Another scorcher of a Sunday, and Harri had plotted a circular seaside route from Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, where there’s oodles of free parking.
This wonderful oasis of tranquillity near Penarth has long featured in my family’s life. I remember taking my older daughters orienteering around the wooded trails when they were still in primary school (they are now 32 and 31). I also compete annual in the Cosmeston Relays (July), one of my favourite scenic races (quite possibly because it’s also one of the shorter ones!).
It’s hard to believe this peaceful place was a thriving limestone quarry for nearly a century, built by Cardiff’s wealthy Bute family to meet demand for cement to build houses in the ever-expanding south Wales towns. In fact, a cement works stood right next to the quarry on land that is now covered with modern housing. It production peaked in 1962, but seven years later the cement works closed and the former railway line running through the quarry and on to Penarth is now a popular cycle path.
The disused quarry was used as a site for household waste site until a 1966 government white paper recommended the creation of more country parks close to large towns. The rest, as they say, is history and Cosmeston Lakes Country Park opened to the public in 1978. Two of the original quarries form the current east and west lakes and two others were filled in and landscaped. The main footpath, Mile Road, runs through the centre of the park along the original road built by the Bute family back in the eighteenth century to link Cogan Hall farm to Swanbridge, once a small port but now just a pretty spot along the coast (more about that later).
Despite my frequent visits to the country park over the years, it came as a surprise to discover just how much land there is beyond the immediate lakeside areas. In fact, I had no idea these wonderful parklands extend for 100 hectares and are so crucial to plant and animal wildlife that the park was granted Local Nature Reserve status in 2013.
One of Harri’s reasons for choosing a relatively level walk today was because he’d twisted his ankle badly when out running. He was avoiding anything too strenuous while the bruising went down, but couldn’t bear to miss his Sunday hike. This circular walk from Cosmeston Lakes was ideal, particularly as there were several options for cutting the route short if we needed to.
One of the drawbacks of this unexpected heatwave is that everyone naturally wants to dash to the coast at weekends. Thus, if you want to avoid the traffic jams, it’s essential to get out early (and stay out late). Unfortunately, in our rush to leave the house, I managed to leave both my camera and my phone behind. Thankfully, Harri came to the rescue and suggested I take photographs with his iPad (an older version). Thus, I must apologise for the poor quality of today’s pics, particularly as the dazzling sunshine meant it was impossible to see anything on-screen … when we downloaded the photographs later, my thumb made an appearance in at least eight of them!
At Cosmeston, we passed swans, cormorants and ducks to join some sturdy boardwalks through tall rushes and soon emerged onto open fields. Sadly, Cosmeston Lakes’ popularity with dog walkers was evident everywhere, including right in the middle of the grassy footpath. This selfish couldn’t-care-a-toss-about-anyone theme continued when we approached our first farm of the day. Despite this being a waymarked route, the farmer had somehow secured a diversion of the original footpath. It meant that instead of just opening a gate and walking through the farmyard, walkers are now forced to battle their way through head-high nettles around an ugly concrete slab barn and then skirt around a foul-smelling slurry pile which, even in this driest of spells, looked very ‘moist’ in places. I tell you, the rural idyll isn’t all it seems … especially while council officials continue to yield to farmers’ dislike of walkers. It wouldn’t be so bad, only the majority of the diversions we encounter are, like this one: completely inadequate and poorly maintained.
We’d been climbing steadily for a while and now the views were beginning to open out. High on a hill behind us, St Augustine’s Church in Penarth was clearly visible, while ahead Barry‘s terraced houses spilled down slopes towards the sea.
We passed through Cog, where there was an old well and the Grade II listed Cog Farm, a large model farm which was built in the early nineteenth-century. There’s no doubt that the stonework is impressive; however, to my mind, the harsh lines of the property render it rather angular and utilitarian, not least because there was not a flower or tree – or even a hint of natural colour – to be seen anywhere. The whole property had a sort of holiday complex look about it, but without the usual attempt to make the immediate surroundings pleasant.
There followed a short stretch along a busy lane before we arrived in Sully where we were able to rejoin a pavement. The whole point of doing a circular walk was to enable us to walk along the coast for as long as possible. Unfortunately, as we have learned long ago, waymarked coastal paths – even one as lauded as the Wales Coast Path – frequently have lengthy inland diversions in areas where docks and industry dominate the landscape. Cardiff, Newport and Barry are perfect examples of where the Wales Coast Path gets decidedly non-coastal and dispiriting and, with Barry Docks approaching, those familiar shell waymarks were now directing us along a busy main road.
Harri believes the Wales Government could have pushed harder and used its considerable powers to ‘persuade’ the Port Associations concerned to make more of their land accessible to walkers. Unfortunately, the Government chose not to and, consequently, there were no new rights of way created as part of the Wales Coast Path. In fact, the only landowner taken to court was a Ceredigion man who deliberately blocked a footpath on Cardigan Island with padlocks and chains. He lost his legal battle.
What really angers Harri is that there exist perfectly accessible routes across the docklands at Barry (where there are numerous private roads) and in Newport, where a lengthy detour could be avoided if only the Wales Government would press Newport council to open an existing bridge across the River Ebbw to pedestrians.
These numerous inland – and, in the case of Newport and Cardiff, spectacularly depressing – detours are the reason I’ve never had any desire to walk the Wales Coast Path in its entirety. Instead, I prefer to revisit the more scenic sections of the Welsh coastline, places like Gower, the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and the Llyn Peninsula.
Our intention was to walk along the coast for as long as possible, so we ignored a waymark directing us back to the Wales Coast Path and found ourselves wandering among some of Barry’s finest … industrial units. There was even an opportunity to view the local landfill site before we veered onto the short footpath which would deliver us to the coast. Having lost my bearings (and the will to walk) a while back, I was somewhat surprised to immediate recognise the harbour wall and white lighthouse just east of Jackson Bay where we’d emerged onto the coast a few short weeks ago.
It’s fair to say that my first impression of this previously unexplored section of coast was lukewarm. The Wales Coast Path ignored this stretch of coastline for good reason. There was a small beach of red sand, after which the route across rock slabs looked somewhat precarious. Seeking an alternative, we followed a grassy footpath running parallel to industrial railings (the coiled barbed wire along the top only added to the delightful landscape), but almost immediately needed to drop to a wider path below. Unfortunately, the ‘drop’ was just that and was far too dangerous to attempt with rucksacks and Harri’s dodgy ankle. We retraced our steps and clambered down some rocks onto a wide grassy track. When this ran out, we found ourselves again on the rock slabs we’d hoped to avoid.
The walking wasn’t proving as level or as straightforward as we’d anticipated, and certainly it wasn’t ideal terrain for a dodgy ankle. When we reached a scary bit which involved levering yourself down onto a narrow ledge over a sheer drop and then pulling yourself back up the other side, I decided I’d had enough. One foot wrong and either one of us could find ourselves tumbling onto the rocks below.
Somewhat reluctantly, Harri agreed we should retrace our steps back to the earlier Wales Coast Path waymark, which is how we found ourselves enjoying the sweep of Barry’s industrial units for a second time.
After what felt like an eternity, we were finally back on the Wales Coast Path, where the level wooded footpath was safe albeit lacking any views. By now, elevenses were well overdue so when we reached a concrete quay, we made our way onto the pebble beach. Here, we enjoyed excellent views across the Bristol Channel towards Brean Down, the Mendip Hills and Minehead (Butlins’ vast pavilion tent means the Somerset resort is easy to spot from a distance).
We were fascinated by an odd-looking ship out in the middle of the channel, which resembled a small oil platform. It was only later we learned we were watching the controversial dredging operation (online petitions apparently attracted tens of thousands of signatures) which has seen about 200,000 m3 of dredge sediment removed from the seabed where the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is being constructed (on the England side of the Bristol Channel) and deposited on the Welsh side at Cardiff Grounds (a local licensed site). EDF Energy insist the sediment is not classed as radioactive under UK law and will not put at risk humans, or any flora or fauna. I sincerely hope they’re right.
Having never walked on the coastline immediately east of Sully before, we were surprised to find ourselves passing a line of high-end seafront properties with gardens extending to the stony footpath, Maybe it was the weather, but they put us in mind of the approach to Praia da Luz in the Algarve. On a warm summer’s day like today, this would be an idyllic place to live, but during those long winter months … I’m not so sure I’d want to be pummelled by ocean gusts every time I ventured out of the house.
It’s hard to believe now, but just a few short years ago, Swanbridge beach looked more like a bomb site than the rocky but perfectly accessible beach of today. Thankfully, there are people in this world who want to change things for the better. Fed up with the thousands of tonnes of rubble dumped here when the sea wall was strengthened in 1984, local businessman Gordon Hadfield took it upon himself to first buy part of Swanbridge beach from the Crown for £1 and then organise a mammoth clean-up operation. After several years of hard work, the result is a beach that can once again be enjoyed by local people and visitors. You really have to admire the vision and determination of people like Gordon.
We passed a directional signpost and learned that Steep Holm out there on the English side of the Bristol Channel was just 6.1 miles away, a distance which it would take less than an hour to run … if only I could run on water.
The causeway linking Sully Island to the mainland was exposed when we reached it. A large RNLI sign informs people to allow 40 minutes for a safe return crossing. The adjacent digital display revealed there were just 28 minutes remaining before the causeway became unsafe to cross and yet astonishingly several groups were still setting off. On Sully Island itself, several people were walking away from the causeway rather than returning to it. There are warning signs everywhere about the dangers of getting stranded on the island (or worse) by the rapidly rising tide. One – an enormous notice about 12 foot by four foot – pulled no punches, stating:
‘ Warning, warning, dangerous tides. Many people have been drowned attempting to visit or return from Sully Island. The causeway is a death trap. Please take care.‘
Another warns of dangerous currents. With just 28 ‘safe’ minutes left, we were amazed to see yet more people setting off across the causeway, intent on reaching Sully Island on this sunny afternoon whether or not it was safe to do so. Selfishness and ignorance are definitely on the increase. Last year, by the middle of September, the overworked emergency services had been called out no fewer than 18 times to rescue people who did not heed the RNLI’s advice (up from just one incident in 2012, 3 in 2013 and 10 in 2014). To date, there have been no fatalities but with such strong currents it’s only a matter of time.
We headed around Lavernock Point past some old World War Two buildings including a command post, a magazine and a workshop. Apparently, the crews used to sleep up here on the clifftop but their huts have long vanished.
It was here too that some of the earliest radio messages were sent. A plaque outside the church reads: ‘Near this spot the first radio messages were exchanged across the channel between the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp between Lavernock and Flat Holm on May 11 1897 and Lavernock and Brean Down May 18 1897.’
It’s strange to think that at this secluded spot, nearly 120 years ago, telecommunications history was made.
As we walked, the topography of the English coastline was transformed time and time again so that Brean Down now looked like an island rather than a headland and Bridgwater Bay like open sea. It’s these ever-changing perspectives that makes coastal walking so enjoyable. A wooded clifftop path provided limited views (and the occasional very dangerous and exposed drop – be careful if you’re walking with children or dogs) so we picked up speed and eventually emerged onto the wonderful high-level path lined with benches.
Sadly, my little tub of mascapone hadn’t survived the heat, so Harri gallantly shared his sandwiches with me, then produced two little continental lagers kept deliciously cold with ice packs. And he wonders why his rucksack always feel so heavy! What were already splendid views became even more compelling when the Red Arrows suddenly soared into action in the skies over the Bristol Channel.
With our shorter-than-usual walk nearly finished, we lingered in this popular spot, until eventually it was time to get the old legs moving again (believe me, after a prolonged stop that can be quite difficult!). Penarth promenade and pier was noticeably quieter than on our last visit a month ago, something Harri attributed to the seaside town’s lack of a sandy beach.
We usually visit Penarth and Cosmeston Lakes separately and I’d never really considered them as being close to one another on foot. I was surprised to learn these two popular spots are within easy walking distance of each other thanks to the creation of a cycle and footpath along the old railway line that used to run from the cement works at Cosmeston to Penarth.
By our standards, today’s walk had been a stroll in the park … but what an enjoyable stroll it was.
If you’re interested in doing a circular walk along this stretch of the Wales Coast Path, here’s a link to our route. And unless you enjoy industrial units and scary drops, I’d recommend returning to the coast along the waymarked route.