More glorious spring weather today … and long may it continue. It’s now over six weeks since we left Albufeira and the beautiful Algarve coastline, so I was very excited to be heading back to the sea today, even if it was only up the road to Cardiff Bay and Penarth (both very nice, I should add).
Harri accompanied my middle daughter on a 17-mile run yesterday morning (she’s training for a race in Chamonix), hence, he was keen to give his tired, aching legs a well-earned rest. Our route, he promised, was almost entirely level with just one big climb on pavements halfway through the day.
Unfortunately, our arrival at Llandaff Fields (where parking is free at weekends but you have to pay on weekdays) coincided with Cardiff Junior parkrun, which we hadn’t realised is held there. With youngsters also arriving for a cricket match, it meant the car park was overflowing when we arrived and we had no option but to wait a while until some of the parents and the young athletes had returned to their cars.
One of the best things about Cardiff is the green belt that extends from Cardiff Castle all the way to Llandaff, the 1916 birthplace of author Roald Dahl. Collectively, Llandaff Fields, Pontcanna Fields and Sophia Gardens form a vast open space for recreational use. Whatever time of year we walk here, the fields are teeming with activity. Today was no different; as well as junior parkrun and the cricket match, there appeared to be two running events taking place – 5km and 10km distances – as well as other runners, cyclists, dog walkers and family groups, everyone enjoying the morning sunshine in beautiful surroundings. We joined the Taff Trail and smiled at the antics of several boisterous canines splashing around in the shallow waters. In the mid-nineteenth century, the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel came up with proposals to divert the 64-kilometre River Taff’ further west so that Cardiff Central Station could be built (the area was previously prone to flooding).
Not long after passing the Millennium Stadium (officially now called the Principality Stadium), we left the Taff Trail, crossed a bridge and joined the Cardiff Bay Trail. We strolled along the embankment, watching teams of rowers training hard (how frustrating it must be to have someone in a motorised boat next to you instructing you to row/work harder!). One of Cardiff’s water taxis chugged past, reminding us of a previous trip to the Bay.
Eventually, after an enjoyable stretch on boardwalks, a waymark instructed us to head slightly inland to cross the River Ely, the second, much shorter river that empties into Cardiff Bay. We passed Cardiff’s International Sports Village (comprising Ice Arena Wales, Cardiff International Pool and Cardiff International White Water) where inconsiderate parking seemed the order of the day (the way some cars were parked, it was clear their drivers had mounted pavements to position themselves on grassland).
We crossed the Ely on a footbridge and strolled into Penarth, a rather upmarket place which first prospered as a seaside resort in Victorian and Edwardian times. Once again, we were following one of the South Wales Long-Distance Walkers’ winter routes (this one rather imaginatively named ‘For the love of tarmac’). Harri noticed how, at this point in the walk, their GPS route disappeared into Tesco. With current public policy in Wales putting little importance on the provision of public toilets, it seems these intrepid hikers had used the only facilities around … and of course, liking to adhere to the precise route, we were honour-bound to do the same.
There’s a whole lot of water crossings in this part of the world and it seemed we weren’t done yet because we now had to cross the lock at Penarth marina. For once, our timing was impeccable and the lock gates were just closing as we approached. I’m not generally a huge fan of modern housing developments; however, Penarth’s waterfront properties are now sufficiently weathered to look like they’ve always been a part of the maritime landscape and provide the basis for a rather pleasant urban wander. Here, we had much better views of the distant Cardiff Bay, i.e. the beautiful red-brick Pierhead Building, Grade I listed and synonymous with the bay’s dockland history (it is now a visitor and education centre for the National Assembly for Wales), the distinctive Millennium Centre, the Senedd and the delightful Norwegian Church.
Looking across the vast expanse of water where speedboats and swans co-exist, it’s hard to believe that Newport might once have boasted its own barrage, one which would have created an artificial lake upriver from where the SDR bridge now crosses the Usk. The proposals were mostly supported by the people of Newport, with the majority of the opposition coming from those who lived in rural areas outside the city (still a town back then) borders, e.g. Monmouthshire angling organisations. Unfortunately, the then Secretary of State for Wales William Hague put the kibosh on a project which might have transformed Newport’s fortunes (and tidal mudflats) forever. Proponents of the scheme suspected Hague’s decision was political rather than environmental (Hague was a Conservative as were the marginal MPs in constituencies where the scheme was most opposed, whereas Gwent and Newport councils were Labour-run). Sandy Blair, Newport council’s chief executive in 1995 and brother of Sir Ian, said at the time, ‘A major opportunity to revitalise the heart of this once great port has been lost’ and I have to agree with him.
So Newport never got its barrage and twelve miles west, Cardiff Bay flourished. Anyone who still feels bitter towards Hague can take some comfort from the fact that none of those Usk anglers have had their Sunday afternoons ruined.
(The South Wales Argus published an interesting article about the ill-fated barrage scheme.)
The Cardiff Bay barrage was completed in 1999 and now it’s difficult to imagine what the area must have looked like before the freshwater lake was created. While the barrage was the catalyst for much development, there remain some eyesores. Penarth’s Old Customs House has been beautifully restored and brought back into use as a restaurant; however, the adjacent marine buildings, fire-damaged and badly dilapidated, continue to languish. With offers in the region of £2,250,000 sought for the freehold, it could be a long time before developers come to the rescue of the Grade II listed property.
Of course, these grand old buildings serve as a reminder that Penarth once had its own thriving docks. There were also regular sailings from Penarth to Bristol Channel resorts like Clevedon and Weston-Super-Mare in Victorian times.
We joined the Wales Coast Path and headed uphill towards the historic centre of Penarth. Though it is possible to make your way around the headland on the pebble beach, it’s probably not advisable (the cliffs are prone to rockfall) and the waymarked route takes hikers inland for a short distance. There has been talk of erecting a 1,100 metre pathway on top of the pebbles (a safe distance from the cliffs) but whether this will go ahead, I have no idea.
Personally, I rather like the present inland route. After a steep climb from sea level, the terrain isn’t too bad and the detour from the coast really isn’t as arduous as it sounds, mostly because Penarth’s historic properties are so striking. At the highest point, the views opened out and we got our first glimpse of open sea in over a month.
Our route had delivered us to the imaginatively named Penarth Head Viewing Platform, which originally opened in May 2015 and was fashioned to mirror the shell logo of the Wales Coast Path. It’s a great spot with several interpretation boards explaining what you can see in distance (though unfortunately it was too hazy to see much beyond Flat Holm and Steep Holm). Examples include:
- Flat Holm 3.1km
- Steep Holm 11.3km
- French coastline 310.6km
- Clevedon 20.9km
- Portishead 25.7km
- Second Severn Crossing 33.8km
- Newport Docks 17.7km
- Weston-super-mare 16km.
There were several unoccupied benches, so we decided to make the most of the breathtaking views and stop for an early lunch before heading down through the grounds of the Kymin, one of the oldest buildings in Penarth (it was built between 1790 and 1810).
The woodland path delivered us to Penarth’s promenade, dominated by its Victorian pier. The pier opened in 1895 and was limited to 658 feet in length so it wouldn’t interfere with shipping heading into Cardiff Docks via the deep water channel. Like many seaside piers, its fortunes have been mixed as social trends change. In 1931, fire destroyed parts of the pier and in 1947, a merchant ship weighing over 7,000 tons crashed into the pier. Two decades later, in 1966, Penarth pier was once again severely damaged when a paddle steamer hit it in dense fog.
The sunshine had brought everyone out, young and old, and it was very busy as we strolled along the pier’s length. Despite being high tide, the sea was as flat as a millpond. I watched a small girl splashing around in the murky brown water and tried to suppress recent memories of white sand beaches and clear seas.
Resisting some tantalising smells wafting from fast-food outlets, we headed uphill again through the very pretty Alexandra Park and along Church Avenue, a wonderfully leafy, historic lane with a flight of steps at the top end preventing through traffic. We emerged opposite St Augustine’s Church, a Victorian church built in the Early English Gothic style of the twelfth and thirteen centuries. St Augustine’s dominates the Penarth skyline and the church is known locally as ‘Top Church’ though whether that’s because of its architectural merit – it’s the only Grade 1 listed building in Penarth – or its hilltop location is uncertain.
The most notable person to be buried in the church’s rather overgrown graveyard is the Welsh composer Joseph Parry, who wrote the haunting song Myfanwy (my father loved the song so much he wanted to name me Myfanwy but my mother would have none of it and so Tracy it was … I’m with my dad on that one). A notice pinned to the gates informed us that the Friends of St Augustine’s are fund-raising to improve access to the much-visited grave.
Soon we were back at sea level and rejoining the Cardiff Bay Trail which now took us across the Cardiff barrage. We’d originally planned to stop for a drink in ‘the Bay’ but everywhere was so busy we decided not to bother. We joined the Taff Trail and made our way through Hamadryad Park and Cardiff Bay Wetlands Nature Reserve.
I’d wanted to smell the sea again and I’d got my wish!
If you want a mostly level walk through varied landscapes with some great views, here’s our route.