What lies beneath

Cardiff’s primary, priceless asset is damp, alkaline river alluvium and grit on a bedrock of Triassic red marls: its soil. There could hardly be a better medium for growing plants than this wonderful free gift.  Such is the fecund fertility of the Taff/Ely/Rhymni delta, it was as much a factor as strategic position when the Norman invaders chose a site for their garrison.  It’s still there, under our feet, and if I can coax fat figs, buckets of blackcurrants and packed pea-pods out of my pokey back garden, then you can be sure this sweet, dark earth remains good stuff.  But since the Industrial Revolution a shocking 60% of Cardiff’s soil has been permanently eliminated, and if the Labour Council’s insane Local Development Plan is implemented half what’s left will be gone too. Given it takes around 500 years for just one inch of topsoil to be formed naturally, and considering the instability and unsustainability of the commodity-traded global market in food, this loss is profound and serious.    

The abundant, high-yield market gardens and kitchen gardens of pre-coal Cardiff have long gone (Canton was known as “the garden of Wales” until the mid 19th century), and apartment blocks and multi-occupied houses in the inner city along with ‘garden grab’ for extensions and car parking in the suburbs have left most Cardiffians without even the little plot in Splott I manhandle. However, the popularity of Cardiff’s allotments today reveals how our agricultural ancestry bubbles just below the surface.  There are 25 allotment sites across the city; most have long waiting-lists, but a few have vacancies and it’s important that the Council isn’t given any excuse to let an allotment go downhill, leaving it easy pickings for developers. The sites most in demand are the Pontcanna and Llandaf Fields allotments, off Western Avenue – lovely oases of tranquillity where bees buzz on the compost heaps, siskins forage in the hedgerows, and wine-glasses clink in the tumbledown summerhouses. Expect to wait 10 years for a plot here (unless you “know someone”); so the best chance of getting an allotment in the foreseeable future is at the less exclusive Leckwith Droves, the biggest allotment site in Cardiff, or Pengam Pavilion, the most neglected and overgrown.*

Cardiff’s cavalier treatment of its soil helps to deny the self-sufficiency in food that would be perfectly possible for Wales if the country were organised with wisdom and for the benefit of the people and the natural environment: something that can only begin to be attained in an independent nation not an exploited sub-colony. Meanwhile, the dumb damage goes on; and the earthmovers are shovelling away our moist, rich lifeblood across the city, from the wide marshlands of Wentloog to the rolling foothills of the Ely valley. As with all ‘green’ issues, the vast majority don’t give a damn – being far too busy fiddling with the remote control while phoning out for a pizza. 

If I were trying to raise awareness of this issue (which I’m not – because secretly I want humankind to reap the barren harvest it has sown) I would show people places in Cardiff where unadulterated, unmolested topsoil uncorks marvels.  Places like the Fforest Ganol Nature Reserve (one of just five Nature Reserves in the city – the others are Cardiff Bay Wetlands, Flatholm, Fforest Farm and Howardian). Fforest Ganol is the most westerly native Beech Wood in the UK, an ethereal cathedral of trees climbing the north-west hills of Cardiff between the steep gorges of the Taff and the Cwmnofydd.  Not five miles from Queen Street, you can get completely lost here, with only the elusive hawfinches and crossbills and the carpets of orchids and wild garlic for company under the majestic canopy.  

And places like Bute Park. Left to its own devices, Cardiff would revert to thick forest. When trees get their roots into the meaty wet sediments they thrive and grow to giant proportions, and Bute Park is the best place to see this spectacular copiousness.  Originally the grounds of the Castle, laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) in 1777, Bute Park came into the city’s hands as late as 1947.  Over 200 years of careful and varied arboriculture has produced a magnificent, spacious treescape.  Not to be missed are the paulownia, pterocraya, juglan, acer and idesia, which are the biggest of their type in height and girth in the UK.  There are 100ft redwoods, evergreen oaks, an avenue of ginkgos and a boulevard of limes stretching to Llandaf Fields.  

Cedar of Lebanon, Bute Park

Cedar of Lebanon, Bute Park

There are more champion trees in Roath Park (Magdeburg apple, Japanese red pine and Pyrenean oak), Parc Cefn Onn, where acid soils nourish a rare collection of firs, pines, spruces and cypresses towering in aromatic coniferous groves, Victoria Park and Insole Court. Unfortunately all these places are in the control of the Council, with predictable consequences. In Bute Park, for instance, protective codicils are torn up, language is turned on its head so “restoration” is re-defined to mean “ruination”, and the parklands are being gradually, remorselessly whittled away by officious clutter, brutal access roads, infantile visitor centres, superfluous commercial outlets and self-congratulatory municipal “art”.  If that weren’t enough, the Council fells far too many trees on utterly spurious ‘safety’ grounds. Lily-livered councillors, watching their own backs and always on the look-out for excuses to be interfering and bossy, readily grovel to the ludicrous nostrums of the “risk assessment” and if so much as a dry twig drops on someone then out come the chainsaws. Trees…these extraordinary vegetables…the largest and most long-lived beings on the planet…they must make our leaders feel so very small and irrelevant.

What is needed in Wales is the creation of a National Forest, a Coedwig Cymru covering all the hills and mountains grazed into lifeless deserts by intensive sheep farming, along with a bold programme of mass tree planting and aftercare in all towns and cities. I’m making a start, with guerrilla gardening around town. That Cardiff forest, waiting under the concrete, just needs a little help to reassert itself.

* Hiring an allotment costs about £40 a year – phone 2068 4069.

Picture: Ramon Jackson