Ever since he first encountered Iain Sinclair’s epic circumnavigation of the M25 in 2002 London OrbitalCardiff author Peter Finch has something similar in mind for his hometown.
twenty years later outskirts of the city sees the author tracing a far less concrete frontier in a series of explorations of the outer limits of the Welsh capital.
Urged into the project by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic that confined citizens to their local authorities, he sets out to find out just how far the city stretches and where exactly it ends.
In doing so, he traverses a range of different landscapes and deals with a wide variety of subjects, from border politics to industrial, personal and cultural histories.
Beginning at the southernmost point of the Ferry Road Peninsula, Finch sits at a yacht club picnic table, gazes out over the water and muses on the outskirts of town. “Like generations of seafarers before me,” he writes, “I can see the world from here…Behind me is Wales. Green place again now that the dust is gone.’
It’s the beginning of an extraordinary adventure and on this first stretch he seems to be building his stable.
With a keen eye on how past, present and future are intertwined, he chronicles how this once muddy headland and mediocre market town was transformed into a ‘coal port beast’ by the Industrial Revolution.
After the coal ships have disappeared, he passes futuristic blocks of flats with porthole windows and yacht sail roofs.
Following the Ely north, Finch recalls earlier sources of pollution on the river – coal washing, coke ovens, paper mills and sewage – and how it remains prone to flooding.
He wanders along Grangemoor Park, contemplating the strange, terrifying beauty of a pile of rubbish “covered with a meter of dirt and grass” before spotting his first boundary sign. It deviates from the path at Leckwith Bridge, near Cardiff City Stadium, and gradually changes course to the west.
Under the descriptions of one of Henry VIII’s antiquarians and changes to the local topography, it evokes images of Ely Racecourse, which operated from 1855 to 1939 and whose grandstand burned down in 1937.
Here he weaves in an interesting family story, via a photo of his great-grandfather looking confident and content – ‘maybe his horse just won’.
time and room
The book continues in this fashion, bouncing through mud, swamp, time, and space. We’ll be transported back to a time of Roman rule and learn about the boom in shooting ranges in the Victorian era.
We see the development of the housing developments of Ely and Caerau, originally known together as the Ely Garden Suburb, and there is a large section on Caerau Hillfort which began as a Neolithic settlement and was fortified in the Iron Age; Since then it has been a burial ground, a medieval farm and, more recently, a place for beer drinking and motorcycling.
This is history in motion.
Among other things, Finch skirts the shopping malls of Culverhouse Cross, enjoys the gorgeous views of Castell Coch, dodges to Caerphilly Mountain – where his father drove him on Sunday afternoons in the 1960s – and skirts the modern medieval center and the bay again: all in all ‘a great one diamond shape’.
Highlights along the track for me include his description of a nuclear war monitoring station, the story of the Welsh prince who gave his name to Clwb Ifor Bach (there are good tunes in the Welsh music scene too) and reflections on the politics of rights of way.
There is a fascinating passage about the great flood of 1606, when a 1.5m high flood wall killed around two thousand people.
Disused railroad lines reappear, as do golf courses and examples of anti-vax graffiti scrawled on brick and stone as if grounding the book in its own time.
It is fitting, of course, that Finch started by mentioning Iain Sinclair, who is clearly a strong influence. I remember reading London uplands in 2015 and viewed it as an act of cultural archaeology, which, like me, came back with countless new names to explore.
Finch’s book does the same: For example, he gives a brief account of the brilliant – and influential – literary forger Iolo Morganwg; he praises the work of naturalist Mary E. Gilham, whose trilogy on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast I have already purchased; and touches on the life and text of William Blake’s friend Benjamin Heath Malkin, who settled in Cowbridge The countryside, antiquities and biography of South Wales sounds essential.
And there’s the music he listens to along the way: Robbie Basho, Merle Haggard and Philip Glass to name just three.
I’ve read many books over the years that use walking as a method to connect with place in fresh and meaningful ways, but few have been this close to home.
Coming from Bridgend, I went to college in Cardiff and worked briefly on the outskirts of town – I delivered goods to Celsa which was mentioned in the last few stages – so I know some of these places well, and more on the side.
What outskirts of the city however, does so effectively, alienating and enriching these landscapes with allusions, digressions, and depths, all painted in seemingly effortless poetic prose.
Finch elevates the seemingly mundane to a place of real literary significance, and gives some of these lesser-known neighborhoods the attention they deserve.
outskirts of the city is published by Seren. It is available in all good bookshops or you can buy it here.
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