The lakes of Cardiff

Being a sea-level city, Cardiff has no natural lakes. But a strange, recurring impulse to compensate for that absence means that there are plenty of artificial ones. This could be seen as yet another example of Cardiff trying to be what it is not (in order to avoid being what it is?) – a futile habit that has congealed over the years into a trademark. I won’t bore you with cod-psychological speculations about possible reasons why: “follow the money”, the killer line attributed to ‘Deep Throat’ during the Watergate Scandal, will more than suffice as an explanation for the abundance of man-made standing water in Cardiff. So, not including docks, canals, swimming pools, garden ponds and golf hazards, here is a compilation list (some entries drawn from previous blogs and articles of mine) of the lakes of Cardiff:

CANADA LAKE: Alphabetical order places Cardiff’s newest lake top of this list. It was constructed in 2005 for wedding venue ‘Canada Lodge & Lake’ in the former grounds of 1915 mansion Craig-y-Parc near Creigiau. The Nant y Glaswg, a tributary of the river Ely, was dammed to create the romantic, wood-cloistered water feature demanded by the contemporary wedding-aholic. Tip: when invited to such a do, don’t mention the uncanny correlation between the amount spent on a wedding and the brevity of the honeymoon period before the subsequent acrimonious break-up.

Canada Lake

Canada Lake

CARDIFF BAY: The impounding of the rivers Taff and Ely in 1999 behind a £500 million concrete dam obliterated nutrient-rich mudflats and salt marshes that were vital feeding grounds for huge flocks of migrant wading birds, blocked off the ocean which twice a day since the beginning of recorded history had surged across the mudflats and up the rivers to create a unique natural habitat of specific salinity, and foisted on Cardiff an alien freshwater lake. It is the 18th largest in Wales, but doesn’t have a name. How about ‘Llyn X’? It’s perfect: ‘x’ denotes both anonymity and illiteracy, there’s no ‘x’ in Welsh – and the monstrosity ought to be x-rated.

The stagnant 200 hectare (500 acre) lake, in which swimming is prohibited without protective clothing, is deemed so risky an experiment and so dangerous a bio-hazard that the Harbour Authority has to monitor, police and adjust every aspect of its behaviour. Computerised buoys continually analyse the water’s temperature, conductivity, acidity, turbidity, salinity and oxygen levels. 630 diffusers pump around the clock artificially aerating the water to prevent oxygen starvation killing every living creature. During sustained high temperatures a mobile oxygenation barge circles the bay pumping in oxygen direct. A purpose-built ‘water witch’ perpetually scoops up the annual 1,000 tonne of litter and debris which used to flow out to sea but is now trapped in the lake, bobbing on the surface or sinking to the depths. Accumulated algal scum, thriving in the excess nitrogen and phosphorous, must repeatedly be skimmed off to prevent lethal plankton blooms. Endless dredging and dumping operations strive to stop the lake becoming a shallow swamp as sediment that once drifted out to sea piles up in the lake. High-intensity lamps burn through the summer trying to draw away the swarms of midges that find the fetid, flat bacterial soup precisely to their liking. Poison bait-boxes garland the water edge to trap the rats busy spreading Weil’s disease in the warm filthy water they love. Industrial quantities of herbicide drench the shoreline to hold back the rampant colonies of knotweed and hogweed. Constant vigilance is needed to identify unpredicted effects, like the serious bio-invasions already by non-native freshwater shrimps and zebra mussels that have bred uncontrollably, devoured insatiably, clogged up the aerators and damaged vessels, meaning boats must be rinsed with bleach for an hour before they can move to other waters. Then there are the 230 monitoring boreholes, eight wells with submersible pumps, four horizontal collector drains, four field drains and numerous associated outfalls, all toiling away to ensure that over 20,000 properties in south Cardiff don’t get the sort of rising damp that would tear a house down. Since a trapped lake on a sea-level flood plain raises groundwater levels by blocking underground flows, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation grudgingly conceded 20 years’ protection to stop the area becoming a quagmire (it expires at midnight on 3/11/2019 – residents of Butetown, Grangetown and Riverside had better hope that they’re considered economically worthwhile in three years’ time).

Without all these complex operations the lake would quickly become a liquid hell. The maintenance costs are £25 million every year, rising steadily, on into perpetuity, making this the most cosseted body of water on Earth. The bill is paid for by the Welsh Assembly out of its inadequate budget.

Even if all the Bay propaganda were true (“Europe’s Most Exciting Waterfront,” etc), the sheer scale of the ecological assault means that the Barrage will never be worth it. Something is very, very wrong here – and in their hearts Cardiffians know it. To separate the city from the wide oceans that are its raison d’être…to never again taste the brine in the air on Canton Bridge as the Atlantic tides creep up the Taff…to evict the wading birds from their ancient grounds…to turn vibrant, moody rivers into castrated, regulated drains…to wipe out the wild, contrary, intriguing places…these are immeasurable losses that have deeply scarred the Cardiff psyche. And all for what? So that absurd social-climbers can prance about in their deck shoes playing First Lord of the Admiralty on a mill pond, so that coach parties of complacent baby-boomers can guzzle in a waterscape, so that easily-offended hipsters don’t have to confront mud and, most importantly, so that offshore hedge fund managers can rake in more millions.

Disimpoundment could be ordered at any time should the environment become untenable or the running-costs become unpayable. The Barrage engineers say that this monument to greed and folly is built to last for 200 years. We shall see.

CEFN GARW QUARRY: On the southern side of Heol-y-Fforest above Castell Coch, this huge, boulder-strewn, shelved cavity is in the early phases of plant colonisation, having not been worked since 1987. Water has accumulated over the years in the Quarry bottom to form a dark, scary lake. Dramatic faults, folds and thrust planes on the north face, exposed by 19th century quarrying into the massive beds of dolomite, reveal the 360 million year-old geological transition between Devonian sandstone and Carboniferous limestone.

FAIRWATER PARK POND: Fairwater Park opened in 1959 in the grounds of 1845 Fairwater House (demolished 1993), previously part of the estate of the David dynasty. In a lofty position on steep, wooded slopes cut by the v-shaped ravine of the Nant Tyllgoed on its route down from Coed-y-Gof to join the Ely at the medieval mill, the Park has a circular pond in a shady bower at its summit. Stone-lined, it is not natural but a rainwater-filled residue of Fairwater House’s ornamental fishponds and an important oasis of biodiversity.

Fairwater Park Pond

Fairwater Park Pond

In the Fforest Farm Country Park, established in 1992, there are two delightful mini-lakes, Llyn Brwyniog and Llyn-y-Gamlas, where water birds can be observed from adjacent viewing hides. They were man-made in 1996 by the Friends of Fforest Farm specifically to create vital habitats for waterfowl. From the hides there’s a good chance of seeing two wondrous Cardiff residents: the crychydd (heron) and the glas y dorlan (kingfisher).

HEATH PARK POND: The National Playing Fields Association (now rebranded as Fields in Trust) was an early example of that House of Windsor speciality: the high publicity, low impact Good Work. Having contributed a princely £25,000 towards Cardiff Council’s £105,000 bill for buying the grounds of 1840 Heath House (burnt down 1965), the Association has been nominal trustee of Heath Park since 1939 – but fat good royal protection has been to the incredible shrinking Heath. Above-ground manifestations of the culverted Nant Wedal that had been made into spellbinding ponds in the 1860s have almost all gone, and the one left has halved in size since the 1950s and is now coveted by the Cardiff Model Engineering Society. The Society moved to Heath Park in 1987 and built a miniature railway, which is open to the public for just 13 days a year. At this rate their ever-expanding operation will soon have more miles of track in Cardiff than Transport for Wales!

HENDRE LAKE: Another man-made effort, far out in the south-eastern corner of Cardiff where the flatlands of Gwynllŵg dissolve into the sea. Unusually for Cardiff, this is a lake somebody bothered to bestow with a name, in this case the name of a nearby farm. The four hectare (10 acre), fish-thronged lake, set in a public park opened in 1980 as an amenity for the new St Mellons estate, is fed by the waters of the Pill Du and Faendre reens, drainage ditches that date back to Roman times. Maturing nicely, it has its own proper island where water birds nest and breed, oblivious to the trains shrieking past on the mainline railway to the south.

HOWARDIAN NATURE RESERVE: In 1973 Cardiff Council granted a defunct waste tip to nearby Howardian High School for educational purposes and, by the time the School closed in 1990, the land had been skilfully returned to its natural damp woodland habitat. Since it had no economic use – poisoned by landfill, squeezed between Eastern Avenue and Southern Way, dissected by overhead pylons and low-lying on the Rhymni’s flood-plain – it was designated a Nature Reserve. Today few people come to this other-world where stands of ash, willow, hawthorn and rowan are bestrewn with a number of frog-hopping mini-ponds (one containing Cardiff’s smallest island), fed by a trickling rivulet with a waterfall that runs down from the allotments before sinking into the sticky clay. Over 500 species driven out of their ancestral places by Cardiff’s incessant growth have made a home in these unwanted wet wastelands.

LISVANE RESERVOIR: Completed in 1869, eight hectare (20 acre) Lisvane Reservoir provided Cardiff’s first public water supply (Cardiff’s first reservoir had been the privately-owned 1853 Penhill Reservoir, dismantled 1955). It was carved out of the gentle uplands by damming the Nant Fawr and the Nant y Felin as they rushed down from their gurgling sources on Wern Fawr hill and entrapping the water within immaculately constructed grassed embankments. Too small for a big city, it was eventually made redundant in the 1970s. By then it was an important recreational amenity near the head of the green Nant Fawr corridor and a designated SSSI for its wintering wildfowl and grassland fungi. (See LLANISIEN RESERVOIR below)

LLANISIEN RESERVOIR: Four times bigger than Lisvane Reservoir, Llanisien Reservoir was constructed immediately to the south and opened in 1886. As Cardiff’s exponential growth went off the graph it too was soon inadequate, superseded by huge reservoirs in the Brecon Beacons, and left to become a marvellous public recreation asset and wildlife haven. Following the Thatcher government’s privatisation of water in 1989, the two reservoirs were tossed around between corporations until falling into the hands of American conglomerate Western Power Distribution (WPD) in 2000. Reacting outrageously to repeated refusals by the Council and the Assembly to let them fill in most of the reservoirs and build 300 completely unnecessary speculative mansions, WPD blocked public access in 2004 with a bellicose spiked steel fence around the entire circumference, plastered in warning signs informing Cardiffians accustomed to wandering up here for over a century that this was ‘Private Property’. Behaving like a cartoon parody of the evil capitalist in a top hat chomping a fat cigar, for the next nine years WPD used every weapon in their considerable armoury to try to bludgeon their proposals past massive opposition, culminating in the outlawing of fishing and sailing and the complete draining of the Llanisien Reservoir. They only admitted defeat in 2013, by which time the magical location was a muddy travesty. Celsa bought the reservoirs to guarantee a water supply to their Castle Works on East Moors Road and the development proposals were scrapped. Now Dŵr Cymru (owned by Glas Cymru, a ‘company limited by guarantee’ with no shareholders and an obligation to reinvest surpluses in the business) has been granted a 999-year lease by Celsa and the reservoirs at last are safe after a farcical, wasted 25 years. They have returned to whence they began as a public utility, and to the purpose for which they were built: containers of water. Llanisien is to be re-filled, but it could take as long as five years. Meanwhile, the delights of the bigger reservoir can be experienced once more. Hidden from all vantage points by the contours of the land until you’re practically upon it, with the overflow brook diverted around the west flank to thunder down breakneck chutes in a stone-lined culvert, it features marvellous workmanship of narrow seams of Pennant sandstone, a palpable aura of peace and solitude thanks to no overlooking buildings, cormorant-built islands, majestic pines standing sentry in secret clearings, and a luminous limpid light melting into moody skies.

LLYN TREDELERCH: Parc Tredelerch, opened in 2003, was created thanks to pressure from local people desperate for green spaces (they also chose its Welsh name in a ballot). It has a four hectare (10 acre) lake, a vast range of moisture-loving plants quickly establishing themselves and freshwater birds galore, including mute swans – the ‘alarch’ after which it is named. The boardwalks and paths around Llyn Tredelerch/Swan Lake (I’ve taken the initiative and imposed a name) trace what was once an extravagant meander of the river Rhymni until it was straightened out as part of the Lamby Way roadworks in the 1970s. On the other side of the roundabout at the Lamby entrance is a further lake, a curious, miniature, reed-ringed relic of the Rhymni’s wanderings.

Llyn Tredelerch

Llyn Tredelerch

NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM: Within the beautiful grounds of the National History Museum in St Fagans, laid out in 1908 by the Earl of Plymouth (1857-1923) and his head gardener Hugh Pettigrew (1871-1947), there are three petite lakes, distributed artfully amid arcadian glades, rides and woodland clearings. One has a name, Pwll Arthur, and is a precious refuge for endangered great crested newts. Nearby, in the immaculate formal gardens of St Fagans Castle, water features abound: the ancient holy well of St Ffagan, a sequence of four extraordinary 16th century stone-lined ponds stocked with carp, bream and tench, and a water garden by illustrious Victorian garden designers Pulham & Co.

PARC CEFN ONN: This wonderful and eerie Country Park, acquired by Cardiff Council in 1944, was originally created in 1918 by Cardiffian Ernest Prosser (1867-1933), chairman of the Rhymney Railway. Attempting to make a therapeutic retreat for his invalid son, he dammed the Nant Fawr’s gurgling tributaries to form exercise ponds – but after the boy died of tuberculosis in 1926 Prosser lost enthusiasm for the project. Cardiff was the ultimate beneficiary: hidden within the magnificent forest of giant evergreens and acid-loving azaleas, camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons, the chain of intact ponds seethes with life.

Cefn Onn

Parc Cefn Onn

PARC COED Y NANT LAKE: Confusingly called Wern-Goch Park on some maps, this tokenistic amenity for the 1970s Pentwyn estate is one of the annoyingly small and disconnected remnants of countryside scattered throughout the area, spared because they were in the tricky gullies of the streams flowing down to the Rhymni. Here the Nant Dulas was dammed to form a sizeable pond, but this is no rural idyll: in the completely unmanaged wasteland, churned up by trail bikes and sullied by dumped tyres and plastic bags, a family of grubby swans make an upsetting picture floating on the garbage-splattered oil slick.

ROATH PARK LAKE: A leisurely promenade around the 1½ mile circumference of this most famed of Cardiff’s lakes has been an uplifting social ritual for Cardiffians on high days and holidays since Roath Park first opened in 1894. The 12 hectare (30 acre) lake was a Bute estate scheme that involved the damming of the Nant Fawr at Coed Mawr, flooding the lush, squelchy watermeadows of Cefn Coed, Y Celyn, Derwen Deg and Y Wedal Isaf farms, building big posh houses around the resulting lake and then counting the fat profits. The lake takes up a third of the dog-leg Park and has five substantial islands at its north end, crowded with water birds, while the south end features the 1915 Scott Memorial lighthouse, a promenade along the top of the dam, and tumbling stepped cataracts of overflow water taking the Nant Fawr onward to its confluence with the Rhymni. Because it is an unnatural imposition, the lake has turned out to be problematic and high-maintenance; bedevilled by toxic algal blooms that mean swimming is banned, and requiring regular dredging to stop it reverting back to the bogland it secretly longs to be.

THOMPSON’S PARK LAKE: A bamboo and willow-girdled duck pond was formed in 1898 for this charitably donated public park by damming a Nant Canna feeder stream. It boasts a four-jet fountain graced by the 1899 statue Joyance. The gauchely naked boy looking at a butterfly on his hand is by Canton’s own William Goscombe John (1860-1952), who produced an identical twin for the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

UNDERGROUND LAKES: Apparently there are five underground lakes of unimaginable splendour floating somewhere within the multi-storey labyrinth of limestone caves underneath Lesser Garth in Morganstown, a mountain that has been enduring the removal of its mineral-laden innards by humans since pre-history. I say ‘apparently’ because only a handful of intrepid cavers have ever seen them – and, being a timid little thing prone to panic attacks, I don’t intend to check for myself.

VICTORIA PARK LAKE: This showpiece municipal park was unveiled in 1897 complete with a kidney-shaped ornamental lake created from the waters of the Nant Sisli, a brook that ran down from Ely Rise before dissolving into myriad creeks on the West Moors. Big enough to accommodate overweight Atlantic grey seal Billy from 1912 to 1939, today the much reduced lake is a shallow paddling pool, heaving with wee-weeing small children in the summer holidays.

WENALLT RESERVOIR: A discus-shaped storage reservoir holding 15 million gallons and covered by a corrugated roof, built in 1924 at the southern foot of the sandstone hill that watches over Cardiff. One can only imagine what lurks within this lake with a lid.

WENTLOOG CORPORATE PARK: Since the 1960s Cardiff has relentlessly encroached onto the delicate watery world of Gwynllŵg, the Wentloog Levels, supposedly a protected SSSI. Among the multitude of ‘business parks’ that have been allowed to spread like suppurating sores across the flat landscape is Wentloog Corporate Park, where a number of fatuous little ponds  have been scattered among the hideous hanger-like sheds. The rubbish-choked holes in the ground are presumably there to assist in ‘soft landscaping’. Nearby, on the ravaged coast at Newton where the earth has been gouged away by soil supply, ‘recycling’ and waste management operators, there are another four ponds. Even though they are surrounded by an eco-holocaust, these ponds are the closest in this list to being ‘natural’ – simply because any impression in the great Gwynllŵg sponge immediately fills with water.

Pictures: Rob Hudson; John Lord; Gareth James; Steve Chapple