It’s a dry and sunny morning after torrential rain in Swansea. C and I are drawn back irresistibly to the famous ‘Rhoose Point Transport Interchange Car Park’, this time with H as our companion, for a gentle amble east to Barry.
Suburbia is the theme of the first section of this stretch of the coastal path. Tudorbethan houses and jumbo caravans compete for the sea views, sometimes with near disastrous results: 15 caravans were left teetering on the cliff edge at Porthkerry after a landslip in 2011. The danger of cliff landslides gives rise to the richest repertoire of Falling Man signs we’ve yet come across on the Wales Coastal Path. As C points out, a couple of the falling men seem to meet their vertical destruction with satisfaction or even joy.
The other threat to the coast is quarrying, which has removed huge areas of land, leaving only thin barriers to resist sea erosion. One day the sea will devour big chunks of this coast.
Our first stop is Rhoose Point, an unspectacular and gap-toothed cliff but one that marks the southernmost point of mainland Wales. The land to the north looks ruined by quarrying. Near the Point the path passes a circle of stones with an ‘obelisk’ in its centre. Could this be a prehistoric monument? Gorsedd stones planted by the Flemingston fantasist Iolo Morganwg? The truth is more prosaic. An inscription explains that Blue Circle Cement placed the stones in 2000 to mark the ‘restoration’ of the area. (Blue Circle itself is now a part of history, having been taken over in 2001, in a familiarly depressing process, by an overseas company, Lafarge.)
At Porthkerry the path tours a caravan park and skirts the Iron Age site called The Bulwarks, its ramparts lost in a tangled mass of trees and overgrowth, before descending to the Country Park. Mysterious signs in the Park seem to warn about the dangers of big cats on the loose. Planes descend low to land at Rhoose. A coal train rumbles over the viaduct. We ignore the official path that climbs steeply up the opposite cliff and walk across the pebbles and horizontal slabs of Jurassic limestone on the beach. Bull Cliff has a vertical, alternating shale and limestone base, then softer Lavernock shales, then limestone of an almost Mediterranean yellow, and finally a fringe of precarious wood.
We clamber up from the storm beach over waves of pebbles to reach the outskirts of Cold Knap. H recalls her family trips here as a young girl, before most of the housing we can see was built. The swimming pool has vanished, but fragments survive of the other features, like the boating lake. Diverting from the path we come across an excellent café before leaving the Knap by a ramp at Watch House Bay to cross the sand at low tide to Barry Island.
The Island is another place where memory has to work hard to recall the past. Butlins is long gone (the camp finally closed in 1996). Its chalets been replaced by new houses – as identikit as their predecessors, complete with toy mini-towers. We do an anticlockwise circumambulation: to Friars Point, round the fine sandy sweep of Whitmore Bay and its hibernating amusements, past the harbour bar and lighthouse, echoing the lighthouse of Flat Holm island in the distance, and along the streets of the older houses, which cluster on the Island’s east side. A few towered Penarth-style villas soon give way to Victorian terrace houses for workers in the docks and the railway. Looking over allotments down to the docks below, quite empty now, it’s hard to imagine how busy this vast port must have been a hundred years ago. David Davies first opened his first dock in 1889, in his successful attempt to break the Marquis of Bute’s stranglehold on coal exports, and by 1913 Barry was the largest coal exporting port in the world.
But this is to anticipate the next stretch of the coast path, which passes through the docks. For now we cross the Island causeway, past the remains of limekilns at Storehouse Point, and take a train from Barry station back to the ‘Transport Interchange’ in Rhoose.
Cold Knap Lake
We once watched a crowd
pull a drowned child from the lake.
Blue lipped and dressed in water’s long green silk,
she lay for dead.
Then, kneeling on the earth,
a heroine, her red head bowed,
her wartime cotton frock soaked,
my mother gave a stranger’s child her breath.
The crowd stood silent,
drawn by the dread of it.
The child breathed, bleating
and rosy in my mother’s hands.
My father took her home to a poor house
and watched her thrashed for almost drowning.
Was I there?
Or is that troubled surface something else
shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows,
where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness
after the treading, heavy webs of swans
as their wings beat and whistle on the air?
All lost things lie under closing water
in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.