At last, a dry bright morning. C, J and I stroll down past Alexandra Park towards Penarth Pier. Bafflingly a woman with a small dog says we look like the Three Musketeers. She may be unaware that the only fences we tend to come across are ones that divide fields.
After a coffee in the Pier cafe we set off, past another park, The Kymin, and through comfortable streets down to the classical, clock-towered Custom House (1865) and the start of the Cardiff Bay Barrage. The outlines of Flat Holm, Steep Holm and Lundy are clear out to sea, and across the bay the Millennium Centre reflects gold in the sun. The barrage is a fine thing, but does it not cut Cardiff off from its maritime roots? Dotted along its length are ‘facilities’, no doubt dictated by European Union rules or the conscience of the developers. None is convincing. ‘The Age of Coal’ is no more than a few large coal lumps and a truck on a stub of rail track. A children’s playground would be more use situated in Butetown. Dr Who inhabits a big blue shed opposite the Norwegian Church; outside, his police box totters over the water.
Beyond the Bay, with its random and unplanned scatter of big buildings, some of quality but most not, we pass County Hall (an architectural ‘loss of nerve’, says Pevsner) and round Atlantic Wharf. Straight on is Splott, where in the innocent mid-1970s I shared a terrace house near the Royal Oak (unwittingly) with a prostitute. But we turn right and find ourselves in Ocean Way. The name might suggest palm trees, cocktails and silence except for a few lapping waves. The reality is a thunderous, unhealthy road snaking in zigzags through the old Eastmoors. It’s flanked by small industrial units and offices, empty of any interest or refreshment but a branch of Greggs, where we stop for a sandwich. This stretch of the coast path is not its planners’ finest achievement: an improved route is needed, preferably one that follows the coast!
Past the new Western Mail building and a vast energy-from-waste plant under construction, then we go astray in the endless edgelands – signposting of the path is very poor in Cardiff – and find ourselves blocked at the entrance to a heliport. We’re not the only ones lost: a woman stops her car and asks plaintively if we can show her the way to ‘Land of Laminates’: she makes it sound as if it might be Narnia or the Elysium Fields. We disappoint her and retrace our steps.
Now we’re back at the coast. The Channel and foreshore are morose and grey, but on the landward side the path becomes more interesting. At Tremorfa it skirts Dwr Cymru’s huge new ‘waste water treatment facility’. Its towers, white globes and filter beds are clearly equipped to deal with every kind and quantity of human ordure. A sign announces a ‘cake storage area’, which suggests a children’s fantasy by Roald Dahl (a Cardiff boy) but may be used for another purpose. Strangely a few green ‘portaloos’ are scattered around the site.
Next is Pengam Moors, a desolate area of sand and mud: first, a bikers’ playground, a dump for gargantuan tyres and then, down below, a burnt-out sports car of indeterminate type and a travellers’ settlement, with alarming looking chickens, a couple of tethered ponies and a scrap of paper on which is written the word ‘hugs’. From the dunes we look back on the enormous Celsa steel works and a sea of derelict factories, electrical gear and industrial waste surrounding it, and onwards to an equally infernal Tesco Express übermarket spread out near the river Rumney.
The path follows the river, a sludgy meander, and grassy Lamby on our right, and the big lorries on Rover Way to our left. Post-industrial artists seem to have left several installations, including a skein of multicoloured plastic tubing draped over a coastal path signpost. We cross the river and veer off the path through a welcome pastoral, Parc Tredelerch, with its reedy fishing lake and swans, then over a blue footbridge across the main railway line to the edge of Rumney. On New Road the no. 44 bus is waiting to take us back to the centre of Cardiff.
This section of the path through Cardiff has its moments, but it will never be popular except for completists like ourselves. It has too many unpleasant and over-urban stretches and needs new routes. But at least it’s taken us to the threshold of one of Wales’s rare coastal flatlands, the Wentloog Levels. Another day …