From designing lifeboats, to trailblazing open sea radio and unearthing dinosaur footprints, there’s so much more to Glamorgan’s coast than Gavin and Stacey…
Beyond Barry Island
By Phoebe Smith, Award winning travel writer - Author / Broadcaster / Adventurer / Presenter
Mention Barry Island to most people and they’ll likely know two things about it: Gavin and Stacey. Ever since we saw these two say ‘I love you’ on its waterfront in the hit 2007BBC show, the Welsh seaside resort has become synonymous with amusement arcades, Marco’s Coffee and Nessa shouting ‘What’s occurring?’.
Before I visited this beachside enclave, 10 miles south-west of Cardiff, that was all I knew about it too, yet here I was, standing barely a mile from the site of the former Butlin’s Holiday Camp – not even a bag of candy floss in sight – looking at a collection of dinosaur footprints glistening in the sunlight.
I was in the Vale of Glamorgan – the county that’s home to Barry Island – on a long weekend’s exploration to discover more of this often-neglected section of the South Wales coast. My first stop (after the obligatory coffee and ice-cream at Barry’s seafront) was Bendrick’s Beach, which it appears was something of a gathering hotspot in the late Triassic period some 220 million years ago.
In front of me were several large triple-pronged prints of theropod dinosaurs along with at least a few footsteps of a tetrasaurus, all imprinted into the red rocks as though they’d just run off to sea minutes earlier – it blew my mind. And this was only the start.
The following morning I headed 20 miles (and around 350 million years) to the west, to Ogmore-by-Sea. Sat alongside the Ogmore River, this unassuming village marks the start of the14-mile Glamorgan Heritage Coast. Replete with fossils, its stretch of cliffs and coves are a veritable layer cake of rock formations, from the Carboniferous to the Jurassic periods. Looking at them from the shoreline, as I did on arrival when I met ranger Paul Lock, it was as though someone had partaken in a record-breaking game of Jenga, with higgledy-piggledy slabs of rock sat atop each other. Although a scan of the pebble-strewn beach reveals that it doesn’t always remain quite as stable.
“Gryphaea – extinct molluscs – are the most common fossils we find here, which are also known as devil’s toenails,” explained Paul, as he picked up a handful of what looked like thick keratin clippings.
Scouring the ground at Southerndown, aka Dunraven Bay, among the rockpools of hermit crabs, limpets and beadlet anemone, we also found fossilised crinoid – segments of the arms of an extinct spindly starfish. Herring gulls watched us hopefully, no doubt thinking we might unearth some tasty morsels, while a pair of peregrine falcons stooped overhead.
It was here I said farewell to Paul to continue on to Monknash alone.
As I walked the sea was flat calm and seemed to belie the area’s shipwrecking past.
“The prevailing south-westerly wind blows straight into this channel,” Paul had explained before he left, gesturing at the water between us and where Bristol lay the other side. “In storms ships would often head for it seeking shelter from the open sea, but it actually has the opposite effect –the worst of the weather would be funnelled in, and gets worse as the gap between the land becomes narrower with less room to manoeuvre.”
For the rest of the day I walked along the coastal path enjoying a cooling breeze and blazing sunshine, all the way until my arrival to Monknash, and a well-timed pint at the Plough and Harrow Pub.
Built in 1383, this building was once part of a monastic farm house for the monks of Neath Abbey. And, according to the publicans, was used as a mortuary for the bodies of sailors washed up on the beach. It’s even said that some of the fine beams in the hostelry ceiling were probably spoils from ill-fated ships.
“We had a chef who swore he heard a crowd of people making noise long after we shut,” said the barman, “glasses regularly fly off the shelves, and locals report seeing a figure in a cloak.”
The next morning I met up with walking guide Nia Lloyd Knott who elaborated further.
“It was once the drinking spot for the ‘Wreckers of Wick’ who, local lore has it, would tie lanterns around sheep’s necks to lure ships into the rocks thinking they’d reached a town – then plunder everything onboard – always ensuring there were no survivors. And this…,” she explained as we made our way underneath the canopy of beech trees, draped with vines, “would have been the path they used to get down to shore. They say it’s haunted by the souls of those lost to sea, and even today many fishermen refuse to use it after dark.”
Walking in the daytime, listening to the hum of the cascading water from the adjacent river, while shards of sunlight pierced between the leaves, the place felt distinctly spirit-free.
As we neared Nash Point, Nia told me about perhaps the most famous of all the shipwrecks – the Frolic. This paddle steamer sank here in 1831 claiming the lives of all crew and 80passengers onboard. It was this incident which finally saw the Victorians build the lighthouse, which we walked under now and was the last lighthouse in Wales to be manned (it’s now electric and rented out as quirky holiday accommodation).
As we neared the final landmark on this section, known as St Donats (a 12th century castle that is now an independent sixth form college), I remarked how low the water had fallen since the high tide we’d witnessed earlier that morning. It was then I learned another fact about the Vale of Glamorgan – they have the second highest tidal range in the world (around 15metres - the highest are found nearly 3,000 miles further west in Canada’s Bay of Fundy). After that revelation, Nia had another Glamorgan claim to fame to drop on me.
“It’s here at this college in 1962 where they conceived, designed and built the original RIB [Rigid Inflatable Boat] which is still used by life boat organisations around the world to this day.”
It was astounding to think of the large legacy this small spot on the coast had when it came to saving countless lives at sea. They say that if they had earned royalties on the design the college would be one of the richest in the world, yet the headmaster gave away all rights to the RNLI for £1 – a cheque he never cashed.
That thought stayed with me right up till the end of the Heritage Coast at Aberthaw, yet I continued on to finish instead at Rhoose Point, Wales’ southernmost spot.
The following morning I would head further east still, this time to the other side of Barry Island, and see the spot where the ‘grandfather of radio ’Guglielmo Marconi made history by passing radio waves over open water in 1897 –an invention that was also responsible for saving countless lives at sea, including the 700 passengers rescued when the Titanic sank.
But for now I merely stood silently on a jigsaw of limestone, watching the sun set over the stacks of blue lias rocky cliffs ,while the waves lapped the shore. It was a suitably sedate way to end what had been a roller coaster ride along this unassuming coast’s history. One that was way more entertaining than any red coat and, in the words of Nessa, absolutely cracking.
Nia Lloyd Knott runs a selection of guided walks around the Vale of Glamorgan and beyond from £38pp (www.wildtrailswales.com).
Accommodation was provided by Hide at St Donats (hide.wales) which offers a selection of glamping options including shepherd’s huts, wooden ‘cabans’ and the beautiful self-catering Walden Lodge (sleeps 4). Prices from £120pn.
Find out more about the Glamorgan heritage Coast
Find out more about Marconi
Find out more about St Donats Castle