At Bridgend we change to the miniature Platform 1A, gateway to all true adventures on the Vale of Glamorgan line. It’s cold and the fog is thick. The train creeps across the Porthkerry viaduct, unseeing and unseen. We leave at Barry – Barry Central to be precise, since like all respectable towns Barry has several stations – where J. is waiting for us, and the four of us start walking east.
Before long the path leaves the streets and joins the long straight line that marks the revetment of the docks. This is the place to come to revisit the glory days of South Wales’s export industry. Cardiff filled in many of its docks before rediscovering the potential of what remained for economic revival, but in Barry they’ve never bothered with either destruction or reconstruction. The vast expanse of water, reputed to be the largest dock in the world at the time it opened, lies undisturbed and deserted. Not that it’s easy now to imagine the docks in their heyday, jammed with hundreds of ships and boats, black with coal, and teeming with dockers, stevedores, longshoremen and lightermen.
Almost the only visual clue to what’s gone is Arthur Bell’s Docks Office (1897-1900), a huge brick and stone block with a heavy classical facade that stands in isolation half way along the dockline. In front of it stands the imperious statue of David Davies, Llandinam (Alfred Gilbert, 1883), head bowed, unscrolling his plans for world domination.
Barry would never have been more than a small village but for Davies and his feud with the Marquis of Bute. Like every good monopolist Bute preferred that all coal for export was channelled through his own Cardiff docks. Davies, not an compliant man and already a colliery owner and railway king, decided otherwise and set about building an alternative set of docks, and rail lines from the Rhondda to feed them. It took him only five years (1884-89) to open the first dock. By 1913 Barry was the world’s biggest coal exporting port; 11 million tons of coal left the port. Decline set in almost immediately, and the post-WW1 period brought depression to the town.
Only a student of the topology of industrial estates could claim that the next few miles are the Coast Path’s crowning glory. Heavy traffic thunders past. A lost dalek wearing a Christmas hat lurks outside a motor factor’s. The path follows sullen roads winding around the giant Dow Corning chemical works and past a small gas-powered power station, like Aberthaw’s reprieved from closure. On the eastern side are the scant remains of earlier, defunct chemical plants that once employed local workers after the docks declined.
Finally the path veers east across a field, and suddenly industry ceases and the houses of Sully come into view. Tidy bungalows line up on the left, owned by people with time on their hands. An elderly man comes out of one to strim what looks like an already over-tended lawn. At last we descend to the sea, today in glum, depressive mood. At Swanbridge, happily on cue for a bite to eat, comes a waterside pub, the Captain’s Wife. Despite TripAdvisor warnings from disaffected visitors (‘avoid avoid avoid’) it serves a decent haddock and thin chips, and beer from St Austell. We’re offered what’s termed an ‘upgrade’ to thick chips, but resist. As we emerge, Sully Island, shaped like a collapsed pudding just offshore, is brighter than it was. The fog has lifted and the sun shines.
Beyond Sully the coast sprouts caravan parks, forcing the path into muddy inland detours, until we reach Lavernock, where the crumbly cliff line bends north. Lavernock, a small hamlet, is thrice notable. Far below on the shore the fossils of dinosaurs are to found: the path keeps to the tops, and we miss them. It does pass a military fort, first occupied in the 19th century, where large WW2 gun emplacements survive, some in good condition. And a plaque in the churchyard wall of the closed medieval St Lawrence’s Church commemorates the day (11 May) in 1897 when Guglielmo Marconi and George Kemp of Cardiff succeeded for the first time in transmitting a radio signal (‘Are you ready?’) over sea water, six kilometres from Flat Holm to Lavernock. It’s a pity that there isn’t a more substantial monument and explanation of this historic event; a good place would be the lookout tower perched on the nearby cliff top. It’s left to a caravan proprietor (‘Marconi Holiday Village’ says the sign) to keep the great man’s name alive in these parts.
It appears that Lavernock has, happily, failed to win a fourth role in history, as the northern terminus of the latest version of the Severn barrage.
From Lavernock the path heads straight north. Walkers, entirely absent from the industrial leg of this section, become commoner, and a cyclist flashes past (a Geordie accent: could that be Tony Bianchi? ). There’s an abrupt transition from fields to suburbia, from rough track to tarmac, and here we are in Penarth, with its 1960s houses, each with its tacked-on balcony, and, later on, impossibly large Edwardian villas. A sign marks the visit of the French impressionist painter Alfred Sisley in July 1897, just two months after Marconi’s visit to Lavernock. He set up his easel by the cliff path in Penarth and painted a series of works showing the coast and ships passing in the Bristol Channel. Then he married his long term partner, Eugénie Lescouezec, in Cardiff before moving on to Rotherslade near Swansea, where he painted several superb views of Storr’s Rock. He and Eugénie died in 1898 after returning to France. They were both suffering from cancer and must have known that their Welsh holiday would be their last. The swansong paintings from both locations are in public and private collections, including the National Museum of Wales. The sign mourns the loss of a tree Sisley painted: it survived till about 2001 before falling into the sea, a victim of coastal erosion.
Down to the sea and the pier, newly restored and a thing of beauty. (How sad is the contrast with the pier at Colwyn Bay, reported that day to be condemned to demolition for want of a bourgeoisie of the Penarth kind to champion it.). We indulge in an orgy of camerawork – every angle is photogenic in the light of the setting sun – have a coffee, climb the hill to the station, and take the train back home.