Trains and Boats and Planes

In which The Author should have packed a spare pair

On Thursday, my friend Anna emailed me with some exciting news. She had it on ‘very good authority’ that Peter Capaldi and Jenna-Louise Coleman would be filming Doctor Who at Barry Island on Friday. It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, so I got up bright and early and headed for Aberdare Station. I’d already decided to buy a Valley Lines Day Explorer ticket; at nearly eight quid return to Barry Island, or eleven quid for the freedom to travel the whole of the local network, I decided to splash the cash and make a day of it.
At the ticket office, I encountered the small print hurdle which I discussed in my other blog (see Left Hand, Right Hand). As a result, I set off a full hour after I’d originally intended. On the journey down, we got stuck behind a late-running train from Treherbert; on arrival at Cardiff the conductor announced that we’d be running ‘fast’ to Barry. Things weren’t going to plan. I picked up a copy of Metro which had been left on a nearby seat, and realised that it was Friday the thirteenth. I ain’t superstitious, but…
I flicked through the paper and got to my horoscope:
Though you and another may not see eye-to-eye, the willingness to discuss important matters can encourage a compromise. However, should your problem be linked to too much bureaucracy, you might have to toe the line.
That explained a lot!
On arrival at Barry Island, I headed off in search of the BBC. I was working in Waterstone’s in Cardiff when they filmed the Doctor Who Xmas special ‘The Runaway Bride’ outside (see Location, Location, Location.) I remembered from that day that BBC location crews don’t exactly travel light.
(Incidentally, Barry Island isn’t really an island. It’s a little peninsula separated from Barry proper by a narrow isthmus over which the trains and road traffic run. I last visited it in 2006, or maybe early 2007, after the Vale of Glamorgan line reopened to passenger traffic. Cath P. came with me and we went exploring for the day. It was then that I discovered that the Ninth Circle of Hell is where they keep the waltzers and dodgems.)
I walked past the amusement park, but there was no sign of life. I headed for the beach, where some elderly people were catching rays on the seats and young families were making the most of a sunny day. I walked the length of the sea front, past countless fish and chip shops, stalls selling beach accessories, fast food places, cafés and amusement arcades, and found no sign of any filming.
By then it was nearly lunchtime, so I supposed the BBC might have packed up already. Alternatively, they might have been in the amusement park itself, which was closed to the public. Either way, I was beginning to feel as if I’d had a wasted journey.
On the other hand, it had turned into a glorious summer’s day, and I was at the beach. In my mind’s ear I could hear the strains of ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’ (Reginald Dixon’s Mighty Wurlitzer version, of course!), and I decided to explore a bit further. I walked to the end of the beach and up to Friars Point, where I took some photos across the sea front and out into the Bristol Channel. There are spectacular cliffs all along this stretch of coastline, and there’s a beauty at the western end of Watch House bay.

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It was still rather hazy out to sea, unfortunately. I wasn’t able to get a clear shot of Flat Holm island (which was featured in the Torchwood episode ‘Adrift’) – and which, trivia fans may be interested to learn, is home to the most southerly pub in Wales! However, when I turned around I spotted some stone arches in the distance.

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That gave me an idea, so I walked back along the little headland and along a breakwater. Here, lying abandoned in a stretch of brackish water, were the sad remains of a couple of small boats.

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I was making my way through a car park when I heard a train approaching. It was crossing the bridge which links Barry to Barry Island. I’d lost my bearings by this stage, so it was nice to have something to fix on again.

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I found a little path which led up to the road. I followed my nose to a traffic roundabout with a pub on one corner. Appropriately enough, it’s called The Ship. (There’s another pub called The Ship at Efail Isaf, just outside Church Village. Presumably the tide must have been very high on the day that it was named!)

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Even though the sun was well over the yardarm by now, I decided to press on. At a busy traffic junction at the top of a steep hill, I found this impressive church overlooking the sea. It’s one of a dozen or so equally eye-catching places of worship which I encountered that day. Get ready for some staggering statistics.
In the census of 1871, the little fishing village of Barry contained 21 buildings, housing a population of just over a hundred. In 1881, Barry itself had a population of 85, and 403 people lived at nearby Cadoxton. By the 1920s this figure had exploded to around 40,000, as the port and railway network mushroomed.
The late Victorian and Edwardian building boom left a legacy of noteworthy buildings. This is just one of them.

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From here, I descended Romilly Park Road, stopping to catch a quick photo of a train on its journey from Bridgend to Aberdare. Then I followed my nose again, skirted Romilly Park, and passed under the railway line into a neat cluster of residential streets overlooking the sea. I passed a coffee shop and an ice cream parlour, not really sure where I was heading, and after a few minutes I found a waymarker for the Wales Coastal Path.
Gaz has been exploring this long distance walk for himself, splitting it into handy bite-sized chunks. When we were returning from Bridgend (see Pleasant Valley Monday) he mentioned that he’d passed through Porthkerry Country Park on one expedition. That was the destination I had in mind, although so far I hadn’t seen any signposts for it. I was starting to wonder whether I’d be able to get to it – that cliff had looked rather forbidding! I needn’t have worried, as the path led steeply uphill and onto a large newly-mown field. There were some beautiful houses here, with glorious views over the Bristol Channel. I’d accidentally found my way to Millionaires’ Row.

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I followed the waymarkers to the summit, and then started to descend gently into thick woodland. The path was clear and well-trodden, and I stopped for a minute to watch a pair of squirrels scampering around in a tree a few feet away, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

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At the bottom of the path I emerged into a large expanse of grassland. To the east, I could see the imposing cliff face which the path had skirted. I looked around and realised that I’d arrived without any warning at Porthkerry Country Park. A couple of minutes’ walk to the north was the target I’d been aiming for: Porthkerry Viaduct.

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I think I actually said ‘Wow!’ out loud at my first sight of this astonishing feat of civil engineering. Built in the 1890s by the Barry Railway Company, it stands 110 feet high, and its thirteen arches span the narrow valley. It’s a breathtaking sight when you’re up close and personal, as I was on Friday afternoon.

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Here I encountered another problem. I’d forgotten to bring my tripod, which meant that photographing myself beside the viaduct was going to be rather difficult. I only had my miniature tripod, which is ideal if there’s something convenient nearby for it to stand on. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could use. I found a fence post, but it was quite a distance away. Even with the maximum delay time of twelve seconds, my camera was still too far away for me to get into the picture. My recurring back problem means that my sprinting days are long behind me.
I persevered for a few minutes, and eventually managed to get a shot of me standing beside one of the massive stone uprights. You can just about see me, if you look hard enough.

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There’s a little shop not far from the viaduct, so I called in for a bottle of lemonade and a bar of chocolate. I sat on a bench overlooking the beach and wondered how long it would be before a train came along. I worked out that it must have been nearly an hour since I spotted the one approaching Barry Station. Sure enough, a few minutes later I heard a mechanical rushing noise that presaged the arrival of a train. I managed to get the camera ready just in time to capture it passing high above the country park.

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An elderly couple and their young granddaughter were standing nearby, and I heard the man tell her, ‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for.’
I turned to them and said, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’
They told me that the first time they’d brought her to the country park, an aeroplane had flown right overhead. We were only a couple of miles from Cardiff Airport, near Rhoose, and I was surprised that there hadn’t been more aerial action that day.
Then the ‘battery empty’ indicator appeared on the camera screen and it shut itself down.
Every time I’m out with the camera, the same thing happens. Every time, I tell myself, ‘Bring a spare pair of batteries with you next time!’ Every time, I forget to do it! I was cursing myself for not planning ahead, when I remembered that sometimes my camera manages to squeeze a bit more juice out of the batteries once it’s been switched off for a while. Maybe all was not lost after all.
I’d been trying to work how long I’d have to wait for the coal train from Tower Washery to reach the viaduct on its way to Aberthaw Power Station. I knew that freight trains rely on ‘windows’ in the operating timetable to squeeze in between the passenger services. This is why we have the infamous ‘Ghost Trains’ on the Aberdare line – the gaps in the timetable allow the freight trains to pass along the single track. I knew that the train left Aberdare around lunchtime, but it was anyone’s guess how long it would take to complete its journey. It seemed like a bit of a gamble to just sit around and wait for something to happen.
I decided to head back into Barry, and gathered my stuff together. As I stood up, I heard an aeroplane approaching. Fortunately my camera had got its second wind by now, and I managed to get one shot before the plane vanished behind the trees.

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I’d suddenly been handed a title for this entry. Things were looking up for once (both literally and metaphorically). I had a look at the little map of the country park beside the path, and decided to try and head back into Barry via the road network, rather than retrace my steps. I walked past the car park, struck out along a narrow track, and a few minutes later I heard another mechanical rushing noise in the distance. It was the unmistakeable sound of a Class 66 locomotive at full power. I know that I swore loudly this time, but I still managed to have the camera ready before the train passed over a small stone bridge across the path.

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It was better than nothing, I suppose – but I’d much rather have had a photo of it spanning the whole length of the viaduct instead. Maybe next time…
I walked on for another couple of minutes until my way was blocked by a gate. A metal sign told me that I’d be crossing a ‘Public footpath over private land.’ This was a new one on me; I had visions of an angry farmer waving a shotgun and shouting, ‘Get orf moi larnd!’ Fortunately, I was able to carry on unchallenged. I passed a couple of isolated cottages, strolled along a quiet country lane between fields of crops, and after a few more minutes I emerged at a busy main road. There was a Travelodge and a Toby Carvery at the junction, and heavy lorries were thundering past. It was a remarkable contrast in a very short distance. I was on Port Road. I recalled that my old boss from Blackwell’s, Jim E., had lived near here back in the day. I had a vague idea where I was again.
A roadside banner informed me that I was at Weycock Cross, where Port Road meets Pontypridd Road and Weycock Road. The banner had been put there by the Friends of Weycock Cross, who were trying to prevent a new development being built on the land nearby. I don’t blame them – it’s easy to shout ‘Nimbies’ when you hear of campaigns like this, but it’s a beautiful area. I don’t think I’d want a lot of new identikit houses springing up on a greenfield site near me, either.
On the other side of the junction was a filling station and a small Co-operative supermarket. There were also bus stops on Port Road West and Pontypridd Road. I checked the timetable and fare information, and found that it cost £1.70 to get back into Barry itself. It seemed better than walking, so I bought a paper in the shop to make sure I had the exact money – I knew from past experience that Cardiff buses don’t give change!
Then I remembered that I had an iff card in my wallet. It’s rather like an Oyster Card, but works on Cardiff buses. I applied for it when they first came out, about six years or so ago. At the time, I was visiting Llandough Hospital as an outpatient fairly regularly, so I figured that it would come in handy if I needed to go there on a rainy day.
As I was one of the early adopters, Cardiff Bus preloaded it with £3.00 of credit as a ‘thank you’ for supporting the new scheme. Soon after that, Mr Graham’s team discharged me and the card has sat, unused, in my wallet ever since. I wasn’t even sure whether the initial credit would be valid, but it was worth a try.
A few minutes later, the 98 bus arrived and I asked for a single to King Square. (I didn’t know where King Square was, mind – I’d seen it on the timetable and thought it sounded fairly central!) With my iff card in one hand and the correct fare in the other, I explained about my iff card dilemma. The driver was a friendly and cheerful chap, and didn’t quibble at all. He simply scanned it on his machine, and told me that the credit was still valid. Job done!
The journey into Barry itself took me through suburban streets and past some of the other remarkable churches I mentioned earlier. I wished I’d had a bit more idea of my whereabouts, but I was in terra incognita once again. We passed some superb civic buildings, a couple of pubs (including the ubiquitous Wetherspoon, of course), and finally came to a stop at King Square. We’d arrived right outside the public library.
By now my camera had built up enough of a head of steam to allow me to capture just some of the extraordinary architecture of this rather overlooked town centre.

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Sadly, the ground floor level of Barry doesn’t fulfil its architectural promise. It’s a real Clone Town of chain stores, charity shops and bargain shops punctuated by training agencies, beauty salons and card shops – Aberdare-on-Sea, if you like. The charity shops did turn up a few bargain books, mind you: The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry, X-Ray by Ray Davies, and a replacement copy of Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Not a bad little haul for four quid. I could have carried on, but I was getting loaded down by that stage.
In the middle of the main street I found a pub called The Buccaneer, and called in for a pint. It was a big old place with a lively mixed crowd. There was a chap of about my age sitting with a girl considerably younger than him, and I took up a nearby table. When the chap went for a smoke, the girl carried on talking to herself. It was nice to know that I haven’t lost the knack of finding loopy females. I logged onto Facebook, told Anna that I’d drawn a blank at Barry Island earlier on, and drank up before the crazy girl decided to home in on me.
Back in the high street, I walked towards where I assumed the railway station would be. I didn’t find it, but I did find this imposing war memorial outside the civic offices.

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I arrived at a bridge which led to the Waterfront (their capital W, by the way!), and halfway across I looked down at the railway line. Here was a mystery which I still haven’t solved, even with the aid of my Pre-Grouping Atlas of the British railway network. Have a close look at the way the railway lines and the platform lie in relation to one another.

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Now, I could be wrong (and I’m sure that one of my rail enthusiast readers will clarify the position), but to me this looks like two passenger lines side by side, and a freight line next to the platform. Certainly there’s no sign on the platform to indicate that it’s still in use. It isn’t Barry Station, and it isn’t Barry Docks Station either – I ended up rejoining the train there, and it’s quite some distance up the line. It’s a mystery at the moment.
With my battery indicator flashing red again, I decided to head back into Cardiff, and the next stage of my adventure. I retraced my steps into the town centre and found a signpost for Barry Docks Station. A few minutes later I found myself on the approach to the station, and took this photo of the Custom House which dominates the view from the railway line as you pass through. Sadly I wasn’t able to get as close as I’d hoped, but it’s still a magnificent building.

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The train arrived a few minutes later, and was running through to Aberdare, but I wasn’t heading home just yet. I boarded, found a seat by the window, and started the crossword. A couple of stops later, the shockwave against the window of a passing train jolted me back to reality. It turned out to be another coal train heading for Aberthaw. That baffled me for ages, as I knew the next window in the Aberdare route wasn’t until the evening. It dawned on me later that coal trains run from the opencast workings east of Merthyr Tydfil, via the Bedlinog to Ystrad Mynach branch. I presume it had originated there and made its way down in time to surprise me.
At Cardiff Central I had twenty minutes to kill, so I walked as far as Greggs and bought a snack. I had a look at the three charity shops side by side in Central Square, but none of had anything which caught my eye. Then I headed back to the station in time for the next stage of my adventure.
This didn’t go according to plan either, you’ll be amazed to learn. I’d been looking to catching my first train from the famous Platform Zero (see A Letter From the Editor 8), but it wasn’t to be. A last-minute platform alteration meant that I was departing from Platform 2 – but it didn’t matter. I was on my way into a section of Mr Baker’s book which said ‘Here be dragons’: the line to Ebbw Vale Parkway.
Even though the line was reopened to passenger traffic early in 2008, I’d never made the journey there myself. Gaz did it a couple of years ago. We both knew from experience that ‘Parkway’ stations are usually some way from the towns they claim to represent. Gaz had summed up the end of the line perfectly: ‘It’s as if the trains to Aberdare terminated at Cwmbach.’
In the event, I didn’t have time to check out the terminus for myself. We were delayed for ages at Rogerstone while the conductor tried to get the doors to close. It was early evening by now, and the train was busy with commuters on their way home. It had felt strange to be on a commuter train heading down the main line towards Newport for the first part of the journey, but once we turned into the Ebbw Valley we were in familiar Valley Lines territory again.
I haven’t been into the Eastern Valleys for many years, and I was amazed by how much the landscape has been transformed. The old industrial scars have been landscaped over, and it’s extraordinarily green again. I couldn’t see a great deal from the train window, but it was reassuring to see that the massive Institute at Llanhilleth was still intact. At least one local authority in South Wales still cares about our built heritage.
When we arrived at Ebbw Vale Parkway, we were just in time for the return leg. Consequently I haven’t got any photos to show you. We made good time back into Cardiff, and I parked myself on the platform for the final phase of the day’s roving.
I didn’t have long to wait for the Maesteg train – but never fear, I wasn’t going all the way! Instead, I travelled only as far as the next stop, Pontyclun, and a pub named after one of my heroes: The Brunel Arms.
I’ve been there on two previous occasions, some years apart. The current landlady is named Siân S., and we’ve been friends on Facebook for ages. However, Friday night was the first time we’d met in person. I asked her some weeks ago if she’d be willing to have a collection box for the Anthony Nolan bone marrow/stem cell charity on the bar. She agreed without hesitation, so on Friday morning I’d shoved one into my bag before setting off. I’d messaged her on Facebook while I was in the pub in Barry, and she’d said that she’d be around by about nine o’clock.
It takes about fifteen minutes to travel from Cardiff to Pontyclun on the train. I’m always surprised by how compact the city of Cardiff really is – you don’t have to sit on the train for very long before the houses peter out and you’re passing through countryside. It was still a glorious day, and I was looking forward to a pint. I left the train and made my way to the pub, which overlooks the main line from Cardiff to Swansea. At the entrance to the pub car park, I spotted a little iron disc set into the ground, and decided to photograph it.

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It was great to find a remnant of the Great Western Railway so close to a pub named after its guiding light. A couple of girls sitting outside were highly amused when I stopped to take the photo; I suppose you either appreciate industrial history or you don’t. When I mentioned it to Siân, she told me that she always dreaded knocking it with her car. I teased her that she needed to be careful, as it was probably a listed structure. Then again, if it was, Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC would have ripped it out of the ground years ago.
I chatted to some youngsters who were waiting for the football to start, all the while checking out the new arrivals in case one of them was Siân. It was almost like being on a blind date (as far as I can remember, anyway – that hasn’t happened for about thirty years!) Eventually I spotted her emerging from the ‘Private’ door, and went up to say hello. She spotted me as I approached, and we both said exactly the same thing at the same time. Great minds think alike, see.
We chatted for a while, and Siân bought me a pint for making the effort to call in. Unfortunately, the constraints of public transport meant that I had to leave in time for the 2150 train back to Cardiff. I’ve promised to call in again when I get the chance – it’s a really nice pub, with lots going on and a good crowd. It’s a shame it’s so bloody far away! It may look like no distance on the map, but in the world of public transport it’s virtually a two hour journey.
Now here’s a thing: the train I was catching ran to Cardiff Central only; the next one ran through to Gloucester, of all places! If I lived in that fair city, I’d have been able to stay in The Brunel for another hour and still get home! Living barely twenty miles away, I had to travel back into Cardiff and kick my heels for nearly forty minutes before the Aberdare train left. As Terry Wogan would say, Is it me…?
The sun was just setting as I stood on the footbridge at Pontyclun Station and took the last photo of the day.

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And that, boys and girls, was how I spent Friday the Thirteenth. Between pettifogging bureaucracy, trains which kept their own schedules, a no-show by the gorgeous Impossible Girl, a narrow escape from yet another crazy bint, and a lack of battery power, the odds had been stacked against me from the outset.
For all that, though, it had all turned out nicely in the end. I’ve got some more books, a new pub to visit when I’m travelling, and a couple of places to revisit with my tripod in tow. I caught a few rays, covered another section of Mr Baker’s Rail Atlas, and got out of Aberdare for the day.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was just what the Doctor ordered.
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