Across the great divide

The coming of the South Wales Railway (SWR) between Chepstow and Swansea in 1850 created a horizontal barrier across Cardiff. Engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), the SWR’s sole purpose was to get to Ireland by the most direct route possible (the transatlantic port of Neyland was reached in 1856). It was never conceived to serve Wales and it was only through incidental consequence that it came to provide southern Wales with a main line passenger service as well as become integral to the area’s industrial development by connecting to all the coal-mining valleys. Closely associated with the Great Western Railway (GWR) from the outset, the SWR was wound up and transferred to the GWR in 1863. Brunel was dead by then, but the engineering genius had already overseen his magnum opus: the GWR’s London to Bristol broad gauge railway. Ultimately, following the construction of the Severn Tunnel in 1886, the GWR established the direct link between Wales and London.

In the 160+ years since the GWR’s chocolate and cream livery first steamed into Cardiff there have been many changes: the conversion from broad to narrow gauge in 1872, bringing the GWR into step with all the other railway companies; the grouping of the UK’s 120 independent railways into just four in 1923, giving the GWR control of the entire Welsh network; the nationalisation of the railways in 1947, creating bungling, bureaucratic British Rail; the savage cuts and closures of the 1960s following the Beeching Report; the botched privatisation of British Rail in 1993, which enriched a few shareholders and imposed the ludicrous separation of track from train operations, the highest fares in Europe and a hotch-potch cartel of franchises (in Wales First Great Western – no relation – and Arriva Trains); and the devolution of limited transport powers to Wales in 1999, which has brought some modest, localised improvements within the crippling parameters of London’s continued control of the network and infrastructure projects. However, one thing hasn’t changed: the east-west main line still acts as a major impediment to north-south mobility in Cardiff. Slashing the city in two, it often forms an impenetrable blockade requiring long diversions and counter-intuitive initiative to cross.  In the line’s 14 mile, straight-as-an-arrow stretch across the modern city’s full width there are 36 ways of getting from one side to the other.

Crossing points

Diagram showing the 36 crossing points in Cardiff (other railways in black)

Regular readers will expect me to have explored each and every one of them – and I have. Starting from the east:

1 Heol Lâs (road over)
This ancient country lane from St Mellons to Peterstone Wentloog was initially traversed by a level crossing, with no account taken of the inconvenience and danger this was going to inflict on the then thriving farms of Gwynllwg on the Gwent Levels. It wasn’t until 1910 that the current bridge was built, earth embankments lifting the lane onto a plain, functional cast-iron beam over the wide, four-track line. Weeping rusty streaks from its rivets, the bridge offers views unblocked by fussy Nanny State suicide-prevention barricades. It is scheduled to be replaced in 2015 when the line is electrified, no doubt by a characterless concrete crossing strangled by obligatory Health & Safety overkill. The Heol Lâs Reen (drainage ditch) that runs parallel with the lane and under the railway in a culvert is today’s Newport/Cardiff boundary.  

2 Trowbridge Road (footbridge over)
The 1925 Pill Du footbridge from Hendre Road to the Levels was removed in 2001 to bar access to the Freight Terminal and the hideous Wentloog Corporate Industrial Park on the south of the tracks. This effectively made the Levels and its web of rights-of-way out of bounds to walkers, because for nearly 2 miles between Heol Lâs and Trowbridge Road there was now no way across. At the same time, the opportunity to build the railway station at Pill Du that St Mellons so desperately needs, to reduce car dependence and bring the out-on-a-limb eastern suburb in from the cold, was not taken: the idea currently festers in a filing cabinet somewhere.  The next crossing is therefore ¼ of a mile west, one of Brunel’s original SWR bridges originally intended for farm traffic until, when the Trowbridge estate was built in the 1960s and the farms were obliterated, the access road was blocked and allowed to disintegrate and the bridge became a footbridge.  You can still walk across today – but who would want to, when it only leads to another malignant, hostile, half-empty ‘business park’ called, with no irony intended, the Wentloog Environmental Centre. Here is Cardiff’s only wind turbine, the 80m (260ft) high ‘Ecotricity’ windmill erected for the adjacent solar panel factory in 2011. For the sake of powering a piddling 1,000 homes the swishing triple-blades are visible all over east Cardiff; a depressing reminder of the cynical insincerity of the burgeoning greenwash sector. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might believe it was all a cunning capitalist plan to bring environmentalism into disrepute. The fact that the Wentloog Levels are supposed to be a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) “protected by law from damage by development”, as well as both an EU Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA) enjoying “strict legal protection”, would be funny were it not so tragic: the most fertile, productive soil in Europe, the vital wetland sponge that can naturally deal with flood and coastal inundations, the sweet, sodden earth that fed Glamorgan for centuries, has been plastered with jerry-built sheds, roundabouts and tarmac. Now Pinewood film studios are moving in, on the back of bribes,
I mean inducements, from the Welsh government who own the ‘Energy Centre’ building. First Minister Carwyn Jones says this will “generate £90million for the economy” and be “good for Wales” (translation: there might be a few cleaning jobs wiping up after Cate Blanchett). A glance across the Severn to the very similar Somerset Levels, under water for the last two months, gives a clue to what can be expected here before too many more formulaic blockbusters get to the multiplexes.

3 Skew Bridge (road over, disused)
Wentloog Road, from time immemorial, ran from the main highway across south Wales, through Rumney village and then meandered south-eastwards down to the sea bank at Rumney Wharf. It was too important a road for the local agriculture and fishing economy to be ignored so was given its own bridge over the railway from the outset. Because road and rail intersected on a diagonal, Brunel engineered an interesting Skew Bridge in unadorned cast iron for the purpose. In the 1990s the Labour Council decided to surrender the Levels to useless light industrial units and speculative business parks, the better to conceal the inherent insanities and inequities of the UK’s market economy behind a fig leaf of perpetual ‘growth’.  Wentloog Road south of the railway was eliminated to make way for the tiresome no-through-roads of these deserted eyesores and the Skew Bridge was left with nowhere to go. Now the remnant cul-de-sac leads to a filthy fly-tippers’ paradise alongside a scrap yard in a landscape of utter decrepitude and neglect. There is no way through to the bridge, due to be demolished when the line is electrified – unless, perchance, you’re the rebellious type willing to slip past the guard dogs, scale the barriers, negotiate devouring muds, squeeze through bramble thickets, pick your way around barbed wire and stand, for one last time, feasting on the view from the Skew, skewered by skulduggery.

4 Mardy Road (road over)
The route from Wentloog Road down to Maerdy Farm was also given a bridge over the railway. Again, because the bridge was only ever seen by the farmers and agricultural labourers of the sparsely-populated Levels, Brunel stuck to a plain cast iron up-and-over and didn’t indulge in any of the fancy embellishments he gave his high-profile bridges in urban areas. In the 1930s the construction of New Road from the bottom of Rumney Hill to Mardy Road paved the way for Rumney to be swallowed up by Cardiff (in 1938) and mass infill house-building. Extra traffic was then further generated by the Trowbridge estate, the Lamby Way rubbish tip and the multitude of ‘enterprise parks’ (I’m sorry, I’m incapable of typing that phrase without putting inverted commas around it), with the result that a bridge designed for horse and cart now groans under the strain of perpetual pantechnicons. It had to be widened to cope in the 1980s; a modification achieved by eliminating pedestrian pavements altogether and compensating with a derisory steel footbridge immediately to the west. The outcome is a phenomenally ugly no-go zone where the man-made embankments are intricately entangled with the accumulated litter of decades. This mess could be sorted out: here is the ideal place for the Rumney/Trowbridge railway station that is so conspicuously missing from Cardiff’s railway map.  

5 Penstaff Bridge (footbridge over)
The SWR unceremoniously severed an old trackway from Brachdy Lane to a huge meander of the River Rhymni where small fishing boats were tethered. The fishermen, clay diggers, shrimpers and low-tide mud scourers of Rumney kept on using the route and were eventually given a level-crossing by the GWR authorities in Paddington until a purpose-built footbridge was erected in 1907 and named after a nearby farmhouse (now demolished).  The once criss-cross girdered bridge was cheapened by new blue-painted metalwork and horrible decorative parapets that obstructed all views in the 1990s. It now leads to strangely seductive Tredelerch Park and its swan-swam lake, the Rhymni’s great hairpin bend having been pointlessly eradicated in the 1980s.

6 Southern Way Flyover (road over)
Also called the East Moors Viaduct, this curving, concrete colossus between Newport Road and Rover Way, completed in 1984, was required to straddle the River Rhymni twice as well as the railway and is thus 900m (3000ft) long, Cardiff’s second longest bridge after the Grangetown Viaduct. Envisaged as part of the A4232 ‘Peripheral Distributor Road’
 that we’ve been waiting for 20 years and counting to be completed, the flyover is a structural engineer’s wet-dream with its box-girder segments, its chunky struts marching across the flood plain and its elegant, sweeping lines. For drivers it is less pleasurable: the only part of the entire A4232 with just two lanes blocks all views of the snaking Rhymni below with unsightly high panels – perhaps wisely, since motorists could easily become airborne and end up in the river if distracted by the panorama while negotiating the far too tight never-ending bend.

7 Rhymni Bridge (river under)
Even Brunel couldn’t make a tidal river jump his railways, so to get past the Rhymni the railway had to do the bridging. Future potential shipping on the waterway was ruled out by a simple beam bridge on the level, squatting on round pillars so low that you’d have to duck your head passing underneath in a kayak. The bridge is not a thing of beauty, but at 164 years old it’s certainly standing the test of time in those claggy, sucking clays. 

8 Rover Way (road over)
This was originally just a level crossing leading to Pengam Farm and the East Moors, immediately west of a flat, low beam bridge over the Nant Fawr, then a lively tributary of the Rhymni. As the GWR got busier and busier with the coal boom, a bridge was built in 1905. To span the  railway at a point where the GWR’s vast marshalling yards made it even wider than usual, and where space was restricted between Rumney Common (Newport Road), the Nant Fawr and the Farm, necessitated an unusual S-shaped bridge. That S-shape was retained when the bridge was upgraded in 1963 after the Rover car company had been plied with enough brown envelopes by the Welsh Office to set up a short-lived operation on the Moors. At the same time the Nant Fawr was diverted in a drain to the north and its railway bridge was underfilled. Today this is one of the nastiest spots in all of Cardiff, a contemptuous cocktail of growling traffic, noxious fumes, repulsive superstores and bottom-of-the-barrel fast food outlets without a single redeeming feature. Brave souls might want to risk a walk up to the parapet for glimpses of the dried-out, garbage-choked vestiges of the original course of the Nant Fawr and the view westwards over the superstore sheds where once were the sidings and yards of the GWR, to Longdyke Junction. Here the GWR’s Roath Dock Branch, opened in 1903, branches off through Splott and down to the docks. It still exists, somewhat surprisingly, carrying heavy, rumbling, slow-moving freight trains from Cardiff’s last working dock (the Queen Alexandra) via the grippingly grim Tidal Sidings. Rover Way, where the medieval Pont Rhath once crossed the Nant Fawr at Cardiff’s eastern limits, is the ideal position for a local station to serve Roath, Pengam and Penylan; and the surviving branch line could be utilised as part of an orbital service to Splott, Cardiff Bay and back into town…whoops, there I go again, dreaming of the day when Cardiff is organised for the benefit of its people…  

9 Beresford Road Bridge (road over)
Just before getting to this fascinating bridge the main line was crossed by another railway: the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) Roath Branch, opened in 1888, which ran from a junction on the TVR main line at College Road, Llandaff North, around Cardiff’s then northern and eastern edge and down to the 1874 Roath Basin and the 1887 Roath Dock. It is bad enough that what could now be a very useful passenger line was closed for good in 1968, and even worse that much of it was subsequently built over or removed, including the magnificently serious Pennant Sandstone bridge over Newport Road which stood where Dunelm Mill now suppurates, but it beggars belief that as recently as 2007 the remnant Roath Branch bridge over the main line was demolished. It had served as a handy walkway between Spring Gardens Terrace and Horwood Close, a 1980s housing development on the site of the old CWS biscuit factory, but such an amenity couldn’t be monetised so it had to go (sections of the old branch’s track bed can be explored further south on the strictly prohibited extant embankment behind Moorland Road, now a wonderful wildlife corridor reclaimed by nature). The Beresford Road Bridge is a short distance to the west.  When the SWR was built it was Spring Gardens Road, a simple boarded walkway across the tracks leading to the still virgin and unpopulated Moors. Splott was laid out on the East Moors through the 1880s and by then the Royal Oak pub on Broadway had become the bustling eastern terminus of Cardiff’s tram system. Despite the huge increase in foot traffic on the level crossing, neither the GWR or Cardiff Corporation thought it worth going to the expense of a bridge – until disaster struck in 1899 when three people were killed outright by a high-speed train while rushing to catch a tram at the Royal Oak. The renamed Beresford Road got its long overdue bridge in 1908. But nobody anticipated the heavy traffic it would have to bear, and nor was the distinct humpback constructed to the high standards of the Brunel era. By the 1970s it was a designated ‘Pont Wan’ (Weak Bridge), and so it has remained even after various strengthening works. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped the Corporation’s successor, Cardiff Council, behaving with the same old cavalier short-termism. As much axle-loads as possible have been encouraged over the bridge to get to the foul industrial belt the Council has plonked on the Moors, and now their hair-brained, illegal and corrupt Splott Incinerator scheme will bring the large dump-trucks of half of Wales this way. Lorry drivers guided by their satnavs along the most direct route don’t see the weight limit (7.5 tons) until they are virtually upon the bridge. Some then attempt impossible reversings and U-turns which cause gridlock; most ignore the limit and drive on, weakening the structure further. One day soon there could be another disaster – a disaster that would make the 1899 tragedy look like a minor incident. Note the way that, owing to odd vortexes, litter collects on the bridge brow and, defying gravity, swirls in macabre maelstroms.  

10 Splott Bridge (road over)
The long, continuous terracing of Pearl Street to the north and Railway Terrace to the south mean the next crossing is an inconvenient ½ mile away at Splott Road. Splott Bridge began as a narrow beam bridge that utilised the well-worn lane between Upper Splott and Lower Splott Farms. Soon surrounded by streets on both sides, it was replaced by today’s wide, hump-backed, iron-clad span in 1899. The leviathan rusted silently over the decades through all Splott’s struggles until given an incongruous multi-coloured paint job in 2010, designed in op-art geometric wedges by Andrew Smith. Apparently the grimy iron parapets gave a “bad impression of Splott” (translation: “an accurate impression of Splott”). Already flaking and fading and almost as grimy as before, the kaleidoscope of clashing primary colours has failed to achieve the magical transformation promised; on the contrary, it only draws attention to and emphasises the surrounding monochrome poverty and general shabbiness with its unmistakeable air of a deluded gesture – the urban planning equivalent of a leper slapping on panstick. It will take much more than cosmetic surgery to lift Splott: a start could be made by re-opening Roath station, which also dates from 1899 but was closed in 1917 during the chaos of WW1 . The station entrance was on Pearl Street, at the back of what is now the Old Illtydians Club, and at track level there are still traces of the old platforms which extended underneath the bridge. To see them requires reckless pluck, elastic agility and a willingness to flout the draconian laws of railway trespass, so for most it will be enough to trudge to Splott Bridge’s crown and take in the big skies and far horizons of what is still by nature a coastal moor.     

11 Pont Ddu (footbridge over)
Another inconvenient ¼ mile west is Pont Ddu, the Black Bridge, a fabled footbridge in Cardiff lore. U
nder its sooty girders tramped generations of Adamsdown steelworkers on their way to and from the teetering sulphurous chimneys of the 1891 Dowlais Works. Even though the original 1873 structure was replaced in 1954, and in 2003 the Council allowed it to be painted silver, lined with panels obscuring one of Cardiff’s finest views and splattered with patronising graffiti, the Black Bridge retains a special place in Cardiff’s psychogeography, the perfect neutral territory for blow-jobs, drug deals, calls of nature and secret liaisons, able to evoke an ostensible sense of crossing some sort of threshold.

12 Windsor Road Bridge (road over)
Initially the SWR was unlike the other railways in Cardiff which were built for the transport of coal. But this soon changed as the coal boom picked up momentum, and in 1858 a branch line was constructed to the just completed Bute East Dock. In tandem with this Windsor Road was built by the Bute Estate to connect town to the new dock. Because it had to fit in with the Rhymney Railway (RR), which was also completed in 1858 and bent round the east of the gaol and the tiny terraced houses of Newtown on a high embankment, Windsor Road parallelled the RR’s semi-circular arc in order to attain the elevation and reach necessary to cross the wide expanses of the SWR and its branch, plus the loco sheds and goods sidings which had been established at Newtown.  The cast iron original proved too narrow for the weight of traffic it was required to carry and was replaced by a steel structure on the same alignment in 1902. For over 150 years the no-nonsense riveted panels of the Windsor Road Bridge have marked the main route to the docks and the industries on the East Moors, and to this day it is one of the few roads traversing the railway that doesn’t lead to a dead end. In 2015 it will be replaced again, as before due to structural weakness caused by the sheer volume of traffic – meaning southern Cardiff is guaranteed major road congestion for the next 18 months.

13 Central Link (road over)
Built along the line of the RR and the GWR East Dock Branch, and vaulting the mainline railway on ranks of V-shaped concrete struts, the 1989 Central Link dual carriageway from awful Adam Street to a roundabout in the middle of nowhere down the Bay was a badly misconceived project, very much in tune with the Thatcherite road-building frenzy of the era. If you’re going to spend £8.5 million on ¾ of a mile of four-lane highway in the middle of a city, shouldn’t you make sure it connects two discernible places? Rhetorical question.   

14 Pont Haearn (footbridge over, closed for reconstruction)
Pont Haearn (Iron Bridge) was one of the original SWR bridges that joined the separated halves of Newtown between Pellett Street and Pendoylan Place on either side of the tracks. The steep steps of the slightly menacing cast iron beauty were a challenging cliff for dock workers and railwaymen down the years, and even after Cardiff deindustrialised and Newtown was erased in the 1960s you could still almost hear the ghostly clatter of workboots on its atmospheric heights. Now it’s been demolished, despite listed status, and a replacement is being constructed, courtesy of £¾million from the Welsh government. It will, of course, have the ramps and gentle staircases that are now compulsory to be fully compliant with hollow nostrums about access and discrimination – leaving those who care about the built environment and industrial heritage (that’s me!) as the very last minority to be discriminated against. The thinking is that the speculative ‘Capital Quarter’ office development on Tyndall Street, also hugely subsidised by the Welsh government, must be linked to the shops and restaurants of the city centre, but a dirty old slab of welded iron might deter the desired middle-class demographic – so Pont Haearn had to go. The name will probably go too: Tŷ Pont Haearn, the contemptuous, obtrusive, 21-storey slab of 144 student flats opened on Pellett Street in 2005, has been rebranded by owners Liberty Living (parent company: offshore property investment vehicle Brandeaux) as ‘Liberty Bridge’: what’s the betting that will be the new bridge’s name too? Somehow it would be appropriate, reflecting Cardiff’s journey from cast iron to casino.

15 Taff Vale Railway & Dock Feeder (railway over, canal under)
Cardiff’s first railway, the 1841 TVR from Merthyr to the Bute West Dock, had been built by Brunel through Cardiff on an embankment. This meant the SWR could continue on the level and go under the TVR where the lines intersected. The engineering was complicated by the presence of the 1839 Dock Feeder below the TVR, so at this point the SWR had to be sandwiched between the two. Brunel pulled off the task with aplomb by raising the TVR embankment higher and simultaneously gradually elevating the SWR on its own embankment via a string of arches which had space to accommodate workshops and small businesses. Although all the arches have been filled in (including two routes through to Bute Terrace – School Street and John Street) and the forgotten Feeder is now effectively in a tunnel under the railway, the TVR line here hangs on as a shuttle service between Queen Street and Cardiff Bay, along with Brunel’s utilitarian trestle bridge plus, virtually touching it, the 1852 TVR-SWR junction bridge. All is hidden from sight by the anonymous, aspiring towers of hotels and apartment blocks.     

16 Bute Street (road under)
I come now to a very special spot: the Bute Terrace/Hayes Bridge Road/Custom House Street/Bute Street corner. This crossroads was the focal point at the transition between docks and town, hovering above the transforming portal to Tiger Bay. So low did the railway cross Bute Street, laid out in 1835, that the long vista down to the Pierhead began with an alarming little valley where the sun never shone, underlining the sense of otherness beyond.  Much altered by concrete infill of its arches, the bridge survives, grumbling and quivering under the weight of trains overhead. The systematic demolition since the 1950s of every single building on Bute Street along with all the side streets right down to Cardiff Bay station killed stone dead the old magic and mystique. But, thanks to this bridge perhaps, something ineffable still lingers here, where countless dreams have turned to dust on the roads not taken.

17 Hope Street (footpath under)
When it was bridged by the SWR in 1850, Hope Street was a significant Cardiff thoroughfare running south from Millicent Street, across Custom House Street and then parallel with Bute Street past Crichton Place, Crichton Street and Wharf Street to the West Junction Canal. Today it’s just a leftover stump of subway, barely 20m long. Given that it leads to Callaghan Square, it is not mere self-indulgence when I say abandon hope all ye who enter here.

18 St Mary Street (road under)
Brunel designed a showpiece iron girder railway bridge in 1850 for this critical axis at the bottom of St Mary Street, but back then the bridge straddled the 1792 Glamorganshire Canal as it turned past the Custom House and widened into the mile-long Sea Lock basin, not St Mary Street – which was only extended southwards under the railway as recently as 1999. There is an even more pronounced dip here than at Bute Street, as St Mary Street dives down to the Canal’s depths, while the abiding triple arch with generous pavements either side are the legacy of the three roads the bridge was required to cross in addition to the Canal: East Canal Wharf, West Canal Wharf and West Wharf Road. Brunel’s original had to be replaced with today’s wrought iron girder deck bridge in 1899 to bear volumes of freight he could never have anticipated and the Canal was criminally filled in by the Council in the 1950s – the worst mistake in Cardiff since, ooh, nobody managed to assassinate Robert Fitzhamon in 1090?

19 Penarth Road & Cardiff Central (road under, subway under)
Now 10 tracks wide as it enters Cardiff Central station, the railway here makes the buses-only upper section of Penarth Road a virtual tunnel, and there are two actual tunnels within the station itself – underpasses linking the platforms and providing an entry/exit point on both sides. Yes, we have arrived at the SWR’s target in Cardiff, and Brunel’s extraordinary terraforming that brought it into being. 
In 1850 Brunel completed the monumental four year project of shifting the meandering River Taff 200m west into a new cut as part of the immense works to gain ground to the south of town for the SWR and reduce the ever-present risk of floods. Thus seminal Cardiff locations like the Arms Park, the Millennium Stadium, Temperance Town and Penarth Road came into being on the abandoned old river bed. And so too was born Cardiff’s main gateway ever since: Cardiff Central station. Originally called just Cardiff, then when the GWR took over in 1863 Cardiff General and only since 1973 Cardiff Central, the station was built bang on top of the Taff’s former course on a low embankment. Brunel’s original station was a small neo-Georgian building little bigger than a house, suitably humble for a town with a population of only 20,000 in 1850. The GWR replaced it eventually in 1934; and the company’s
architects designed a classic which is more or less intact. The giant relief lettering on the façade leaves no doubt that “God’s Wonderful Railway”, in its pomp before nationalisation in 1947, was very much in charge. Notable features include the central cupola and clock, the glazed ceramic platform signs with fabulous fonts and finger-pointing directions, the hanging period light fittings, and the tiled subways and the cast-iron columns holding zig-zag canopies over the platforms.  On the west wall of the concourse is a 2003 sculpture by Martin Smith, Pigeon Wave: a mildly amusing representation of nine of the adaptable urban survivors on a high perch.  On the south side of the station the ticket office with its decorative wrought iron was originally the 1893 Riverside Junction station on the GWR’s long-gone Riverside Branch, which curved through today’s pay & display car park, bridged Penarth Road and ran down the line of Curran Road to Clarence Road station in Butetown. There are puzzling idiosyncrasies of platform numbering: a Platform 0, accessed from the main concourse; and a missing Platform 5, which used to be a siding at the west end between 4 and 6. Best of all is the atmosphere of going-places tension and excitement that only a big echoing railway station can evoke: people departing and arriving, queuing and hanging around, all in that defensive bubble humans instinctively construct when in a public space with strangers.

20 Taff Bridge & Embankment (river under, footpath under)
Brunel’s original timber river crossing was unusual in that both the bridge and the newly-cut river were constructed simultaneously. As the GWR’s tracks expanded it was soon hopelessly inadequate and was replaced in 1898 by todays low-slung, five-arch (four over water, one over land) masonry bridge plus a continuation beam bridge over Taffs Mead Embankment on the west bank of the river. Big and fat and unpretentious, it is sometimes lazily called Wood Street Railway Bridge just because the nearest Taff crossing northwards is the Wood Street road bridge. The arches are illuminated by ethereal blue and pink lights casting reflections in the water, and the pedestrian underpass beneath the adjoining Embankment bridge is bathed in an ever-shifting prism of coloured lights: a pleasurable public art scheme created by Adrian Stewart in 2009 that has the welcome effect of giving the Embankment’s community of rough sleepers and prostitutes an aura of romantic and timeless nobility.  

21 Clare Road (road under)
After eight crossings in one mile, the frequency thins out and north-south transit becomes tricky again as the railway marches on westward with barely a bend in its trajectory. Forming the boundary between Riverside and Grangetown, it becomes wider and wider approaching the  Canton Depot, which replaced the SWR’s original Newtown Depot in 1882, and the 1868 ‘Penarth Curve’, which linked the GWR to the 1859 Penarth Railway (PR) between Radyr and Penarth Dock. Clare Road thus has to sink beneath 100m of gloomy beam bridge squatting on chunky sandstone buttresses, a characteristic Cardiff cavern complete with the Brains brewery name painted on both parapets.

22 De Croche Place (footbridge over, disused)
Due to be demolished when the line is electrified, this 1897 footbridge to the Canton Depot has been barricaded, padlocked and out-of-bounds
 since 2007. It used to offer superb vantage points of the Depot, at its peak the GWR’s primary loco engineering site in Wales and Canton’s largest employer, but after the Depot closed in 2004 the footbridge was subjected to repeated vandalism and even an arson attack. The Depot today is merely a stabling, cleaning and light maintenance facility, the last crumbs of Cardiff’s once huge railway industry.  

23 Leckwith Road (road under)
With the former-PR tracks (since 1987 reconfigured as the ‘City Line’ commuter service between Radyr and Queen Street) running parallel to the mainline, having skirted past the Canton Depot on the Leckwith Loop, there’s a lot of lines to span at Leckwith Road. Originally this was a level crossing until numerous incidents and delays forced the GWR to build this sturdy, minimalist bridge, plus an identical companion over the PR a few metres away, in 1934. The tracks had to be raised onto a low embankment and Leckwith Road simultaneously lowered to achieve the necessary height. Sitting on top of the embankment’s east side, the underused 1912 Ninian Park station on the City Line is ripe for expansion into an interchange station for both lines – a simple, low-cost undertaking that would radically expand travelling options across the whole area.

24 Sanatorium Road (road under)
Cardiff’s first municipal hospital, variously known as the Cardiff Sanatorium, the Hospital for Infectious Diseases, the City Isolation Hospital and Lansdowne Hospital, was erected in 1895 on what were then the rural water meadows of the River Ely. The GWR provided access across its line (and the PR close by) with a level crossing from Lansdowne Road, but this became completely impractical and, as at Leckwith Road, a pair of plain beam bridges replaced the level crossing in 1934. The Hospital closed in 2002 to be replaced by the Lansdowne Gardens development of ‘town houses’. Sanatorium Road now serves as the primary route to Welsh medium primary school Ysgol Gymraeg Treganna, relocated here from Radnor Road in 2013, and Fitzalan High School, Cardiff’s second largest school with 1,500 pupils. Founded as a technical school in 1953 on the bombed-out site of Howard Gardens School in Adamsdown, the school was moved two miles west in 1964, bringing the name of its old entrance on Fitzalan Road with it. 

25 Paper Mill Road (footbridge over)
A third level crossing on this stretch of line was provided opposite the entrance to Victoria Park when it was laid out in 1898. This was closed though when new housing along Lansdowne Road blocked the route in the 1920s, and a metal footbridge was erected 200m further west linking Cowbridge Road East and Paper Mill Road. The crossing will no doubt be revamped when the huge redevelopment of the old Ely Paper Mill site finally happens. The Ely Paper Mill, founded in 1867, was by the 1890s the UK’s biggest paper manufacturer, employing over 400 people. After various takeovers and rationalisations down the years it ended up trading as Arjo Wiggins Teape before ceasing operations in 1999. Demolition left the largest area of derelict land in Cardiff, a vast 50 acre (20 hectare) bare and brittle concrete plateau of exquisite bleakness. The Welsh government owns the land and the plan is to build 800 “affordable homes” (translation: the mortgage is payable if you don’t eat) in a “green neighbourhood” (translation: a bit of soft landscaping) and thereby create “a vibrant city community” (translation: no poor people). Work is underway, and this brand new Cardiff suburb has already been given a name. Wait for it: “The Mill”.

26 City Line (railway over)
Before it was compulsorily swallowed up by the GWR in 1923, the highly profitable TVR was itself a devourer of smaller railway companies. One acquisition was the PR, which the TVR effectively took over in 1863 by means of a 999 year lease. This arrangement was necessary because the Bute Estate, fearing competition from Penarth Docks, spent years contesting an outright TVR/PR amalgamation in the courts, all the way to the House of Lords. The PR became part of the TVR’s complex network of interlocking freight lines. It was destined to become part of the GWR anyway, but the next crossing was where it ended the parallel running and turned northwards to Radyr on a rising embankment to bridge both the GWR and Cowbridge Road East by the Tŷ Pwll Coch pub. The two bridges make a contrasting couple: one with dirty, gun-metal grey parapets, the other wearing the logo of defunct brewer Hancocks in big yellow letters.

27 Cowbridge Road West (road over)
At the point where Cowbridge Road East becomes Cowbridge Road West Brunel built a lovely sandstone bridge to carry the single track road over the SWR in 1850. The construction of Western Avenue from Gabalfa to Ely Bridge forced its demolition and replacement in 1933 by today’s concrete and steel crossing, strong enough to bear four lanes of roaring traffic and the Western Avenue/Cowbridge Road junction roundabout above. Immediately west, the SWR arrived at Ely Station and its connecting platform bridges between Ely Road and Station Terrace.  From 1850 until closed in 1963 by the disastrous Beeching cuts imposed by London, the station was the core of thriving Ely, Wales’ great brewing town, humming with a heady cocktail of hops, malt, sugar and vinegar. There is no reason Ely should not have its vital station back, and I am encouraged by a growing consensus among AMs, transport consultants and even Network Rail (if that’s what the state-rescued track operator calls itself these days) that Cardiff cannot function properly so long as half the population is not served by a railway. The idea of using the mainline as a ‘Cardiff Crossrail’ with regular stations along the route has been mooted.  For an even better proposal (IMHO) see

28 Wroughton Place (footbridge over)
From here on the railway follows the course of the River Ely, making a double obstacle to north-south movement. Known as the Llangattock Footbridge, this sharply elevated, sombrely clad up-and-over was added in 1936 as a response to housing development on both sides of the tracks in Fairwater and Ely. Over the years it has become a sort of front line in the boyish turf wars between rival Fairwater and Ely gangs. Respectable local residents who just want to be left in peace to watch Midsomer Murders with a TV supper on their knees are pushing for it to be gated, which is one step from closure altogether. 

29 Birdies Lane (footpath under)
Birdies Lane is a link between Ely and Fairwater that passes over the river on a footbridge and under the railway in an intimidating, smelly, 1948 subway. Since 2009 the subway closes every night because of “anti-social behaviour” – a lame surrender to a few snot-nosed kids by the Council which put another brick in the Berlin Wall between the two suburbs. This ancient right-of-way was originally a ford where the Nant Tyllgoed (which can still be seen pouring out of a culvert on the north bank) joined the Ely. Ely Corn Mill stood at the end of Birdies Lane until abandoned in 1850, and further upriver at the weir the course of the mill race is still identifiable, albeit smothered by undergrowth.  

30 Williams’ Bridge (river under)
Scything up the Ely valley, the brilliantly conceived line seamlessly moves from cutting to embankment and back again in order to minimise gradients and maximise speeds; not for nothing was it known as ‘Brunel’s Billiard Table’. Leaving built-up Cardiff behind, it criss-crosses the river four times on four Brunel bridges. Each was named after a prominent SWR railway employee of the time and all are pretty much intact apart from various strengthening measures – mainly because this is still undeveloped countryside. 
 The four are self-effacing and non-decorative beam bridges, modest in scale since the Ely is a gentle and diminutive waterway this far up the valley.

31 Goddard’s Bridge (river under), 32 Butcher’s Bridge (river under)
The second and third in Brunel’s sequence of River Ely bridges, set close together amid the verdant bowers of Plymouth Great Wood, are visible from the Ely Trail passing to the north.

33 Castle Hill (level crossing)
Cardiff’s only traffic + pedestrian level crossing stands next to the bare ground where St Fagans railway station used to be – and should be again one day if this capital city is ever to have a coherent and viable public transport system. The full-barrier, automatically-operated level crossing with its panoply of warning lights seems very dangerous. Trains scream by at such a ferocious velocity and so close that you could stick a fag out of your car window and light it from the friction of a passing InterCity express! However, my painstaking research has not uncovered a single fatality for me to tell you about. Damn!

34 Bye’s Bridge (river under)
Unassumingly integrated into the delightful, wooded, U-shaped valley, the fourth Brunel river crossing has been augmented by two cranky supports in the river bed which also carry striking pipework.

35 Barry Railway (footpath over, disused)
The Barry Railway (BR) was the bold and pioneering project of one of Wales’ greatest industrial entrepreneurs, David Davies (1818-1890) of Llandinam. Predictably opposed every step of the way by the Butes in Cardiff, Davies triumphed posthumously in 1920 when his Barry Docks superseded Cardiff’s Bute Docks as the world’s busiest coal port. The BR opened between Barry and the Rhondda in 1888 and was an instant success, clanking day and night with coal trucks. Where it intersected with the GWR mainline, Ty’n-y-Caeau Junction was formed with a big connecting loop, and the junction was further enhanced in 1901 when the flourishing BR opened its Rhymney Branch between Ty’n- y-Caeau and the collieries of the Rhymni valley. All was destroyed in the end, but in mixed woodland just before the A4232 a remnant Rhymney Branch bridge built to straddle the junction rots quietly.    

36 A4232 (road over)
Finally, the railway leaves Cardiff and enters the Vale of Glamorgan via a concrete bridge with red-brick parapets under the dual-carriageway A4232 trunk road. Built in 1985 between Junction 33 of the M4 and Culverhouse Cross, this section of the A4232 is busy, fast and notorious for accidents. Like all road-building projects, egged on by the oil lobby, it has done the precise opposite of what was pledged and actually worsened congestion. The track bed of the Barry Railway was sacrificed to make way for it – a suitable symbol of the conflict of interest between public good and private greed on which to conclude.