

Reading through the debate, you get a sense of the enormous complexity of the project. Regeneration of the area is of key importance … but much of the land is taken up by SSSI (sites of special scientific interest because of the flora or fauna). But for me, a key point is from Barry Jones MP (Alyn and Deeside):

There can be no doubt about the need for urban regeneration in the Cardiff docklands. The docks of Cardiff were at the centre of the coal-based prosperity of south Wales. Coal from the valleys of south Wales made Cardiff the world’s leading coal-exporting port. The decline of the docks has mirrored the decline of the south Wales coal industry. Now, with fewer than 2,000 workers in our pits, Cardiff docklands must find a new identity and a new prosperity. 

As part of the plans to improve the area, the Corporation proposed a new A road to link south and west Cardiff with the M4. The plan for this road – which is now the A4232, a road I drive on nearly every day – plotted its route straight through the middle of the tip. Once earthworks began, tipping was restricted just to the area to the north of the A4232. By the mid 1990s, this area towered almost 20 metres above the surrounding area.

If you’re interested in really getting into the detail of the area, this image is a 1960s aerial photograph of the area. It’s taken from a PhD submitted by a Cardiff University student in 2006: Development of Geoelectrical Techniques for Investigation and Monitoring of Landfills, by Andrew George.

Fast forward through time to 1988, and you can see how the river was shortened through diversion, and filled with rubbish. This next image is taken from the same publication …

This 1988 air photograph of the Ferry Road area shows how far the landfill extended from the initial river channel. It also shows the proposed development route for the A4232 – right through the centre of the site.

This view is from inside Grangemoor Park today, underneath the A4232 flyover. It’s fairly quiet, apart from the cars tearing along overhead.

The A4232 neatly splits the site into its two locations: Ferry Road landfill to the north, and Ely Fields to the south. The land of Ely Fields used to be brickworks, rope works, storage depots and scrapyards. A different kind of ‘Elysian’ – a distinctly south Walian, industrial one. Memories of our industrial history – industries we can no longer support, now Cardiff’s not the port it used to be. So a tip was what it became: shovelling endless tonnes of rubbish onto our heritage: burying it deep, deep underneath the consumerism of the 1970s and 80s.

As I mentioned in my Caught By The River post, during its lifetime, the Ferry Road municipal tip amassed four million cubic metres of household and commercial refuse. The initial plan to move all this crap to Bedford by rail was poo-pooed in the end, and the Cardiff Bay Corporation instead decided to pile all the rubbish up in one place, add an impermeable layer on top (which is why the park turns into a bog whenever it rains), and create a city park.

The following image shows you the detail around the layout of Grangemoor Park, including the extent of the old landfill site. This was taken from The Reactivation and Remediation of the Landfill Site at Ferry Road by A. Phillips and H. Cherrill, in Geoenvironmental Engineering: Contaminated Ground: Fate of Pollutants and Remediation.

Whatever you think about out-of-town shopping complexes, I don’t think anyone would complain about having a park replacing a landfill. Would you?? Go on. Just try it. Urban wildlife flourishes here. There are butterflies, endless insects, skylarks and other birds. I’ve read that the pond at the bottom of the site has various species of newts, dragonfly and damselfly (although everytime I wander past the only thing floating around in the water is empty McDonald’s wrappers).

As well as the birds and squirrels I see on the site (and the rats and foxes my dog goes mad sniffing after when we walk), the site is also now being used for refugee animals being turfed off their homelands. In 2006, 850 slow worms were moved to the park from a local housing development (the new houses and flats you can see on the other side of Ferry Road). The slow worms have not only survived but babies have been found – apparently the mix of tall grass and small bushes is an ideal habitat for the worms. They like mosaics – of shaded areas where they can hide and rest, and areas which are exposed to the sun where they can bask and increase their body temperature.

Stand on the link artwork at the top of the hill. Look south. See rising lands ahead of you: this marks the edge of Cardiff and the start of the Vale of Glamorgan. Leckwith behind all the hills. And then the River Ely, gently winding around you.

The peaked building in the centre of this shot above is the charmingly named “Outfall Sewer Cardiff (Western District)” (known today as the Pumping Station or the Pump House). It was built in 1907 by engineer William Harper, who’s been mentioned in this column before (he designed and built much of modern Cardiff, specifically the Clarence Road Bridge, which I wrote about last time). This Edwardian Sewage pumping station is formed of a single storey yellow brick building with slate roof and six round headed bay windows with red brick arches. If you visit it today, your experience is a far more sanitary one: there’s a nice little cafe, and vendors dealing in antiques and collectibles in the 32,000 square feet of the place.

Back to the chain link sculpture at the top of the hill. Look down, right there, by your feet: the flatpack mixture of the same out-of-town shopping offerings you’ll find in any of these man-made hubs. It’s where you’ll find our Ikea – on weekdays, full of confused students whose parents are trying to help them kit up and grow up, as if adulthood comes flatpacked, accompanied by a set of tumblers and some candles.

But look beyond, to the north, beyond Ikea, to the maritime-inspired spikes of the Millennium Stadium. You see the city spread around you, like a glossy plastic puzzle that you could reach out to and move pieces around in. Closer to the lens, you see Cardiff, the buildings like tiny toys – for so long, the city kept from building upwards to “preserve the skyline of the city” (what skyline, you might well ask). Integrity now forgotten, they’re bollocking high rise up everywhere they can. The Millennium Stadium, the BT Tower. It looks like one of those pop up cards that show you the city you live in as a weird, 3D-2D image. The mountains that invite you to the Welsh valleys to the north; the Garth, Machen Quarry. Even Castle Coch is visible on a clear day, if you’ve got eyes like a shithouse rat.

We’re a city that’s poor, iconically, which is perhaps why we’ve struggled to market ourselves effectively. We have no Clifton Suspension Bridge, no Museums of Science and Industry. No huge glass structures, or sculptures standing on the tides. Without a visual soundbite that works in silhouette, a visual catchphrase, what are we?

I’ve always thought that Cardiff was more of a feeling than anything that’s easy to explain through leaflets or website copy. Maybe that’s why so many first time visitors come here expecting little, but leave with an inexplicably warm glow about them. 

Further reading:

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Freaking out in Taff’s Well – Wales’ only thermal spa

Did you know that Wales had a thermal spa? Even more incredibly, that it’s in Taff’s Well?

I recently finished my fifth column on the River Taff for the gorgeous Caught By The River. All my other pieces have been very much situated in Cardiff, but for this one we zoom north a few miles to Taff’s Well. The actual well – the warm thermal spa, which the village gets its name from.

Don’t get too excited though. This is what it looks like:

The concrete bath house was constructed in the 1890s, and since then it’s been abandoned and saved repeatedly. Recently some investment has gone into preserving and reopening the well for the public to enjoy. There’s a tall blue fence all around it, but you can still get close enough to wonder and enjoy.

Back in the 1950s, the spring’s waters filled a swimming pool. Image from Wales Online

As usual, I did a bunch of research and found some wonderful stuff that didn’t make it into the final article, so if you’re interested in reading up on Taff’s Well – Wales’ only thermal spa – go read my piece for Caught by the River, and then head over to these:

Why freaking out, as per the title? Well, I went there alone, and the place freaked me the fleek out.

The Healing Waters of Taff’s Well

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Anyway, if you plan to visit, take a friend!

Peas

Helia
x

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Cardiff: pirates, river monsters, and the Champions League

In my latest column for the ever-lovely Caught by the River about the Taff, I wrote about Cardiff’s very own afanc (river monster).

I went on an amazing guided walk at Christmas, where tour guide Bill O’Keefe totally blew all of our minds with a selection of legendary stories about Cardiff, and made mention of Cardiff’s reputation for being a wretched hive of scum and pirate villainy back in the sixteenth century. I did some more research into this and decided to dedicate a column on it and the Taff’s afanc for CBTR.

Here’s part of the piece (you’ll need to click through to read the full thing):

The River Taff’s afanc reached the height of its fame towards the end of the 1500s — a time when Cardiff was the stronghold for some of the world’s most infamous pirates. The town fulfilled vital conditions for a shady sea port: lots of nearby coves to offload ill-gotten gains; a big market; townspeople happy to buy ripped-off goods at bargain prices; the Welsh language — which made it impossible for investigators from London to work out what was going on — and a good supply of ‘bawdy houses’, run by single women at a time when prostitution wasn’t fully criminalised.

Most importantly of all, Cardiff had officials with a flexible attitude towards the law – happy to let the buccaneers do what they wanted, as long as there were some sweet kickbacks.

Read the full column: Wandering the River Taff: A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy (Caught by the River)

As usual, I ended up doing loads of research that couldn’t make it into the final piece, so I thought I’d pull out some of the more interesting pieces and links for you, if you want to do some more reading.

My research for this piece (lots of reading plus lots of walking) took place over the month of May, while Cardiff was going through a crazy hot period preparing for the UEFA Champions League Final. I didn’t manage to get all my photos in the CBTR piece either, so here’s what was left over.

Some lovely wooden art in Bute Park – two pieces I hadn’t seen before, the seal/fish guy and the daffodil guy …

The water-bus stop in Bute Park and the bridge between Castle Street and Cowbridge Road East. This little area is right next to Pettigrew Tea Rooms.

I like this graffiti. Looking at it made me think about some great disaster wiping out the human race and everything being totally destroyed apart from our buildings and bridges, and some aliens finding this in hundreds of years time and thinking it’s hieroglyphics, like we think the Egyptians were doing … when actually they were probably just tagging …

Back on the bridge, the city is slowly being dismantled in the post-Champions-League-world we now all live in. You can tell this is Sunday because it was still sunny and hadn’t quite started completely shitting it down with rain yet, like it has done all week after the football…

The view south towards the Millennium Principality National Stadium of Wales (wtf are we supposed to call the thing now??)

The quiet after the storm: Quay Street and surrounds on the Sunday after the Champions League Final.

Some other bits and pieces I came across:

Cardiff’s pirate days

Queen Elizabeth’s first minister wrote to Cardiff to ask what was going on. It became increasingly obvious these people could not be operating without assistance.

(taken from When Cardiff was a safe place for Britain’s most notorious pirates, Wales Online)

Captain Morgan

Have you heard about the boy from Llanrumney who became one of the most feared pirates of the seven seas? You may not recognise the story, but you will know the name if you drink rum. Captain Morgan. The world’s second-best selling rum carries the name of a swashbuckling Welshman who went from scourge of the Spanish fleet to favourite of King Charles II and governor of Jamaica.

(taken from The Cardiff pirate and a bottle of rum: Captain Henry Morgan, Cardiff Drinks)

Also:

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Caught By The River – This is Rat Island

So, you guys. I’ve recently started a column for the wonderful Caught by the River website, based on my wanderings (and wonderings) around and about the lovely River Taff.

Read my first instalment here: Wandering the Taff: This is Rat Island

I know, can’t I write about anything other than Cardiff, amirite? Anyway, two weird things happened after the piece was published. Firstly, after living on the edge of south Cardiff on “Rat Island” for nearly seven years and having NEVER seen a rat down here, I saw TWO within the space of two days – one running across the car park in Morrisons and one scurrying around in the bushes on Dumballs Road.

Wait … there’s more … secondly, what I thought was just a little bit of basic desk research into what is essentially a fluff piece about the place I live got way more complex. It turned out to be the question that kept questioning, itself, other people, and me.

In the piece I wrote for Caught by the River, my conclusion was that no one really knows where Rat Island was exactly, but that we have a rough idea (based on all my research): it was the land that lay between the River Taff and the Glamorganshire Canal, to the south of where Clarence Road Bridge is now.

This is the conclusion I had come to from all the many things I’d read, personal accounts, articles on the BBC, Wales Online, modern history books, etc. Fine.

You can’t actually see Clarence Road Bridge in the map below – it hadn’t been built at this point (1879). But roughly halfway down the picture, you can see James Street on the right hand side – imagine that carrying on to the left (westwards) and going straight over the water into Grangetown. That’s the horizontal line we’re talking about, just above where it reads ‘Dumballs Marsh’.

rat-island-location

(Map: Glamorgan XLVII (includes: Cardiff; Penarth; St Andrews Major – surveyed: 1878 to 1879, published: 1885)

But no, not fine. Writer, poet, historian, all-round good guy Peter Finch has done all of the due diligence with respect to Cardiff history when researching for his Real Cardiff books (recommended reading, students), and he responded to an email I’d sent him asking if he knew where the spot was with this: the general area was right – it was between the Taff and the canal, but rather than being south of where Clarence Road would eventually be built, it was actually north (up towards where the centre of town is): in between that bridge and the timber ponds, on an actual island created by the Taff, oxbowing its way down to the Severn and the sea beyond.

Peter, wonderfully poetic even when answering inane questions from Cardiff bloggers, wrote me this:

The Taff has always moved about. Thrashed about perhaps, as it traverses its delta. Rat Island, as I understood it, was a section of Taff’s bank made an island by the river ox bowing itself. This was  upstream of Clarence Road Bridge near The Dumballs. It was formed, according to Mary Gillham, following one of the periodic floods that plagues the Taff. Gulls and other birds nested there. Rats invaded along a revealed at low tide causeway in order to steal their eggs. The land became rat infested. The name followed.

That was Peter’s first email. Isn’t he a gem? Being in a mad rush, as I always am, I misread the ‘upstream’ part and thought he meant downstream …

But there’s a reason for that. All of the folks I asked – people who used to live here, and had the story handed down from parents or grandparents – had heard the area was called Rat Island because of the rats that were disturbed either when the HMS Hamadryad first to the area (in 1866), or when she was finally dragged away to be destroyed in 1905.

Even once the initial piece was published, I had some tweets also corroborating this theory:

It makes sense, but the area being referred to is south of the Clarence Road Bridge: quite a lot further south … and adding to the confusion, I had read somewhere else the area was already called Rat Island, long before the ship came to Cardiff in 1866.

So how does it all fit together?

The discrepancy between the locations – north of the Clarence Road Bridge, versus south?

I raised the possibility of the name referring to an area north of the bridge with the Cardiff Docks Remembered Facebook (where people share memories of the area and discuss such matters) and it was pretty much universally poo-pooed. No way, said people who had grown up around here. Their truth was in the tales from their parents and grandparents, and they had been definitively told. Rat Island was south, the area next to the Sea Lock, that would eventually turn into Hamadryad Park.

We aren’t debating the European Convention of Human Rights or anything here guys. I am well aware this is a long gone name for an area that bears no resemblance to the marshy hinterland that inspired it – but that doesn’t stop me wanting to know WHY, does it??

There is, I think, anyway, a solution to this, that includes all of these seemingly conflicting perspectives and accounts: an ultimate answer that I – Helia Phoenix, non-historian, non-expert, super-nosey local person – will put forward as the only conclusion to this burning issue … this imperative question … that literally no-one – apart from me – is asking …

Where was Rat Island?

Here’s my theory. The entire area that fringes the main urbanised docklands – from the Bute Ironworks all the way to the south and east, where you can see the HMS Hamadryad hospital ship – would have been a muddy, marshy wasteland at that time – its only purpose really to keep people with infectious diseases away from the overcrowded docks and Tiger Bay. There was very little of interest on any of that land – either north of the future Clarence Road Bridge, or south of it.

So … it’s possible that the one spot was originally named ‘Rat Island’ – the small island next to the Ironworks, as pointed to by Peter Finch – but the name spread down (or was re-used) in the south, once the HMS Hamadryad showed up (or was hauled away), spreading its ratty citizens across the undergrowth that is now Hamadryad Park.

hamadryad_hospital_ship
HMS Hamadryad Hospital Ship on “Rat Island”, Cardiff. Photo from People’s Collection Wales

I won’t hold out for my Nobel Prize. But I did feel like I might have actually sort of solved something that’s been bugging me for ages.

I emailed Peter asking if he thought this might be possible. He agreed – that there were two things that were getting confused here …

Rat Island, the geographic island, i.e. a piece of land with water on all sides is the place you’ve spotted on your map. This is the one Mary Gillham suggests had birds nesting on it whose eggs were stolen by rats. Then there’s the local name for the whole district. Bill Barrett who died in 2013 and who was writing his piece on Rat Island for the Cardiff Book #3 (Stewart Williams Publishers)  in 1977 suggests that all the land between the canal and the Taff was known as Rat Island. He suggests that this went as far north as the Timber Ponds. These were where the Iron Works are shown on your map … it does seem to be probable that the whole slab of land took on the name of the island. 

So, Bill Barrett (RIP) might have got there before me. I wasn’t able to find a copy of his book anywhere (I’m on the lookout – please tell me if anyone finds one), but I’m happy enough with the result.

I did a lot of research for the initial piece (though it might remain inconclusive…), so if you’re interested in further reading:

Canal Park and Sea Lock Pond (Stuart Herbert)

The Hamadryad Hospital Ship (BBC Wales History Blogs / Phil Carradice)

#towerlives: Rise of towers and fall of Tiger Bay (BBC)

The Cardiff Coal Boom: The Chronicle Radio show (featuring Ian Hill from Save the Coal Exchange, author / historian Neil Sinclair, Juliet Lewis – Senior Lecturer at the Welsh School of Architecture), broadcast February 2017

Not really relevant for this piece, but lovely to follow if you’re on Twitter: @OldCardiffPics

Big thanks also to Peter Finch for indulging me. His latest book, The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back, is available from Seren now, priced £9.99. View Peter Finch’s archive.

Images in this piece: both taken on the section of the Taff that runs through the now disappeared Rat Island: Instagram malayabbasi and heatherpatterson.

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