One of the things I enjoy most about walking is how the slower pace of travel allows you to view familiar surroundings in a different light, to notice the little things that our busy lives too often render invisible. Seeing a place on foot allows you ‘to stop and stare’, to use Newport poet’s W H Davies‘ immortal words.
So it is with wandering around Cardiff on foot. As a long-time Newport resident, my frequent visits to Cardiff typically involved hours of trawling around city centre shops spending birthday money with one or more of my daughters, shopping for new clothes, school shoes… or, most dreaded of all, Christmas shopping. There were the occasional evening trips to the Motorpoint Arena Cardiff (why the ridiculous new name… to me it’ll always be the CIA or Cardiff International Arena) to see big names like Bob Dylan and Ricky Gervais or occasionally to one of Cardiff’s cinemas see a film that wasn’t showing in Newport (the 1993 film Alive springs to mind).
When Cardiff Bay was developed in the 90s, it quickly became the capital’s biggest draw, especially on balmy summer evenings when it sometimes seemed like the whole of South East Wales’ population was there enjoying a slice of the good life. Yes, even The Walker’s Wife has been known to put on her glad rags and dance the evening away in ‘The Bay’.
Our latest trips to Cardiff, however, have not involved shopping, eating or dancing, but checking routes for various projects, most recently for our forthcoming Castle Walks in Newport and Cardiff ebook (and app). With all the rain and storms that have been lashing the UK’s shores since before Christmas, Cardiff remains one of those rare places where you can still walk without ending up knee deep in mud, principally due to the Taff Trail and the wonderful landscaped gardens of Bute Park.
Our 7.8 mile route started at Hailey Park, alongside the River Taff. We’ve walked along this section of the Taff Trail many times but this time there was an air of excitement – it would be first time we’d returned since the disused railway bridge crossing the River Taff was reopened. The refurbished bridge now links Llandaff North to Radyr and opens up the possibility of new circular running and walking routes.
We crossed the bridge (which sadly wasn’t terribly exciting as you can’t see much from these railway bridges), passed some high fencing (a railway line lies adjacent to the footpath) and headed towards the historic Llandaff, a bustling community in the north of Cardiff which was only incorporated into the city in 1922. Llandaff was established as a religious site back in the 6th century AD, but had to wait until the 12th century for its first cathedral. The present-day building, however, is the result of much rebuilding in the 19th century.
During World War II, the cathedral was severely damaged during the extensive bombings of Cardiff. The city, which was not declared the capital of Wales until 1955, was heavily bombed by the Germans because it was one of the biggest coal ports in the world; in fact, more than 2,100 bombs fell in the Cardiff district during the course of the war.
The damage to Llandaff Cathedral was devastating; the parachute mine blew off the roof of the nave, south aisle and chapter house and the top of the spire had to be reconstructed.
Reputed to be haunted (a friend’s dying husband [an avowed atheist] swore he’d been joined on his pew by a ghostly monk), Llandaff Cathedral is a fascinating mix of ancient and modern with medieval graves juxtaposed against a vast concrete arch (personally I’m not a fan of the latter).
It was Sunday morning so we didn’t venture inside but wandering around the grounds, I was drawn to one of the stone statues jutting from high above. Unusually, the face looking down at me didn’t belong to a saint or a member of the religious fraternity; instead an open-mouthed soldier stares down, perhaps calling out his last warning.
We stopped for elevenses at the Bishop’s Palace, just a stone’s throw from Llandaff Cathedral. The surviving buildings are Grade I listed and the walled garden is quite idyllic, even in winter.
After a cuppa and some of Lidl’s best chocolate, we were off again (one of the drawbacks of winter walking is that it’s just too cold to hang about for long).
A short distance away, fifteen pairs of watchful eyes peer down at passersby from their lofty vantage point.
Animal Wall was designed by William Burges in 1866, although it wasn’t built until 1890, by which time the architect was dead. Burges might not have lived to see his vision but I think he’d have been pleased with the result, which continues to delight visitors and locals alike over a hundred years later.
The original Animal Wall was located in a slightly different spot from where it now stands (it was moved when the road was widened in the 1920s) but, thanks to a major refurbishment programme three years ago, the statues are looking just as good as when they were first erected, some of them forty years apart.
The original animals – a hyena, wolf, apes, seal, bear, lioness, lynx and two lions – were sculpted by Thomas Nicholls,
More animals were added in 1931; this time the sculptor was Alexandar Carrick, who produced a pelican, ant-eater, the raccoons, leopard, beaver and vulture.
In the 1970s, the Animal Wall was threatened when there were plans to widen Castle Street again; fortunately,the plan was abandoned before any lasting damage was done.
You really do have to see the Animal Wall to appreciate just how unique and wonderful it is. The recent refurbishment included restoring the animals’ long-lost glass eyes and, with their quirky expressions, they now look extremely lifelike.
Here are some of my favourites: