The Return of the Native

Another Postcard from Penarth

Penarth Head, Public Domain

Sorry to disappoint the diehard Thomas Hardy fans amongst you, but this has nothing at all to do with Clym Yeobright, Egdon Heath and the heathlands of Wessex, nor the love tangles and tragedies he describes so beautifully in his 1878 novel. Instead, this is the tale of a slowly ageing (I’d like to say gracefully, but that’s a bit of a stretch) puffin flying home for another look, hopefully not the last, at a place much loved in her wilder years.

A couple of years ago (that’s a Welsh ‘couple’, by the way, so please be aware that it doesn’t denote two), I wrote a ‘Postcard from Penarth’. I remember that I mentioned in that piece that Penarth was somewhere I had lived happily for a year or so. Far too short a time, in fact, but a very happy one indeed, as it coincided with the period when Mr S and I got together and set up our his ‘n hers home for the first time. Ah, those giddy days when the world was still a place I recognised. But I digress…

Last October, in the run up to twenty years of what one commenter here has referred to as ‘marital blitz’, we decided it was high time to go back to this smashing seaside town for an anniversary visit.

As a reminder for those not familiar with the South Wales area, Penarth lies on the outskirts of my home city. Yes, I grew up in Cardiff and, blissfully (to me), as a nipper more than a few visits were made to the heady attractions of Penarth. It’s actually only about five miles away as a puffin flies, such close proximity that it’s practically a suburb (but whisper that very quietly if you are near one of its residents!).

Figure 1: Map of Penarth and the Severn Estuary
Derived from OpenStreetMap! © OpenStreetMap contributors, with cartography licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

This little town’s fortune and rapid development was created by the coal trade, which in turn came on the back of the industrial revolution which drove an enormous expansion of the South Wales coalfields in the 19th century.

Cardiff Docks, or rather the first section of that great complex to have been built, Bute Docks (with West Bute Dock opened in 1839 and East Bute in 1859), had reached the point where it couldn’t keep up with the volume of coal and iron to be exported. This pressure eventually gave rise to the construction of Bute’s Roath and Queen Alexandra Docks.

However, at a crucial time, the will to develop and expand Cardiff’s important dock facilities had stalled. In fact, it had more or less died with John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute, sometimes hailed as ‘the creator of modern Cardiff’, when he passed away in 1848.

However, this gap in the market was quickly recognised and led to Penarth Dock being constructed between 1860 and 1865, as a tidal dock at the mouth of the River Ely (Cardiff Docks lie closer to the River Taff). Commissioned by the Plymouth Estate heiress Harriet Windsor-Clive, 13th Baroness Windsor’s Penarth Harbour Company, and the Taff Vale Railway Company, vessels could enter on one tide, load up with coal and leave on the next. This quick turn-around gave Penarth Docks a slight but important commercial advantage over their rivals, the big boys over at Bute Docks, and their construction was completed at a perfect moment.

Despite initial teething troubles, the Penarth Docks flourished, and their success continued, regardless of the opening of Bute’s Roath Dock in 1887 (amazing what a bit of healthy competition generates), Barry Dock in 1889, and Bute’s Queen Alexandra Dock in 1907. And, as the docks thrived, so did Penarth, though it very much developed as a town of two faces. Bordering on the docks, overlooking what is now Cardiff Bay, the North ward was very much a working-class area, but the more genteel town most people visit is the middle-class South ward.

Yes, the town might have grown from honest (and brutally hard) mid-19th century toil but to take a trip there is like visiting an old dowager. A dignified, elderly lady whose perfect maquillage is just a little off-kilter and blurred, rendering her not quite the compelling and vibrantly youthful woman she still imagines.

From the Edwardian splendours of Alexandra Park, down to the grand seafront with its broad Esplanade, the elegant Italian Gardens, and wonderful Victorian Pier, Penarth has always been a happy place for me. It’s a little old-fashioned, somewhat snootily staid, positively patrician in tone though, at times, rather distractedly down at heel. To me, Penarth has always appeared just a wee bit out of time.

I referred to its attractions as heady, but Penarth wasn’t really somewhere the rest of my family were wild about. Almost to a man (woman, child, dog…), they preferred the sandy beaches of Barry Island or Porthcawl to the west, whereas from an early age I loved this quirky seaside resort.

Penarth’s lack of silvery sand (and somewhat murky brown seawater) was never a problem in my book. How could it be when there was the exciting potential for fossils, including two hundred-million-year-old dinosaur footprints (er, which I’ve never yet seen), to be found? As a child, almost as much of an attraction were the hunks of pinkish alabaster on the stony beach to the left of the pier as you look out to sea, weathered out from the cliffs under the distinctive bulge of Penarth Head. Precious stone it isn’t but it was special to starry-eyed me.

Back to the postcard, and it was on a grey and dismal Monday towards the end of October that we set off from our Staffordshire home, slightly apprehensively, to catch a train to Penarth.

The first of our rail connections was at Birmingham New Street, which caused me not a little concern. At the time, we were entering the third week of an intensifying conflict in the Middle East. We hadn’t yet gone nuclear, but overnight, the Gaza Strip had been subject to substantial Israeli bombing following the appalling events of 7th October when Hamas launched their brutal attack on Israel. Whatever your views on this situation, this situation had without doubt raised tensions sky-high, not just in the Middle East but in our country too.

The last time we had visited Birmingham, somewhat more briefly than we’d planned if I’m honest, it seemed to have morphed into a rather a scary place. For a start, it was full of vocal and intimidating individuals in costumes not really suited to the Midlands climate. Given that unsettling experience, merely months earlier, I was quite ill at ease about spending any great amount of time there, more so in the current circumstances.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was the sight which met us at New Street station. This was an ‘installation’: a massive mechanical monstrosity, overpowering even the high-roofed space of the atrium at the station. This beast, I discovered, was Ozzy the Bull, something which had apparently been used as the centrepiece to the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham.

Figure 2: Ozzy the Bull
Tony Hisgett, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Originally known as the Raging Bull (which to my uneasy eye, sounds a much more apposite name), the bull had been given a new name in honour of a Birmingham son. These days ‘bully’ venerates the ‘Prince of Darkness’ himself, John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne, the heavy music singer from Black Sabbath.

I must admit that I found this behemoth (it’s huge, at thirty-three feet tall) with glowing red eyes pretty disturbing, particularly since the damn thing is 100% unavoidable if you happen to want to look at the main departure boards. But why, one might ask, would anyone possibly want to do that at a railway terminal.

Whilst I can appreciate the work which has gone into creating the bull and can quite see its appeal as a spectacle, used as part of an opening ceremony, I feel it’s simply too overwhelming in an already bustling interior space. Never mind, we weren’t to remain there long, only to change trains.

Thankfully, I knew that the next phase of our journey held something to look forward to, firstly with some wonderful views across green countryside to the Malvern Hills. So, clambering onto another train, off we set again, though the Malverns were sadly cloud-shrouded on this occasion. Ah well, it is the end of October.

Never mind, further along the line towards our destination, another section, from Gloucester to Chepstow, is particularly spectacular as it takes you via the ‘Severn Shores Line’.

This is an absolutely magnificent part of the journey to Cardiff, as it runs close to the Severn Estuary (in some places, very close indeed). It’s tremendous heading from Westbury towards Newnham, after which the line briefly skips inland across to just south of Blakeney, past Lydney. The tracks then run right along the shoreline, affording not only the most breathtaking views of the river, and the two Severn bridges, but the countryside bordering the river too.

Although the clouds hadn’t completely disappeared, the sun had broken through by now, so the views of the river were stunning. Not only the sunlight glinting off the water, but, since it was low tide, we could see the mudflats and sandbanks, a Special Area of Conservation since 2009. There was a wealth of birdlife to be seen, mostly quite small, but zipping about busily. We trundled by too quickly on our CrossCountry rattletrap to identify more than a scant handful. Nevertheless, it was a joy to see.

This section finishes with the sight of Beachley Point and the Barracks (home to 1st Battalion, The Rifles), before swinging inland slightly towards Chepstow. Catching our breath from the magnificent Severn, we crossed the River Wye to glimpse the forbidding walls of the fabulous Norman castle as we passed.

Chepstow Castle, built in 1067, really is worth a visit if you ever find yourself nearby. It possesses the oldest known castle doors in Europe (though the originals are safely stored inside now—what you pass through are replicas). It is years since we visited, and it would have been wonderful to get off the train to see it again, but we had miles to go before we could stop.

Figure 3: Chepstow Castle, from the River Wye
Steinsky, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

One thing did surprise me here at Chepstow, and it rather foreshadowed what was to come throughout our trip of reminiscences. This was the sprouting of what appears to be an extraordinary number of new-build rabbit hutches homes, many seeming to be shoe-horned onto a strip of land perilously close to the Wye.

This is the Brunel Quarter, a new abhorrence housing development, created on what appears to have been the site of the old National Shipyard No.1 (a David Lloyd George coalition government initiative), at which all sorts had been built, from WWI merchant vessels to warships, to sections of Mulberry Harbours and landing craft in WWII. In fact, in the 1960s, with the site repurposed for engineering work and steel fabrication for large infrastructure schemes, some of the steelwork for the original Severn Bridge was assembled on this site too.

Given the Wye’s penchant for flooding (having relatives who lived on its banks a little further upstream, I have seen the rapidly rising waters at first hand), is such a housing estate (for “everyone, from young families to commuting professionals” according to Barratt Homes) really such a great idea? Who knows, though rail services between Gloucester and Cardiff were replaced by buses during the January 2024 floods…

However, this building spree appears to be part of a wider plan by Monmouthshire County Council to “create a more attractive and vibrant Chepstow”. Personally, I thought the town was lovely just as it was, but I guess it has been a while since I spent much time there.

The railway line, skirting much of the town, runs alongside the River Wye for some time, ducking under the M48 and the original Severn Bridge, until the Wye meets the Severn Estuary. We swing past Caldicot, with its own little Norman castle sadly not visible from the train.

It’s a shame not to be able to see the sturdy stone castle from the railway tracks. One marvellous memory of the place comes from a series of family photos taken in the great Hall. These are of my Mum and Dad, plus a variety of other friends and family members, decked out in their finery (long dresses, near-rigid lacquered hair and best make up for the ladies) attending some of the candle-lit mediaeval-style banquets that were held at the castle in the early 1970s.

Figure 4: Caldicot Castle, a merry mediaeval night out
SharpieType301, sometime in the 1970s

As I was a mere youngster, such romantic delights were not for me, though I yearned to be included. Ah well, the excitement of watching the aunts and uncles getting ‘dolled up’ for a fancy night out lives with me still.

In fact, I did get my own chance to enjoy a banquet at Caldicot Castle, though much later. As a student at the University of Wales in the 1990s, I joined their Arthurian Society (don’t judge me!) and we held our Christmas piss up party there. This was great fun, complete with jousting (sadly, no horses), a death-defying fire-eater, wooden platters of scrumptious lamb cawl, hunks of rustic bread, and lashings of lemonade er, anything alcoholic we could lay our hands on.

My spectacularly sumptuous robes (comprising a long velvet dress with a laced bodice and a ‘fur’ trimmed cloak) had been carefully crafted by my own fair hands from old charity shop curtains. In true mediaeval style I wore thermals underneath. It’s damned parky in them castles, you know. Some time after this event, in the mid- to late-1990s, I went back and volunteered at the castle doing conservation work on the collections (I think I’m still sneezing from decades of dust!).

Back to our train, and onwards through the flatlands of the Gwent Levels, with their many creeks and drainage channels. Reclaimed land, this, a man-made landscape with a wealth of history from Roman times right up to the present. Though the fringes of the Severn would have been exploited for millennia before, repossessing this land from the river and the sea started with the Romans, so you can just stop asking what they ever did for us!

At Black Rock, on the shoreline just outside Caldicot, almost at the foot of the Prince of Wales Bridge (the second Severn Crossing), a traditional form of fishing for salmon is still in use. Known to have been practiced as far back as the 1600s, though likely older, this is Lave Net fishing. I’d love to have watched this, a skill and occupation of which I was completely unaware. It is maintained by a diminishingly small band of determined fishermen. Brave men, all, as the Severn Estuary is a perilous stretch of water. They come from the villages of Sudbrook, Portskewett, and Caldicot. Unfortunately, I’m not likely to now. It’s a tradition which is under severe threat of being lost forever as new rules were recently brought in to protect dwindling fish stocks.

We trundle past Rogiet, where nearly four thousand Roman coins were found as a hoard in 1998, and Magor, where the incredibly rare remains of a 13th century wooden boat was fortuitously identified by a wooden post sticking up from the mud on the Severn foreshore. The Magor Pill Boat was discovered at about the same time as I went off to study archaeological conservation at Cardiff. Great timing or what?

On this section of the journey too, you’d once have seen evidence of industry in the shape of the nearby ‘modern’ Llanwern steelworks (modern in my eyes since it only opened in the early 1960s). I do rather miss breathing in that distinctive sulphurous scent of ‘nearly home’. Then, craning my neck to see the Transporter Bridge straddling the River Usk in the distance, we’re at Newport.

Figure 5: The Newport Transporter Bridge… oh, and the Red Arrows
Robin Drayton, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

That Transporter Bridge is pretty special. Built in 1906, it is one of only a handful of such aerial transfer bridges across the world which remains in use. These bridges are ‘ferries in the sky’ essentially, where a suspended gondola carries traffic and goods from one riverbank to the other. Sadly, in all the years I lived in South Wales, I have never crossed the Usk, with its high tidal range, using the bridge.

What can I say about Newport? Well, it’s an old settlement, dating back to the Bronze Age at least, again with what’s left (er, precious little, in fact) of a Norman castle. It was once a major coal exporting port. It’s had successful manufacturing and engineering industries, and has even, more recently, tried to roll with the years to engage with the high-tech sector. It has hosted a NATO Summit (at the Celtic Manor Resort, or as I call it, Colditz) and not that many places can claim that dubious honour. In truth, Newport’s a bit of a dump, and has never been a favourite place for me. Let’s leave it for someone who loves the place to extoll its virtues.

By now, I was getting excited to be nearly home. Crossing the Ebbw River, along the marshland south of the M4 and A48, we pass St Mellons (shudders, though the old part was lovely) and Llanrumney (former boyfriend territory), and into what I think of as Cardiff proper. Hmm, I’m beginning to note a lot more new-builds in this area too, I imagine making use of a plethora of old brown-field sites.

But as we pull into the centre of the city, what’s this? Not just an inordinate number of shonky houses, but bloody great tower blocks? High-rise pimples on the face of my magnificent city. Where in hell’s name did those come from? Then comes the biggest shock, as we pull into Cardiff Central station. It’s gone!

Oh, I knew that they’d redeveloped wrecked the Old Brewery, years back, to create another of those ‘Quarters’, stuffed to the gills with awful bars, ‘eateries’ and ticky-tacky flats. But I had no idea that the Cardiff Brewery (once the old Hancock’s brewery) right next to Cardiff Central, had also gone the way of all flesh.

The iconic red brick chimney, with the white ‘BRAINS’ emblazoned in white still stands… for now (it’s listed, surely?) in the midst of what looks like a wasteland, but there’s precious little else. Oh, but it seems that with the skeleton of even taller high-rise creations already reaching for the leaden skies, this site is being ‘redeveloped’ too, but into what?

By now, I’m beginning to feel distinctly like I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and I don’t think we’re over the rainbow!

Figure 6: Brains Brewery, as was, with the red-brick chimney
Sionk, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The absolute horror must have shown on my face as, looking daggers at my surroundings and almost in tears, we stepped off the train. The conductor, a lovely Cardiff lad whose frame was testament to the power of a good brew, railed (pun intended) along with me about the changes to the city of my birth.

It’s not the same ‘ere anymore” he said (if you’ll pardon my Wenglish). “Not bein’ funny, but they ‘aven even opened the bus station by there,” he complained, pointing “…an’ tha’s bin five yurs”. At this point, I guess all that I can say is “ach-a-fi!

Frankly, I was glad we weren’t going to be staying in Cardiff. I was going to need a bit of space and time to readjust to ‘new normal’, after all it had been ten years since I’d been home, since my Mum died in fact. I now began to hope the changes we’d find in Penarth weren’t going to be as shocking.

Sod’s Law was in action though. In speaking to that lovely conductor, I’d completely forgotten about our connection to Penarth so, of course, we missed our train. Ah well, it wasn’t long to wait, and the time allowed me to ponder the fact that all train and platform announcements at Cardiff Central station are now made firstly in Welsh, then followed with English translations. Given the typical clarity of all such piped announcements, this must really be a bundle of fun for anyone unfamiliar with Wales.

The next part of our journey was relatively short. I was well aware that the Cardiff Bay Barrage (which was completed shortly after I moved away from Penarth, effectively damming the Rivers Taff and Ely), had made a huge difference to the whole waterline between Cardiff and Penarth. I was expecting some increase in housing, but again I was surprised, and not in a good way.

Though the numerous yachts and motorboats moored along the water’s edge suggest the residents aren’t short of a bob or two, it seems to have turned into wall-to-wall apartment buildings. Doubtless these flats (as I prefer to call them) are ‘desirable’, given that many people now enjoy views over the water of what is now essentially a damn big lake. But to my eyes, it’s horrid. The ever-changing delights of the tidal Cardiff Bay I loved have been utterly destroyed.

Oh well, at least pulling into Penarth Station was more or less as I’d remembered, and stepping out into the slightly scruffy Station Approach was reassuring. The Paget Rooms look to be going strong, and the scaffolding suggests it’s being maintained. Indeed, the area actually seems to have gone a little upmarket, judging by the Continental-style covered exterior seating outside Foxy’s Deli. Hmmm, that wasn’t here back in my day, so I might have to investigate that in the next few days. For now, the priority is a cuppa, and I think I know just the place!

Well, it’s good to see that The Washington is still there, and still a café. Ooops, sorry, it’s now a posh ‘tea house’, but they still serve a cuppa (indeed a variety of teas), some very nice-looking cake, and have the most important thing of all—a good, clean loo.

No longer a cinema (indeed it hasn’t been for many years as that closed when I was a teenager), and seemingly no longer the gallery we remember, this beautiful Art Deco building makes an excellent pit-stop.

Figure 7: The Washington, a sight for sore eyes
Jaggery, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Suitably refreshed and stocked up with a few essentials from the local Co-op (mostly roadkill, having taken a leaf out of Al’s book) it’s time to get a taxi to where we’ll be staying, about a mile or so away from where we are right now. Oh great, it seems Sod is still with us, and his Law means there appears to be a bit of a problem. The taxi office by the station is shut (permanently?), and the number we ring doesn’t answer.

Fine, be like that. Phone in hand, I quickly Google another firm. They don’t have anything available for at least an hour. Fantastic! The air turns a delicate shade of blue. OK, it’s been a long day, we are tired and it’s getting a bit late. The clouds are gathering, and we really don’t want to mess about. Girding our loins, we decide that, since it isn’t actually raining yet, we’ll walk. Our little wheelie suitcase protests the uneven flagstone pavements along leafy Victoria Road, but off we plod, passing some splendid houses along the way and wishing we could afford to come back to live here.

Eventually, we reach our lovely little self-contained home sweet home for the next few days. More than likely a converted garage, it is definitely compact and bijou, but it has everything we need, all neatly fitted into a very small footprint. It’s appropriately called Cwtch (which roughly translates as ‘cuddle’).

Figure 8: Cwtch, yes it really is that tiny
SharpieType301, 2023

Just as we’d mastered the key safe, retrieved the key and opened the door the rain started, and it’s now hammering down. We, however, are tucked up, safe and comfy in our little pad, and rather enjoy hearing the sound of the rain on the roof. A sigh of relief accompanies a very welcome sit down, followed by unpacking. We’re not going to be here for more than a few days so that doesn’t take long. We look out at the torrential rain, but it seems to be lessening. We aren’t all that far from the sea so perhaps we’ll have a wander later if it stops?

After a very cosy night, the next day dawns with more than a glimmer of sunshine and cards to be opened (did I mention that we share a birthday and were also celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary?). There was also the promise of a slap-up birthday breakfast.

But first a walk along the Wales Coast Path. Alright, let’s not get too excited. We walked only a very short section of it along the Clifftop Walk, Cliff Parade, and down Cliff Hill onto the Esplanade. Fairly early still, we ambled along saying a cheery ‘good morning’ to the handful of brave souls being towed along the path by their pampered pooches.

It was lovely looking out over the calm waters of the Bristol Channel towards Weston-super-Mare and Brean Down, with Flat Holm and Steep Holm attracting my attention as they always do. The morning sunlight was sparkling on the sea and, for once, South Wales seemed to be the more clement side of the Channel, with grey clouds over Somerset.

The tide was pretty much fully out so we could see the down to the shoreline, though the clifftop vegetation is more abundant than I remember, apparently left to grow unfettered these days. From the sounds of excitable yipping, there were dog walkers making the most of the beach, a hundred or so feet below us on the rocky shore, not a million miles from the dinosaur footprints.

Figure 9: The view from the Wales Coast Path
SharpieType301, 2023

As we passed by the newly refurbished Victorian-style public shelter where Cliff Hill meets the Cliff Parade (a ridiculously impractical mess which cost only £100,000 to erect and more or less replaced the one built in 1890 which had been left to fall into disrepair) we pondered making straight for the pier, visible in all its glory below us. However, the siren calls of coffee and a bite to eat won out, so we headed along the Esplanade to the old Public Loos.

What? I can hear you say…

OK, let me explain. Yes, the building I mean, with its cast iron colonnade and staircases, once housed the penny-in-the-slot public loos. Indeed, they are still there in rather gruesome ‘modernised’ form. But the little brick-built structure, the Esplanade Shelter next to the Italian Gardens, was also designed as a public shelter and beach pavilion.

As a young ‘un, I used to love climbing up to the flat bitumen rooftop, just below the Windsor Gardens (a cliff-top park which was Penarth’s earliest park). There was, at one point, access via steps up to the Gardens from the Esplanade Shelter, but not for very many years. I loved to sit up on the roof to watch the boats on the water heading for the docks, hearing the muted sounds of the waves below me but separated from it all in my own little wonderland.

Like similar structures in so many seaside towns, much of the building fell into disuse and it was slowly allowed to deteriorate. However, in 2009 it was spruced up and given a new lease of life, being turned into a trendy award-winning restaurant, The Fig Tree, which offered a taste of locally sourced Welsh ingredients. That meant the flat roof was now off limits to Joe Public, but at least the building was saved. For ten years all went well, then the owners moved on.

Alas, the building was in jeopardy again, but it finally re-opened as a branch of Welsh coffee chain Coffi Co. It doesn’t get the finest reviews, but amongst other things, they serve more than acceptable coffee… and breakfasts. We’ll see what the food is like, but it’ll be served with the finest view you’d get anywhere!

We sat under that colonnade (thankfully shielded from the breeze) and soon made our choices, with Mr S deciding on the Titanic Breakfast. Pretty titanic it is too, with two lovely chunky pork sausages, three rashers of smoked bacon, three hash browns (one of which I immediately nicked), a pile of mushrooms, posh baked beans, eggs, and thick slices of farmhouse toast. He was a very happy chap when it arrived at the table.

Figure 10: Birthday breakfast
SharpieType301, 2023

I chickened out of this extravaganza but fancied trying the ‘Dirty Pig’ breakfast. It didn’t disappoint, with lovely thick sourdough toast slathered with bacon jam, then piled with rashers of smoked bacon, chunks of chorizo, and a couple of perfectly fried eggs. Piggy paradise!

Suitably refreshed, it was time for a stroll along the Victorian pier, not least to locate the little commemorative brass plaque we’d bought way back in 2006. Brasso at the ready, I gave it a bit of a polish. These plaques are set into the decking to form a ‘path of memories’ and were originally sold as part of a plan to raise funds to ensure the upkeep of Penarth Pier. It seemed the perfect anniversary thing for us to do, having spent so much special time together there.

Like a marriage, the pier has had its ups and downs over the years. Designed by a local man, Herbert Francis Edwards, for the Penarth Promenade and Landing Co. Ltd., it is one of the last Victorian piers still standing in Wales. Herbert, son of the Superintendent of Penarth Dock and Harbour, is buried (along with his father) in Saint Augustine’s Churchyard, overlooking the pier and the sweep of the Esplanade.

The actual building work was carried out by Mayoh Brothers’ contractors of Manchester (Joseph and Arthur Mayoh), who also built the Britannia Pier at Great Yarmouth and Morecambe’s West End Pier. Penarth Pier first opened in February 1895 to the sounds of Cogan Brass Band.

It measures 658 feet in length, an odd figure this might sound, but its length was deliberately restricted to no more than this. Any longer and it would have impinged on the important deep-water channel into Cardiff Docks.

The pier soon became the landing jetty for the paddle steamers and steamships of the White Funnel Fleet. These had, even before the pier was built, criss-crossed the Bristol Channel to link industrial South Wales with the resorts of Devon and Somerset. In addition, the Cardiff Steam and Navigation Company ran regular ferries between Cardiff and Penarth.

Figure 11: Paddle Steamer Waverly at Penarth Pier
Ben Salter, licensed under CC BY 2.0

But embarking and disembarking wasn’t all that straightforward, necessitating a landing stage on wheels to be hauled up and down Penarth’s stoney beach. The new facilities at the end of the pier were constructed with several levels to accommodate the difference between high and low tides, as the Bristol Channel has a greater tidal range than anywhere else in the world (with the exception of the Bay of Fundy, in Canada).

That said, there are instances when there’s no depth of water at all at the end of the pier. For instance, in March 1989, a particularly low tide, the lowest for years, saw Penarth Pier left completely high and dry. You can see a photograph of this event HERE. Conversely, an unusually high so-called ‘super-tide’, like the one seen in February 2015, can almost spill over onto the pier’s decking and the Esplanade.

But back to the pier, and a small wooden pavilion, the Bijou Pavilion which acted as a little theatre, was built in 1907 at the farthest end of the pier from the shore (roughly where Penarth Sea Angling Club has it’s hut nowadays). All went well until the outbreak of war in 1914, which rather put the dampers on things as the army requisitioned the pier, and the pleasure steamers were put to a more sinister use as minesweepers.

Then after WWI, as the world gradually returned to daytrips and holidays, and as Penarth continued to develop as an attractive seaside resort in its own right, a spectacular new Art Deco pavilion opened in May 1929. This, built using state-of-the-art ferro-concrete, was constructed at the landward end, at the juncture with the Esplanade.

Again, there followed a golden period for the pier, but this wouldn’t last. In 1931, disaster struck when a dreadful fire broke out on the evening of the Summer Bank Holiday. Thankfully, in some ways amazingly, no-one was killed, but the Bijou Pavilion was completely destroyed, and the pier suffered serious damage. But repairs completed, like the phoenix the pier rose again. Through the 1930s it saw its heyday, with the landward pavilion acting first as a cinema then a dancehall.

Of course, another World War loomed, and the paddle steamers were again requisitioned. After closing for a while though, the dancehall (aptly named the Marina Ballroom) managed to carry on.

I can’t help but wonder how many young ladies smooched with one of the four hundred or so ‘Seabees’ from the 81st Naval Construction Battalion, stationed in Penarth (they were originally housed on a merchant vessel tied up in Penarth docks), or US Army personnel from nearby Barry, in the Marina Ballroom. It appears that the Yanks staged quite the ‘friendly’ invasion.

Indeed, that dancehall played its part in of a bit of an exodus of Welsh women after WWII. A good number of my countrywomen crossed the Atlantic as GI Brides, having met their ‘over paid, over sexed – and over here’ US servicemen husbands at the dances held on the pier.

The poor old pier has suffered a number of mishaps, other than fire, over the years. These include more than one collision. The worst came in the gales of 2nd of May 1947, when the pier was hit by a ship caught by the strong winds and tides. The unladen (thankfully) 7,130-ton Canadian merchant ship, SS Port Royal Park, had been on route from Bristol to Cardiff when, caught broadside to the wind, she drifted sideways. The pier stopped her grounding, and she was relatively undamaged, but at great structural damage to the pier.

To be honest, it must have been quite some night for the dancers in the Marina Ballroom, since the ship’s bows caught the pier only a few feet from the Pavilion. The noise must have been astounding. Thankfully, the Pavilion and its occupants were safe, but the majority of the pier’s wooden decking was buckled and distorted, with some of it completely splintered. Worse still, some seventy-two of the main supporting cast-iron columns were pushed out of alignment or shattered. It is quite amazing that the entire pier didn’t simply keel over and collapse. It took two years to repair the damage at a cost of £28,000 (in the region of £1,350,000 today).

Then, on the 20th of August 1966, the 600-ton paddle steamer PS Bristol Queen collided with the pier in dense fog. Once more, this caused severe and costly damage. The poor old pier really doesn’t deserve the trials she’s seen, but she’s still here and still beautiful.

Figure 12: Beautiful Penarth Pier
SharpieType301, 2023

I’ve mentioned that the waters off the beach are anything but crystal clear, but that silty murk doesn’t stop people swimming there. Indeed, there is a doughty band of swimmers who take daily dips just before sunrise. We weren’t up and out early enough to see the Dawn Stalkers, but we certainly spotted a few other wild swimmers. We were amused to discover that the local council have even installed a couple of outdoor showers on the sea wall near the Lifeboat Station, which are available for use at any time… except, of course, when the tide is particularly high.

There’s actually a long tradition of swimmers here. Some of them, the crazier ones in my opinion, choose to swim right across the Bristol Channel between Wales and England, although this isn’t to be recommended as the currents can be pretty vicious. In fact, the currents in the Channel have, at times, been known to exceed 5 knots, something that many sailors would class as a challenge!

Figure 13: Plaque on Penarth Pier
Colin Smith, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The first person to successfully complete this swimming challenge was a 21-year-old lass, Kathleen Thomas. On the fifth of September 1927, she set out to cross the eleven miles to England, her slim form liberally spread with lard to prevent chafing and, hopefully keep her marginally warmer than a simple costume would. Apparently, beef tea (hot Bovril to you and me) and chocolate sustained her on her endeavours. Those brutal Channel currents meant the distance she actually swam was over twenty-two miles, and it took her around seven hours and twenty minutes to reach Weston-super-Mare. There’s now a slate plaque on the pier commemorating this feat.

On this occasion we decided not to try to emulate Kathleen’s feat, though we did manage a birthday paddle, and spent a wee while fossicking for fossils on the foreshore. Bliss, and I have a small souvenir to remind us of this. Though we didn’t find an ammonite on this occasion, we picked up a small pebble with the distinctive bullet-shaped outline of a belemnite’s guard (the hard internal skeleton, lacking in its modern relative, the squid).

The rest of the day we spent exploring this lovely town, visiting old haunts, first climbing from the seashore up through the ever-lovely Alexandra Park to Windsor Road. The park is a very special place, one which has been popular since it first opened its gates in the early 1900s.

Figure 14: Alexandra Park
SharpieType301, 2023

We walked up the steep steps to the little aviary which I remember so well, half obscured in the photo top left. This used to house battalions of bold budgies, cheeky canaries, and delicate doves. These little birds are, however, no longer (we spoke to a park ranger who told us they fell foul of council Covidiocy measures!), but there’s something of a nod to them in the form of a nearby carved tree stump, designed and carved by Mike Scott, the park foreman.

What’s left of the abandoned aviary stands next to the little ornamental fishpond (complete with fish and feeble fountain) and is still surrounded by terraces of tenderly topiaried shrubs. It had been built on the site of the park’s original bandstand, which has now relocated to a more prominent position slightly higher up the hill.

It’s nice to know that these, at least, remain as does the granite Cenotaph with its fierce-featured bronze figure of winged Victory, standing proud on the prow of a ship. Erected in 1924, this was designed by a local lad (born in Cardiff’s Canton), the prolific Welsh sculptor Sir William Goscombe John, whose work can be seen in public monuments across the UK. We carried on, meandering onwards and upwards through the park, passing the Bowling Green and the Lawn Tennis Club (told you the town has its posh bits), then into the town before we started to make our way up Albert Road.

As we climbed towards our old home on Lord Street, we passed another bowling green in the little late-Victorian Belle Vue Park. Had we been in a position to stay in Penarth, I really fancied joining that group. The players, a sturdy tweed skirted twinset and pearls lot for the most part, always looked very cheerful and I used to imagine them lifting a well-deserved G&T after their matches.

Coming now to the very top of Penarth Head, the views across Cardiff and down the Bristol Channel are spectacular, and close by is the only Grade 1 listed building in Penarth, the glorious St Augustine’s Church. Although there has been a place of worship upon the headland since the 1200s, the present Victorian church was designed by Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield (who designed much of Keble College, Oxford, including its Chapel, amongst many other fabulous buildings). Built in 1865-6, St Augustine’s has been described as “one of Butterfield’s finest churches, big boned and austere outside, highly charged in the polychromatic patterning of its interior”.

The polychrome architecture of St Augustine’s is strikingly beautiful inside, and remains relatively unchanged, unusual in this day and age. It dominates the skyline, presenting a conspicuous landmark, not least for mariners, which can be seen for miles around. It’s easily spotted from the M4 as you drive westwards into Wales. In fact, when the smaller mediaeval church was to be replaced, Bristol Channel pilots insisted that the new church was constructed with a distinctive tall tower. They argued, successfully, that that old one had been important to seafarers as a navigational aid for a long time, and their prayers were answered.

But that’s not the only claim to fame this lovely church has. Perhaps the most famous of all Welsh composers, Dr Joseph Parry, who wrote the male voice choir standard ‘Myfanwy’ (which still raises the hairs on the back of my neck), is buried in the churchyard here. The church also has a William Hill organ. The recently restored 3-manual organ was built by the Lincolnshire firm of William Hill & Son in 1895 and is regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind in the country.

But as you walk away from the church and begin to descend again, towards our old pad and the former Penarth dockyards, it’s worth remembering that some of those sweet, terraced houses off Queen’s Road held a secret or two. For this area was notorious, a dangerous place to be, home to navvies and many a ne’er-do-well. Daggertown, as it was once known, was once a place of seamen’s boarding houses, gambling dens, unlicensed drinking clubs (as well as numerous pubs, some of which remain), opium dens, and brothels.

It wasn’t at all that way when we lived there, mind, and it’s still a great place. We went to have a look at our old home. Amazingly, while we were standing outside taking a photo, the current occupant noticed us, waved, and invited us in. That was such an incredibly kind thing to do – she’s been there ever since we left, and she loves the flat, with its incredible views over Cardiff Bay, as much as we did.

By now the afternoon was beginning to draw on so, slowly, we ambled back towards the seafront. We’d made cunning plans for a slap-up fish and chips birthday dinner at the restaurant on the Esplanade, overlooking the pier and the sea. We got there nice and early to make sure we could get a table, to find… it’s closed! Not just opening soon but closed closed. Damn!

Now what should we do? OK, we knew there was a sit-in fish and chippery up in town as we’d passed it (and discarded it) earlier, but we’d been on our feet all day, and didn’t fancy another walk up that hill. There are a few places to eat along the Esplanade but weren’t what you’d call smartly dressed. Anyway, we’d got our hearts set of a nice piece of haddock… There’s only one thing to do, that’s pick up a takeaway from the Pier Café and sit on the pier to eat it.

OK, it isn’t exactly warm out, the food won’t be the finest (both fish and chips cooked from frozen I think), and it’s served in a polystyrene take-out box with a wooden ‘fork’, one of my pet hates. But what the hell, it’s our special day, the view cannot be beaten, the company is perfect, and we could even head back for an ice cream dessert afterwards.

Our October excursion continued with a visit to Barry, where we walked along sand at Barry Island, and a trip down memory lane in Cardiff. We didn’t make it to Ramon’s, an old student haunt, for breakfast, but we did manage a walk by the lake in Roath Park, then went on further to see the house in which I grew up. That was saddening. Time and the current owners haven’t been kind.

Our time in South Wales was too brief and our rail journey home was, to say the least, eventful. But that’s a tale for another time, perhaps. All in all, we enjoyed a pretty-near perfect birthversary. Oh, and, like you do… we came home with a new Puffin pal!

Figure 15: Our Puffin pal
SharpieType301, 2023


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