Desire Lines

In which The Author goes back to the drawing board

The Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother used to work as a cartographic draughtsman for a number of public bodies. In fact, we used to joke that if anyone was ever digging up the ground anywhere in Wales (and a fair chunk of Western England), there was a good chance that he’d drawn up the plans beforehand.
One useful piece of jargon I picked up from his career was ‘desire line’. You’ve probably all come across desire lines, but I expect very few of you ever realised that they had a name. According to Wikipedia (because I’m at home, and I haven’t got access to any textbooks on Town and Country Planning):
desire path (also known as a desire line, social trail, goat track or bootleg trail) can be a path created as a consequence of foot or bicycle traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width of the path and its erosion are indicators of the amount of use the path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed ways take a circuitous route, or have gaps, or are lacking entirely.
There used to be a fairly conspicuous desire line at the bottom of the hill where we grew up. The road met a disused tramroad at a right angle, and there was an access point to the drainage system just to the side of the intersection. Rather than walk the five feet or so around the manhole cover, Trecynon people would instead cut across the grassy patch, saving all of about five seconds and about two feet on the ground. In the sort of weather we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, this human-generated path would be a mire of thick red mud. Eventually the local authority bowed to public opinion and paved the desire line over.
I found another one last week, when I was walking to Aberdare through Robertstown. There’s a hole in the fence separating the road from the old railway sidings, leading into a field popular with dog walkers. Once again, this human traffic has worn a quite distinct desire line into the soil:


I was walking into Aberdare this way for a change, partly in search of a desire line, and partly because I wanted to take some photos in town. Then a happy accident occurred, and the pieces of this entry all fell into place.
Yesterday afternoon Rowland and I met up for a couple of pints, and he brought a pile of photos from his days on the Aberdare Leader. One of them meshed perfectly with the outline I’d constructed already, so I’ll share it with you:

Scanned Document-31

This is a real flashback. On the left is W. H. Smith. On the right is the Railway Bar. At the centre is the Dukes Arms, one of the semi-legendary pubs clustered at the eastern end of Commercial Street when I was growing up. (The others were the Iron Bridge and the Commercial.) My older friends have told me tall tales of these establishments, but sadly I never darkened their doors. By the time I came back from university in the summer of 1985, all three were history. Most of the musicians, artists, hippies, rockers, punks, potheads and general ne’er-do-wells of Aberdare and environs eventually gravitated to the Carpenters – where, in my case, I eventually came onto the town’s real pub scene.
One Xmas night in the late-ish 1980s, I was in the Carpenters when Rowland himself strolled in. Then, as now, he stood me a pint and wished me the compliments of the season. Then he looked around at the assorted eccentrics, charlatans and lunatics, and said, ‘I like this pub, Steve. It’s an oasis of sanity in a mad world.’ I shudder to think what Xmas Day must have like been chez Rowland.
Anyway, I digress …
Here’s an undated and uncredited photo of the same area, which I found in the Rhondda Cynon Taf Library Service Digital Archive just now. This is looking in the opposite direction from the other side of the junction; people from Abernant and Cwmbach, and pupils at the Girls’ Grammar School would have found this a familiar sight back in the 1960s and 1970s. Note that it was possible to drive straight up Commercial Street in those days. Nowadays you can’t – officially – drive down it, unless you’re delivering to the shops there.


Here’s a section of the Ordnance Survey map from the mid-1960s, showing the dense buildings and railway lines in this area of Aberdare when I was growing up.

Smiths Corner-5

The level crossing is clearly visible in the centre square. There’s a signal box marked immediately to the south, which I can’t say I remember. The little wedge-shaped building adjacent to the level crossing was W. H. Smith. In fact, for many years after Graham Ewington took the shop over in his own right and the name was changed, this traffic junction was still known locally as ‘Smith’s Corner’. I wonder how many people remember that name today.
There’s not much left of the area in the top centre block, and the east side of Duke Street has all gone as well. Carpanini’s Cafe, where Dad used to take us for pie, chips and gravy on Saturday lunchtimes, was part of that block between the crossroads and the old red-brick bus station. Nazareth Welsh Presbyterian Church still stands, but is covered with steel shutters. I’ve no idea what Glancynon House was, but it’s long gone.
The properties are numbered on this sheet, which is handy. Using a list compiled by Aberdare’s former borough librarian Richard Arnold (Arnold, 1982) I can tell you exactly what the old pubs are.
The Commercial Hotel is marked directly alongside the level crossing, which gives you some idea of the size of these old Valleys pubs. Directly across the road at 29 Commercial Street was the Iron Bridge. It took its name from the iron bridge across the River Cynon a little way to the east. On the south-east corner of the junction, at number 31, was the Dukes, so you can see more or less where the photographer was standing when he took the shot. On the opposite corner, 32 Commercial Street was the Railway Bar. According to Mr Arnold’s research, that one closed in 1970. The other three were still open in January 1982, when he completed his list.
There are several other pubs marked on the map as well, so I’ll run through those. In the top-left square is the Crown Hotel, now the headquarters of Aberdare RFC. In the bottom-centre square, that used to be the Cowbridge, but now trades as the Market Tavern. 43 Commercial Street was the Bush, now called the Pickled Pepper, and a couple of doors further up was the Globe, which also closed in 1970. On the other side, 19 Commercial Street was the Prince of Wales, which closed in 1963 and shouldn’t be confused with the pub of the same name in a different location entirely.
20 Commercial Street was the George Hotel, also closed in 1963. Towards the western edge of this section, you can see the Boot Hotel, currently closed. On the opposite corner was the Castle Hotel, now the NatWest Bank.
This is just scratching the surface, to be honest. When I’ve got time, I’ll get hold of some older maps and link them to Mr Arnold’s invaluable list. A few months ago I bumped into some mates of mine who were doing a fund-raising pub crawl for charity. I told them they were lucky they weren’t doing it twenty years earlier; it would have taken them at least twice as long and got them considerably more pissed into the bargain. Half a century earlier again, they’d all have ended up with alcohol poisoning long before they got to the War Memorial.
Anyway, to give you an idea of how this part of town has changed in the last thirty years or so, here’s a more recent map of the same area, although extended a bit further to the south:

Smiths Corner-1

As you can see, the bus station now occupies most of the east side of Duke Street, more or less where the old Low Level Station used to be. The trains run from the new station on the High Level line, although in an act of sheer industrial vandalism Brunel’s fine red brick station a little way to the north has been allowed to fall into disrepair.
The cottages and the old abattoir to the east of the old line are long gone, replaced by a swimming pool which is itself about to be replaced – although detailed maps of the area still show ‘Slaughterhouse Lane’ as the name of the minor road leading towards the Michael Sobell Sports Centre.
Where the level crossing, Ewington’s and the pubs used to be, there’s a bloody great traffic roundabout instead. By the time I got back from university in 1985, the pubs and shops that used to be in the centre of the map had nearly all vanished, swept away by the long-awaited Aberdare bypass road. There’s also a footbridge over the bypass …
The footbridge, Duke Street approach
The footbridge, Slaughterhouse Lane approach
The footbridge, Slaughterhouse Lane approach
This bridge was deeply unpopular when it was first opened. People complained that it was too steep, and that the surface became treacherous in icy weather. It’s also not much use if you suffer from a fear of heights. When Jamila came to town one Saturday morning, I walked back to the station with her. She only told me when we were halfway across the bridge that she was terrified. She spent the rest of the brief crossing with her eyes shut tight, clinging to my arm as if her life depended on it. I don’t know what the good folk of Aberdare must have thought when they saw me arm in arm with a tiny and incredibly beautiful Nigerian princess, but I’m sure we made an impression.
After a few years of public campaigning, letters to the paper, and representations to the local authorities, a pelican crossing was installed. It began about thirty yards south of the rugby club, and enabled pedestrians to cross easily to the newly reopened railway station (see Nice Work If You Can Get There).
The bridge is still used, of course, especially by pupils at the Girls’ School, but now people had a choice of how to cross the bypass. More importantly, people could get to the station without using the footbridge and then crossing two busy roads – the road over the iron bridge and the entrance to Slaughterhouse Lane lie between the east end of the footbridge and the railway station – or negotiating a long zigzagging ramp up to the far end of the platform.
The roundabout and footbridge near Aberdare Station
At the moment, Aberdare is in the middle of yet another traffic upheaval. It seems like only yesterday that the town centre was being torn up in an attempt to ‘improve’ the place, at a cost of several million pounds. Now, the wrecking crew have turned their attention to the southern approach.
The Swimming Pool and Sobell Centre are to be demolished to make way for a new ‘super school’ and leisure complex. Preparatory work is well under way, with a new road bridge over the Cynon a couple of hundred yards south of the existing crossing, linking the site to a modified roundabout at the southern end of Duke Street and Cardiff Street.
The new bridge has already attracted criticism; some people have pointed out that it will be too narrow to allow school buses to pass each other. Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council has shrugged off this idea, although a bus driver mate of mine thinks that the nay-sayers are right.
We’ll see who wins when the new school opens, of course, although that will be at least two terms later than originally planned. The work has fallen behind schedule, and hasty alternative provision has been made for the pupils of the three schools which are set to close at the end of this academic year (Tegeltija, 2013). I say ‘at least’, because the site has already flooded once, and we’re in the middle of yet more torrential rain even as I type this, with a host of flood warnings in effect around Wales and the West of England.
In the meantime, things have changed around the centre of the map yet again. Presumably in an attempt to reduce the risk to pedestrians making their way between the town centre and the new school, a new pelican crossing has been situated directly beneath the footbridge:


This will be ideal for people walking to the new school, of course, but if you’re trying to get to the railway station, you’re almost back to Square One. You can either cross two busy roads (and the flow along Slaughterhouse Lane will undoubtedly increase when the new school eventually opens), or go up the long zigzagging ramp and arrive at the wrong end of the platform.
Meanwhile, there are no prizes for guessing what’s happened to the original pelican crossing – the one that’s been there for the last twenty-five years or so without annoying anyone unnecessarily:



That’s where it used to be. You can see the ticket office of the station directly behind it. I knew the crossing had been out of action for a while before Xmas, because Rowland commented on the fact that he’d had to go the long way round on his way from the station. Like him, I assumed that it was a temporary closure while the work on the road surface was ongoing.
We were wrong. There’s now a fence on either side of the road in the exact spot where, until recently, people could walk to the station in complete safety.
It’s anyone’s guess how long it will be until the work is completed and the access roads to the new school are officially opened. However, I’m fairly sure that it won’t be long before people take matters into their own hands and start scaling the fence in order to get to the station. They’ll plough their own desire lines into the tarmac, and in due course the local authority will have to rethink the whole scheme.
Like so much else I’ve commented on in this blog over the past few years, this has all the makings of another monumental RCTCBC cock-up. I’ll bet that a fair number of Aberdare residents will literally vote with their feet, and that the old crossing will be reinstated before the paint even dries in the new classrooms.
Goddess only knows how much this has cost already, but RCTCBC have a track record of throwing good money after bad. Given the inbuilt traffic hazards on the way to the station at present, the walk over the footbridge suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect. You could almost say that it’s a case of swings and roundabouts …


ARNOLD, R. (1982) The Inns, Hotels and Beer Houses of Aberdare and District in Old Aberdare Volume 2. Aberdare: Cynon Valley History Society.
TEGELTIJA, S. (2013) Opening of new South Wales Valleys super-school building is delayed Wales Online, 25 Nov 2013.

3 thoughts on “Desire Lines”

  1. Good post…brought back lots of memories and names I thought I had forgotten. I remember spending pocket money in Ewingtons when I was tiny.

    By coincidence we came through Aberdare this afternoon, that section of town definitely feels like a hostile environment for someone who isn’t in a car, as does much of the rest of town frankly.

    Desire lines is something I’ve been thinking about for a while know, so your subject resonated with me. I like to think of each desire line as representing a failure of urban planning, the more desire lines an area has, the more flawed the designers and planners have been. I

    Mikael Colville-Anderson of blog writes well on the topic of desire lines and urban mobility-m ostly in the context of cycling, but often from a pedestrians perspective as well.

    He’s worth a follow on twitter if nothing else. He dredged up this gem of Desire Line Activism a few days back…..


  2. Thanks for your stories about Duke Street. We returned this week with my 82 year old auntie who worked, along with my grandmother Louisa in the Carpanini’s cafe. Angelo and Marie Carpanini ran and owned it. My grandmother was Marias sister. Apparently the cafe was over where the small river and Angelo used to drop the fishheads into the river when preparing food!

    1. I’ve got a feeling we were in Aberdare Library at the same time, because I heard some people talking about the cafe when I was engrossed in the book I’m working on. I used to go to Carpanini’s when I was very young. My dad managed Victor Freed’s furniture shop, and Saturday lunchtimes we’d all go there for lunch. Town just isn’t the same any more – although Servini’s is still going strong, I’m pleased to say.

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