Sunday, 30 August 2015


There are a number of ways to drain land.  Time-honoured is the drainage ditch.  Put in a network, take the water slowly somewhere else.  More costly, but neater, are deep-dug land drains: pipes that let the excess enter the sewers.  But if resource or logistics are problematic then making a feature of the dampness might be the best route forward.  The malarial bog which occupied both sides of the Lleici south of where the Lisvane and Llanishen reservoirs now stand had always been resistant to solution.  So why not build a dam and make it a lake?  In the autumn it was mostly that anyway.  This part of Cardiff was Bute land, vast acres of it.  A commendable solution.  But the Marquis was not given to philanthropy without purpose.  Bute knew that in order to build and sell high value property you need to provide amenity.  In 1887 he offered 103 acres of upper Roath to the Corporation, got this matched by 18 acres from Lord Tredegar, and established the chain of public spaces that still run in a green line out from the city’s heart.  The spaces were centred on what was to eventually become Roath Park Lake and Botanical Gardens.  It took the Corporation several thousands of pounds and a further seven years to dig, drain, pave and plant this Victorian splendour.  The gardens opening in 1884, water at their centre,  and the imposing  properties Bute built along its flanks, some of the most imposing Cardiff had yet seen, sold magnificently well.

The Lake with the lighthouse that has no lights

Over the years the Lake developed its own mythology.  Tram routes led to it.  Trolley bus terminuses were set at its entrance.  Rare plants were planted in its gardens.  There were band-stands, ice-cream parlours, elegant walkways, rock gardens, rose terraces, waterfalls, paddling pools, maple plantings, and boats.  Loads of boats.  The lake was filled with rowers you could hire, pedal boats for kids, motor launches for those who wanted the tour with low effort, barges for the swimmers, model yachts for the seafaring, and for the rest - ducks, swans, geese, fish and islands.  Five artificial mysteriosos were created at the north end.  After his first gig in Cardiff during the late sixties Jimi Hendrix was reputed to have woken up, stoned, on one of them.   Where am I, man?  Don’t worry bro, you’re in a foreign land. 

There’s something about this thin waterway which attracts people more than the coast does.  Try walking round it on a Boxing Day and you’ll be lucky to find yourself a free couple of yards.  The pathways will be packed with scarf and coat clad Cardiffians pumping their systems free of turkey sludge, towing their kids on new bikes/scooters/skate-boards/in-line rollers/electric shoes/zippo trainers.  And there’ll be dogs too: pooches, Alsatians, lap-dogs, yappy mongrels, and old-timers with smiles in their tails. 

Lake myths:

Full of gold
Horse and cart buried at centre
Fish all die
Tunnel straight to the Castle
Big bivalves
Cyncoed house drains exhale here
Buried Money
Lady of Lake and silver sword

There’s not that much of Roath Park Lake in Cardiff literature.   To correct this  Jarman and I planned a reading which would have the poets on the islands shouting their verse by megaphone to assembled fans in deckchairs strewn along the banks.  Didn’t come off.  Jan Leslie Olsen, lunatic Norwegian follower of H.P. Lovecraft, borrowed a row boat in 1968 and drifted oarless along the side of the promenade shouting out his mad stanzas.  Rimbaud of the Welsh capital.  Ignored by passers-by.  Small children threw bread.

Periodically the Lake gets drained and the ducks retreat to the decreasing slop of water at the long body’s centre.  The waterfall at the south end cascades down a series of low steps from the ice-cream stall, seat and flower-box strewn promenade (just like the sea side) to the rose garden and botanic adventures below.  I climbed in once and found the step shelves full of coin.  Visitors making a wish threw away their money.  No history, no tradition, no bent pins nor bushes covered with votive scraps of cloth.   This was a unilateral, popular solution to  life’s difficulties.  Parks are places where you can sort your problems, the swan is the resident oracle, the waterfall the epicentre of suburban dreams.

Glory be to Bute, no one’s yet stuffed this place with public art.  It’s still mostly as it was.  Crazy golf at the side of the kid’s playground, occasional sets of paintings hung in the café .  No installations glint among the bushes; there are no intrusive statues among the leafless trees. 

You could swim here, once.  But now,  like all other public water this stretch harbours virulent algae, stuff that’d take the skin off the small of your back and send you home with testicles swollen  like peaches.  No move to clean it.  The bathing platform and changing rooms have given way to a walkway for fishermen and model boat owners.  The water is stocked.  The fish have not been asked.

I’m in shorts and iplayer.  I run, it’s a good mile right round.  There’s something about running next to water, the ozone, the light, the serenity, that makes the straining breath all worth it.  There are legions of us.  Nikes, track-suit-bottoms, sticks to ward off snapping dogs, headphones playing Elbow, watches you punch to tell you how many seconds that 1000 meters took, how high the blood count, where the heart is, how to mend it, how the eyes rove out and stick onto glory.  Stop and draw in air.  Gallons.  Climb to the roadside and open the car boot.  Find the secreted Malvern and take a long draw.  The Lake glistens in the sun or greys and slides in the rain.  Either will do.   I watch a swan land.  He comes in like a flying boat, flick of water, whoosh of air, then a glide to serenity.  Calm.  That’s what the lake is for.

(an amended extract from Real Cardiff One,  the book that began the series)

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