300 tonnes of sand have been dumped in the Oval Basin to create an artificial beach during the school holidays, with all the trappings of a retro seaside holiday on hand to fleece the easily-led: ice-creams, burgers, fairground rides, deckchairs and buckets & spades – add naughty postcards, kiss-me-quick hats, blokes with hankies tied to their heads, dog shit, dubious amusement arcades and a predatory paedophile or two and it could be Trecco Bay back in the Swinging Sixties! Oh, and there’s one more rather important thing missing from this jolly seaside scene: the sea.
Just ¾ mile away due east can be found not a pee-green freshwater lagoon but the actual sea, not a virtual simulation but a real beach. Here nobody is encouraged to go. So that’s where I am whenever I’m free on these slow, becalmed days of high summer: Splott Beach.
Along the cliff top sea buckthorns, smothered in orange berries, form a belt of thick vegetation with glinting white poplars, stunted ashes, rowans sagging with red fruit, tangled hawthorns, ever-adaptable sycamores, twisted dwarf oaks and, dominating the competition for nutrition on the barren man-made ground, the blackthorn. Prunus spinosa, in Welsh draenen ddu, is a pioneering native plant, able to thrive in any conditions and fix and enrich the soil for other plants to come. Its densely-packed, subtly-scented white flowers open well before the leaves in early spring to catch the first pollinators, and now, in August, its spiny branches are laden with its purple-black sloes. I’m filling carrier-bags with them, to make jams and jellies and flavour gin, and likewise am helping myself to elderberries and blackberries galore for wines, sorbets and pies. Financial cost to me, apart from wear-and-tear on my cheap trainers? £0.00p.
In the path-side hedgerows wild parsnip, wild carrot, sea holly, alexanders, rosebay willowherb, horsetail, chicory, fennel, ox-eye daisy, yarrow, sorrel, vetch, everlasting pea, sow thistle, teasel, tansy, knapweed, coltsfoot, ragwort, burdock and centaury jostle for space, a kaleidoscope of colour and fragrance teeming with butterflies, moths, bees, grasshoppers and ladybirds. Even out on the beach, a scandalous dump for Cardiff’s industrial waste for decades, nature will not be denied, needing only time and tide to repair and reinvigorate the most defiled environments. Sea beet (Beta vulgaris, morfetys in Welsh) has begun the seemingly impossible task of breaking down the hostile, sprawling mounds of slag, brick, concrete and clinker, sending its probing tap-root deep through the debris in search of sustenance and so widening crevices for seawater to enter and erode further. Beyond the mean high-water mark, identifiable by lines of salt-smacked bladderwrack and bleached tree trunks, sea plantain, fern grass, campion and fescue bind the seaward bank, home to voles and rabbits.
I like Splott Beach best at low tide when the vast inter-tidal mudflats are revealed and I can scan the panorama with my binoculars, from the towers of the Severn Bridge floating like a mirage in the far east, to the rugged hills of Exmoor in the far west. In the watery light it’s hard to tell where the mud ends and the sea begins. Every single white dot across the shining flats is a feeding or roosting seabird – countless thousands of herring gulls, black-headed gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, and I’ve spotted dunlins, cormorants, terns, oyster catchers, gannets and shags too. The price I pay for this sensational, pleasurable experience? £0.00p.
It’s fitting that Cardiff has latched onto the ‘urban beach’ fad adopted by many cities in recent years, and prefers to fake a beach rather than deal with its extant ravaged coastline. Cardiff, after all, is all about pretence; from the mock-medieval castle, through the mock-classical civic centre, to the mock-maritime bay, to the panoply of mock-national institutions set up to hoodwink enough twp Taffys into believing nationhood has already been attained so there’s no need to struggle for the genuine article, and topped off by that ultimate false pretender: the powerless mock ‘government’ in the nearby Senedd.
The Oval Basin, supposedly a public space for all the people, is appropriated until September for a tiny proportion of the people: those poor souls so bereft of inspiration they require a municipal local authority to arrange their leisure time for them. I don’t mind: it keeps them away from my wild and lonesome foreshore paradise. Don’t tell anyone.