I am guided by a simple rule of thumb: whatever the authorities recommend, do the precise opposite. So, when the Met Office issued a most unusual red warning last week, strongly advising people to avoid all non-essential travel in south-east Wales, my first thought was: hmm, this is the perfect day for some non-essential travel!
In any case, I needed a break from the interminable rewrite of a book that will never happen¹ and from my stultifying backstreet milieu. I needed to get out in the sharp winter air, defragment overloaded brain-cells and take stock. I needed perspective, I needed the bigger picture, I needed to see Cardiff as a whole entity. In fact what I needed was altitude – wouldn’t you know it, the very thing the Met Office most stridently proscribed…
To that end, I went on an icy adventure. I went to four high vantage points to get my four favourite overviews of the capital of Wales.
FROM THE EAST: PEN-Y-LAN
No, not Cardiff’s Penylan; Newport’s Pen-y-lan. I drove out through Rumney and St Mellons and across Cardiff’s boundary into Newport country. At Castleton² I turned left off the gritted main road up narrow Coal Pit Lane. Here driving got more tricky, the car slithering and slushing up the hill between the snow-topped hedgerows. After going over the A48(M) and M4 bridges I then took a right into Pen-y-lan Road, a dead straight remnant of the Roman Road between Caerleon and Cardiff.
At this point I began to start thinking I should have listened to Derek Brockway after all. Only the tyre tracks of previous vehicles consoled me that the road was passable at all. I remembered a bit of advice my dad always banged on about: in snow stay in high gear. This is easier said than done – a bit like the advice I used to get in my motorbiking years about steering into a skid not away from it. Low gear growling feels as if it should deliver more grip than high gear freewheeling – but apparently not. With extreme caution, and after a heart-stopping loss of traction at the bottom of the hill, I reached my destination: the first lay-by at Pen-y-lan (‘the hill top’: like all Welsh topographical names, spot on).
I got out of the Fiesta with my binoculars and drank in the complete panorama of Cardiff that lay before me. Despite being in so many layers of clothing I was double my usual size, bitter easterly winds still cut into me like the slashings of a Stanley knife. The snow was getting heavier, covering even the tracks the car had just made. Great slate banks of grim, blanketing sky obscured Newport, the Wentloog Levels and the Severn estuary, but Cardiff was momentarily caught between maelstroms in a pocket of creamy light. Two buildings gave me my bearings: the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) and the Celsa Works, both on the coast. It was odd, because from this perspective and in these conditions the Tremorfa metal works looked like the palace of varieties and the Bay cultural hothouse like the industrial smokestack. Ah-ha, I pondered, this could be my first fresh perception of the day: something about the contradictory pulls and contra-indicative pushes of blue-collar/white-collar Cardiff…whatever, I can bend it into a plausible concept another time…I’ve got to get out of this blizzard before I’m trapped. Luckily, two vans came past and parked in the second lay-by (the drivers were probably intent on a bout of badger-watching, it’s an enduring cruising area) and by following the line made by their wheels I somehow got back to Castleton without having to call out emergency services, waste public money and put lives at risk. Responsible, huh?
FROM THE NORTH: Y WENALLT
Winter is the best time to see Cardiff from the Wenallt; the thick woodland is bare of the foliage that blocks views in summer. Cardiff Council’s ‘promoted route’ did not appeal, so I drove gingerly up Heol-y-Wenallt rather than Rhiwbina Hill and parked in the empty car park opposite the giant radio transmitters, menacing in the snowy fields like a batallion of alien invaders. Nobody was around. I meandered off into the woods, the snow scrunching with a pleasing rasp underfoot. All the footpaths were invisible, but I know these woods well. As I worked a zig-zag route towards the Wenallt’s brow, the best-known lines of American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) came to me, lines I had learned off by heart at school:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
But these are my woods too, I told myself; I don’t have to feel guilty.
There was a rustling sound behind me. A wedge of snow flopped silently to the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I think I spotted a small bird scurrying up a trunk. A treecreeper maybe? And then, quite suddenly, Cardiff appeared, shining bright in a monochrome wash through the stands of birch and beech. I stood and stared. Can that gleaming, futuristic city by a glassy sea be my dirty old town? Can those steepling towers and straining turrets really be my down-at-heel, tongue-in-cheek, pomposity-pricking, piss-taking warren of grey terraces? I formed my second insight of the day: something about distance lending enchantment which I can jazz up into a throwaway profundity another time. Back at the car park, still deserted, I just about coaxed the car over the thickening snow before virtually skiing down the hill in neutral, foot on the brake, to the comparative safety of Heol-y-Deri. I hadn’t needed any search-and-rescue teams. Resourceful, huh?
FROM THE WEST: LLANDOCHAU
I refuse point blank to call it ‘Llandough’, one of the most twittish bastardisations of a Welsh place-name in all of Glamorgan (and, believe me, that’s saying something). Everybody pronounces it more or less correctly as ‘Llandoch’ anyhow, to rhyme with the Scottish ‘loch’, and the ‘au’ suffix is familiar enough from Caerau and Pontprennau etc, so the correct Welsh is very easy. The very English ‘ough’, though, is extremely difficult to pronounce right, even for native speakers, being notorious as an entirely unphonetic string of letters with at least eight possible pronunciations. Why Victorian map-makers from London imposed this travesty is a mystery only explicable as complete contempt for Wales. Why the Vale of Glamorgan Council continues to use it is easily understood: complete contempt for Wales. I feel better for getting that off my chest.
The drive to Llandochau³ was unproblematic, busy Butetown Link, Cogan Spur, Barry Road and Penlan Hill all being clear of snow. I parked in the hospital car park and…hold on, this is an opportunity to tell a Rhodri Morgan anecdote. Years ago, after dropping my cousin off at Ysbyty Llandochau one evening (she had to have it all removed in the end), I was walking back to my car when the driver of a mud-splattered vehicle wound down his window and yelled “Do you know if there’s free parking after 7?” He was an agitated, dishevelled man in a crumpled anorak that had some sort of spillage down it. Next to him was a harassed-looking woman with melancholy eyes. It took me a moment to realise I was dealing with the then First Minister of Wales and his long-suffering Mrs, at the time the Cardiff North MP. Stunned that a couple on a combined income of at least £200k a year could be bothered about parting with a lousy quid in the pay-and-display, I kinda lost the plot. At the time I was, er, under a lot of stress and, um, on medication and, well, not my normal self. I launched into a garbled, shouty tirade through his window. The knee-jerk consummate politician kicked in. He patiently nodded in all the right places while Julie dredged a watery smile from deep within. The instant I paused to inhale some oxygen Rhodri grabbed his chance, muttered a reassuring sound effect and drove off hastily with a nasty clashing of gears, none the wiser about NHS parking regulations. What an operator! Carwyn would have had me arrested!
Okey-dokey, back to the narrative. At the rear of the hospital is the ideal place to get a Cardiff eyeful from the west, high on the cliffs of Triassic marls above the River Ely. I got up on a low wall to scan the sights. The snow was feathery and floaty but incessant and blinding. Because the air-flow was coming my way, Cardiff was noisy and pungent, moaning and hissing under its smothering shroud. The WMC, just ¾ mile away now, again insisted itself upon me. Rather like Uluru (Ayres Rock) in Australia, Jonathan Adams’ metaphor-laden lump can appear to change colour depending on the atmospheric conditions. It’s no armadillo; it’s a chameleon. In the bleached, pale, afternoon blur the bronze panels were unexpectedly silky black, as if rejecting a sky that would not let them glint. Ooh – a third realization in one day: something about ditching pre-suppositions and keeping an open mind – I’ll sculpt it into a coherent philosophy another time. It was 3pm and getting dark already, I had to hurry to complete all four compass points. I got home without roadside assistance in 15 minutes flat, had a coffee and headed out again into the whiteness. Redoubtable, huh?
FROM THE SOUTH: LAMBY
This one I could do by foot. Going via Tremorfa Park, the Wales Coast Path alongside the River Rhymni and Lamby bridge, I was squeezing through my secret gap in the hedge on Lamby Way within 30 minutes. As soon as I was the other side of the hedge I was trespassing on Council property: the flanks of the Lamby Way corporation tip. Do I need to say I don’t believe in private property? It was a slow trudge up the slippery man-made mountain, built of 40 years of Cardiff garbage.
In the gathering twilight willows whispered together in their winter swaddling. Herring gulls glided slowly overhead, sussing out the strange little man entering their domain. The tide surged up the Rhymni, drawn by a full moon just visible in the southern gloom. The snow had stopped, the temperature was below freezing, I lit a warming fag and kept climbing. By the time I reached the summit plateau, night had fallen. But, paradoxically, the pristine all-white landscape under a rising moon emanated more light than the sun had managed all day. A rare light, a light that Cardiff’s gaudy box of tricks below me could not match, a choreography of spangling luminosity sighing under the stars.
Only the gulls get a view of Cardiff from this angle. I strained to pick out features. All the little houses packed together…all the lives being lived…all the people…the poor people…hey, here was another brainwave to complete my day: something about shared humanity that I’ll tweak into a cliche-avoiding think-piece another time. I followed my own footsteps home. Self-nav, not sat-nav. Ridiculous, huh?
¹ If you should encounter me, please don’t say “How’s the book going?”
² The Castle after which Castleton (Cas-bach) was named is today a 5m (16ft) high, tree-covered mound in a private garden off Mill Lane. Known as Castell Gwynllŵg, its origins probably date back to the 6th century as a dwelling of Gwynlliw Farfog (c480-523), King of Gwynllŵg (Wentloog), before it was converted into a domineering motte by the Normans in the 12th century after the conquest of Gwent. This is speculation: the site has never been excavated.
³Llandochau is home to one of the great artifacts of Celtic Christianity, the intricately carved 10th century Irbic Cross in St Dochdwy’s churchyard, site of a 5th century Welsh llan.