Waterhall and back

Woke up this mornin’, Local Development Plan on my mind.
Got Goodway’s prints all over it, it’s the bland leading the blind.
They say Cardiff must grow and grow, become a city region,
But that’s been tried for fifty years – just look at Abercynon.

They say there’s no alternative, they say like it or lump it.
Their true motive is simple: more people equals more profit.
How far do they want Cardiff to stretch? Well, what do you reckon?
That last line was composed to get the rhyming answer: Brecon.


I left at dawn, reaching Fairwater, parking at the Leisure Centre and setting out on foot before the city stirred. Within minutes suburbia evaporated behind me and I entered another universe.  What is that half-remembered sound?  Ah…it’s birds singing their ancestral songs from their leafy sanctuaries.  What is that half-recollected smell?  Ah…it’s the perfume of yarrow and knapweed and hay meadow wafting on the morning dew.  What is that half-familiar feeling?  Ah…I know…it’s freedom.

Through the long, hot August day I roamed Cardiff’s largest area of as yet undeveloped countryside in the undulating hills rising up from the lower Ely valley.  Here, among the farms, fertile pastures, woods, hedgerows, streams, copses and abandoned quarries, Cardiff currently grants living space for some species other than our own.  Not with a fenced-off, pay-as-you-enter ‘nature reserve’, nor a sterile, managed, municipal park, but with a multifarious, multifaceted, complex habitat where there’s enough scope, variety and sheer size for nature to genuinely rule the roost.  Soon, if the Council has its way, all this will be concreted over – and Cardiff’s last wilderness will be gone.

Apart from Fairwater and Pentrebane locals, few Cardiffians ever go here.  In nine hours I encountered just one other person.  And there lies the problem: unless humans are actively monetising and exploiting somewhere it is given no value and treated as dispensible.  The fact that it is the whole world for hundreds of other species with no other place to go carries no weight.  Man-made pecking-orders put man-made priorities at the top and the rest nowhere.  The goldfinch will trill dismay when the chain-saws arrive – but her consent is not sought or required.  The word for this is Speciesism: the patently self-deluding, self-serving and self-defeating human belief that the human is inherently superior to all the other animals.  Even though the Labour Council’s Local Development Plan is not a serious document, but the flaccid-phallus fantasy of palpitating pea-brains who don’t understand that more can be less, and despite the fact that the bankrupt boosterism it peddles is unlikely to happen so long as the UK economy keeps flat-lining, I was still conscious of treading on blighted ground marked for future destruction.  The ravishing beauty was intensified by a dull ache of regret.  I’d heard it so often before: “I remember when this was all fields…” my mother used to say about Llanrumney and my grandmother used to say about Penylan.  Now I could hear myself saying the same thing in 20 years time to my grandchildren about Waterhall.  Premature nostalgia.  This could be the last time…

Criss-crossing the area are a number of abandoned railway lines, providing a network of pathways that take you deep into otherwise inacessible zones. I followed the line of the ‘Waterhall Branch’, a fascinating, little-known mineral railway which, more by accident than design, is still largely extant.  Cue: nerdy history of the railways of western Cardiff.

The opening of the first Bute Dock in Cardiff in 1839 launched a frenzy of railway building as competing companies looked to get their slice of the Welsh coal-rush.   First out of the blocks in 1840 was the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) between Merthyr and Cardiff, destined eventually to become the largest operator with no fewer than 23 branches tapping into every valley spur and coal vein possible by the time the company lost its independence in 1922. Then came the South Wales Railway between Chepstow and Swansea in 1850, gobbled up in 1862 by England’s mighty Great Western Railway (GWR). Brunel’s masterpiece of engineering sliced across the southern coastal plain, cutting Cardiff in two in the process and giving the GWR the axial position from which it could dominate coal traffic to the docks.  Attention first turned to the bituminous coals of the upper Ely valley in 1860 with the opening of the Ely Valley Railway (EVR).  A speculative venture by a group of influential iron masters, the EVR ran from an interchange with the GWR at Llantrisant station all the way up the valley and over the mountain watershed at Penygraig to link with the TVR at Blaenclydach in the Clydach tributary of the Rhondda Fawr – the ultimate aim being to grab a share of the Rhondda’s superlative steam coals.  As the coal kept coming in ever greater quantities the EVR couldn’t help but succeed, despite never managing to really loosen the TVR’s grip on the Rhondda.  The collieries along the 9 mile line were profitable enough, the EVR raking in income from private sidings to mines at Lanelay, Ynysmaerdy, Coed Ely, Tydu, Caerlan, Collena, Ely Merthyr, Cil Ely, Dinas Isaf, Penrhiwfer, Ely Naval, Penygraig, Nantgwyn, Nant Rhondda and, the principal objective, the Cambrian Colliery at Clydach Vale – a rich cash cow for the EVR and its successors all the way through to the closure of the infamous pit (scene of two terrible mining disasters in 1905 and 1965) in 1967.  In addition the EVR had two substantial branches: the Mwyndy Branch to the iron ore mines and limestone quarries of Mwyndy and Brofiscin (still leaching pollution into the Ely’s catchment to this day); and the Gellyrhaidd Branch to collieries at Ely Llantwit, Welsh Wallsend and Gellyrhaidd, terminating at Hendreforgan where the EVR connected to another ambitious local company, the Ogmore Valley Railway.  Opened as a mineral line only, the EVR eventually catered to passengers too as the population of the pit villages soared, with stations at Llantrisant, Coed Ely, Tonyrefail, Penygraig and Clydach Vale.  Such a lucrative business couldn’t stay a small independent for long: in 1903 the EVR was swallowed up by the GWR to become a minor cog in the vast machine of “God’s Wonderful Railway”.  In the map below from 1900 just before the EVR lost its independence, it can be seen how the EVR opened up the Ely valley, how it connected to the two giant railway companies of south Wales, the GWR and the TVR, and how it paved the way for the Waterhall Branch via the next railway to appear in the district, the Llantrisant & Taff Vale Junction Railway (LTVJR).

Ely Valley Railway
Llantrisant & Taff Vale Junction Railway
••••• start of ‘Waterhall Branch’
Great Western Railway
Taff Vale Railway

The LTVJR opened in 1863, originally as an ambitious freight line carrying coal from the mines of Ely tributary valleys either to the Llantrisant railhead or, via a hair-raising incline over the mountain top at Tonteg, to the TVR mainline in the Taff valley at Trefforest.  This Pontypridd-Llantrisant route evolved into a busy passenger service with intermediate stations at Tonteg, Church Village, Llantwit Fardre, Beddau and Cross Inn in addition to private sidings for collieries at Taff Llantwit, Garth Llantwit, Red Ash, Tynant, Llest Llantwit, Duffryn Llantwit, Cwm and Llantwit Wallsend.  The railway had a complicated structure involving many tricky junctions, tight curves and steep gradients and included three main branches.  The Common Branch ran west to join the EVR at Llantrisant Common, the Treferig Branch ran north to serve the small pits of the exquisite Nant Muchudd valley, and what was called the Llantrisant No 1 Branch opened in 1886 from a junction at Cross Inn to run 10 miles south-east to join the 1859 Penarth Railway (PR) at Waterhall Junction in an effort to seek a more direct route to the coast.  Known as the Waterhall Branch, this single-track mineral line completed the LTVJR’s spidery layout.  Leased by the TVR almost from the outset and sharing much of the same management, the LTVJR only ever had nominal independence and was formerly absorbed into the TVR in 1889.  The Waterhall Branch failed to attract significant traffic and became reliant on Torycoed and South Cambria collieries and Creigiau quarry along its meandering route for its survival.  There were so many other quicker ways to get coal to the ports that the line was never a commercial success.  The opening of the Barry Railway (BR) in 1889 between Barry and Trehafod and then in 1901 the BR Rhymney Branch from Ty’n-y-caeau Junction near St Ffagans to Penrhos Junction near Caerffili gave even more options for the movement of coal and the Waterhall Branch became a superfluous backwater, its peace only disturbed by the BR’s two lines: both crossed the Branch on vaulting sandstone bridges at Creigiau and Crofft-y-genau which shook day and night with coal wagons rumbling to and from Barry Docks.  The map below from 1900 puts the Waterhall Branch into context.

Elv Valley Railway
Llantrisant & Taff Vale Junction Railway
••••• ‘Waterhall Branch’
Great Western Railway
Taff Vale Railway
Barry Railway
Penarth Railway

This intricate web of railways, which would be so useful today as part of the rapid transit system Cardiff so glaringly lacks, was short-sightedly dismantled as the coal economy collapsed and the private car gained ascendancy over public transport.  Rationalisation of the railway companies made no difference because the problem wasn’t organisational it was ideological: the idea that a balance sheet is the only measure of a service’s worth.  During WW1 railways were put under emergency UK government control and the centralising British state didn’t like to surrender that control when the War ended.  Wedded to the nostrums of ‘free market’ economies of scale, the Liberal government’s Railways Act of 1921 abolished all the small independents and grouped them into the ‘Big Four’ – the GWR, the London Midland & Scottish Railway, the London & North Eastern Railway and the Southern Railway.  In Wales the GWR took over everything, spelling the end of the line for many iconic Welsh companies, including the TVR, the BR and the PR.  The remote GWR giant began the steady closure of routes in the inter-War years and this continued through nationalisation and the creation of British Rail in 1947, reaching a peak with the Tories’ ‘Beeching Axe’ of the 1960s.  Engineering and infrastructure marvels that had been so painstakingly assembled were chucked away.   The only working railways left today in this sector of Cardiff are the original GWR line, an intercity without a single station between Cardiff Central and Bridgend (although Llantrisant station, closed in 1964, was reborn as Pontyclun in 1992 for local trains on the Maesteg Line between Cardiff and Maesteg); the original TVR line, stripped of all but two of its branches, between Cardiff and Merthyr; and a section of the old PR between Cardiff Central and Radyr that luckily was not hastily eradicated so, when planners finally twigged that ever-increasing car usage was making Cardiff unviable, could be reopened in 1987 as part of the vital ‘City Line’ that also utilised a section of the long defunct Cardiff Railway between Coryton and Queen Street and included new stations at Danescourt, Fairwater and Waun Gron.  New roads and housing developments have wiped out most of the other permanent ways, but because they ran through sparsely-inhabited farmland not hitherto wanted by developers much of the Waterhall Branch, the BR mainline and the BR Rhymney Branch (all closed in 1964) were left alone to gradually return to nature.  It was these intact corridors I wandered last week.

The route from Waterhall Junction to Waterhall Road was lost when Tangmere Drive, Fairwood Road, Kirton Close and Chatsworth Close were built in the 1980s.  At Waterhall Road the railway’s old tunnel signals the start of the substantial remaining abandoned trackbed, so that is where my walk began.  Taking a course up the little valley of the Nant Tyllgoed, the line moved from shallow cutting to high embankment as it skirted the Waterhall Plantation, wild woods of beech, larch, alder and oak where generations of Cardiff kids have camped out rough in the summer, once part of the Waterhall Estate of the David family of Fairwater House (demolished in 1990 despite being a listed building, Doyle Court was built on the site; the Estate farm made way for Cantonian High School, now Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Plasmawr, and the housing around Ashcroft Crescent in 1969).  The Waterhall Estate had been acquired originally by Evan David (1724-1761) through a shrewd marriage, and the Plantation laid out in the 19th century as cover where game birds could be flushed out and shot for fun by the minor Glamorgan gentry.  In Cardiff such feudal remnants are far from over: from this point onwards the land and the tenant farms are still owned by the Plymouth Estate – their violent seizure in 1095 by the Earl of Plymouth’s distant antecedents having not yet been rectified.  In a sublime landscape of enfolding hills I explored the cool groves of Coed y Gof (the Blacksmith’s Wood) as the temperature climbed with the sun.  Past Pentrebanau (the farm that gave 1960s council estate Pentrebane its cod-Welsh name) the track became increasingly overgrown.  In places it abruptly ceased at dismantled bridges, great blocks of Pennant sandstone being slowly worked loose by time, which necessitated small diversions through adjoining damp meadows.  I kept a wary eye on a distant herd of cattle, knowing that a woman out walking her dog was trampled to death by cows near here in 2009 – an exit to be avoided if at all possible.  I basked a while and ate my sandwiches.  Three buzzards circled high overhead.  Swifts swooshed and looped the loop low across the fields.  A thrush improvised a sweet solo from a chestnut tree.

Approaching the top of the valley the railway entered an ever-deepening cutting, dank and mossy and echoing with birdsong, where care had to be taken negotiating boggy stretches and fallen trees.  Suddenly I came to the intersection with the BR Rhymney Branch, which crosses the Waterhall Branch on a lofty, partly demolished bridge, its massive stone abutments looming ominously in the green ravine.  I could have clambered up onto the Rhymney Branch’s embankments and gone northwards on the foliage-choked track via the imposing arched bridge over Llantrisant Road at Rhydlafr then a passage under the M4 and on to the blocked Garth Tunnel.  Or southwards, to curve under Crofft-y-genau Road, drift past dreamy Slanney Woods and the grazing horses of Stockland Farm on a long muddy embankment down to St Brides Road, and arrive at the thundering A4232 bypass which utilised the BR’s cutting as far as the Wenvoe Tunnel at Culverhouse Cross (the north portal of the Wenvoe Tunnel is always worth hunting down in fields by the Valegate Retail Park).  But those are other blogs; I chose to continue westward.

On I trudged, under Crofft-y-genau Road, across the pellucid Nant Rhydlafr and Nant Dowlais, through the quivering Ty-du marsh as far as the M4 at Capel Llanilltern.  As it was getting on for 4pm and my dodgy knee was beginning to complain at this point I decided to proceed no further.   So, on this occasion, I didn’t reach my target still five miles away: the end of the line at Cross Inn, where the station building has survived.  And I was also two miles short of my secondary target: the formidable Creigiau Quarry where the BR mainline and the Waterhall Branch run parallel before crossing in a spectacular forested gorge.  The Quarry only closed in 2001 after 130 years getting ever wider and deeper.  First quarried for its dolomite ironstone, used to build Roath Basin and Roath Dock, later for its limestone used in the steel-making process at the Dowlais Works on the East Moors, Creigiau Quarry was a source of roadstone in its last decades.  From here, and the South Cambria coal mine a little to the north, the Waterhall Branch got most of its scant traffic, trundling down to Waterhall Junction at a stately 10mph.  To ride on such a train as it drifted sinuously down the gradient through the rural arcadia must have been wonderful.

As I limped back eastwards, occasionally tarrying to investigate the faint vestiges of a siding or a mile post, I realised sadly that, such is the clout of the unaccountable money-men who run the UK, these lovely foothills could well make way for another unwanted, unloved, semi-detached, burglar-alarmed Lego-land suburb where middle managers who have never had an original thought in their lives can pig out on ready-meals in front of their high-definition TVs.  That’s what the profiteering volume builders, drooling Council, parasitic estate agents and clamouring apostles of turbo-capitalism demand.  Cardiffians have one hell of a fight ahead to halt them and force the Council to change course, abandon the neurotic fixation with size, ditch the mean-minded materialistic idea that plenty is the ultimate goal of a society, preserve this marvellous landscape for future generations and reinvent the Waterhall Branch as a 21st century communications artery. It will require a campaign of the utmost determination and endurance and creativity and resistance – a campaign that must start with the people of Fairwater, Pentrebane, St Ffagans and Creigiau.

I reached home at nightfall, muddy, sunburnt and exhausted.  Next day I decided to write an article about my Waterhall walk, and to try my best to keep you reading right to the end.