The green, green parks of home – A walk through the legacy of Cardiff’s coal wealth

Cedar of Lebanon at Insole Court, Cardiff

On Thursday, September 9th, 2021 more than 60 trees located all across Bute Park in Cardiff were destroyed in what was either an act of vandalism or perhaps a pre-meditated attack on nature. Throughout the pandemic Bute Park became a haven for people wanting to walk and explore nature in the city. I thought now would be a good time to share this part of my journey of exploration where I discovered the charms of Bute Park.

My inspiration for starting The Liminal Forest walking project had been the public parks and woodlands in and around my hometown of Cardiff. Wandering these green and wooded spaces had been my escape from the stress and drudgery of the pandemic lockdown. As I walked through them each day I came to realise how disconnected I had become from the natural world and also how many other people, like me, were out exploring, soaking up nature and reconnecting.

Now that I was deep into my walk through Wales, and also my research into how our modern society became so disconnected from the natural world around it, I decided to retrace some of the urban park and woodland walks I had done during lockdown. Specifically, I wanted to explore how Cardiff’s coal wealth had shaped my hometown and particularly the parks so many of us considered a lifeline – having seen in the South Wales Valleys how that same coal industry had broken the connection local communities had with the land around them.

My starting point was to be Insole Court, a Victorian mansion and gardens that today sits surrounded by streets of semi-detached homes in the neighbourhood of Llandaff, a couple of miles walk away from the city centre

The Insoles had been one of the most important coal families in all of Wales. The patriarch, George Insole, had moved to Cardiff from England in the early 19th century and, over the next 30 years, he and his son, James, built a coal shipping dynasty that would help make Cardiff the coal capital of the world. Their signature coal venture was a mine called Cymmer, situated 20 miles north of Cardiff in the heart of the south Wales valleys.

George Insole died of heart failure on Christmas Day, 1850 and James, just 29 years old at the time, took over the full running of the business. Headstrong and no doubt eager to build on his father’s legacy, James rapidly increased production at Cymmer. The younger Insole doubled the workforce to 160 men and boys, and further expanded the underground reach of the mines but failed to increase the number of ventilation shafts needed to keep air flowing underground and minimise the build-up of flammable gases including methane known in the industry as firedamp.

On the morning of Tuesday 15th July 1856 disaster struck. At six in the morning, just as 160 men and boys descended the shaft to begin their shift, a huge explosion ripped through the mine – killing 114, some as young as 10 years old.

Just six months later, James Insole purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cardiff called Ely Court. Over time everyone came to know the grand mansion and gardens as Insole Court where I was standing now. I knew these grounds very well. My childhood home backed onto Insole Court’s gardens and, as a child, it had provided an almost fantasy-like playground for myself and the kids in the neighbourhood.

I wandered the nine acres of grounds reacquainting myself with old but familiar surroundings. On this sunny morning, the gardens were full of families escaping the monotony of months of being grounded at home. Toddlers straddled the old stone lion at the top of the great lawn. Slightly older kids chased each other through the ornate gardens – playing hide and seek in the nursery runs, bushes and grotto made from local quarried rocks in one corner of the grounds as I had at their age. A grand, expansive Cedar of Lebanon tree continued to stand watch over all the proceedings – its black branches and deep green leaves spread wide in repose as if getting ready to settle into a comfy chair.

At the front of the house the long driveway flanked by rows of Horse Chestnut trees led up a gentle hill to the main gates. Close by, local residents had created a memorial garden to remind visitors of the Insoles’ debt to the mine workers at Cymmer. Standing in front of the memorial, it really hit home just how much of Cardiff owed its affluence and success to the sacrifices of those coal miners. And just how big a player the city once was in shaping the global fossil fuel (and ultimately climate change) legacy.

I left Insole Court, turned right onto Fairwater Road and walked into Llandaff village, passing by some other grand old houses one owned by local coal merchants. I took a shortcut through Llandaff village green, walking down Cathedral hill and through the cemetery. I walked past the ornate but weathered gravestone of Ivy Insole who died in 1888 and where husband James was laid to rest 12 years later. And then I joined the river path and walked to Bute Park – named after the third Marquess of Bute, perhaps the most influential figure in the growth of the Welsh coal industry.

The Marquess wasn’t that interested in coal mining itself. However, he happened to own thousands of acres of land north of Cardiff where the rich coal seams lay. Today, Bute Park is a great example of how public parks and open space can help a city breathe. It had formerly been the Bute’s private estate directly to the north of Cardiff Castle, which the third Marquess, working with the acclaimed architect William Burgess, had transformed into a Gothic Revival-style palace during the late 19th Century.

It was lunchtime as I walked through the park and it was full of people escaping the isolation of their homes and enjoying the day. Runners, cyclists and determined walkers jostled for position on the main tarmac path through the park. Couples walked holding hands while lone walkers, keen to escape the throng, explored a thin dirt sidetrack that hugged the old, disused, Dock Feeder Canal which once carried a constant supply of fresh water down to Cardiff Docks to help keep the entrance to the tidal Bristol Channel open. Groups of teenagers disappeared into the bushes and undergrowth by the side of the river – looking for a bit of pebble beach to hang out and smoke weed (judging from the aroma wafting through the park). The main lawn of Bute Park was packed with families having picnics while groups of students from neighbouring Cardiff University played football, threw frisbees or just kicked back with beers.

In its heyday, these private gardens were the jewel of the Bute family’s estate. The original Castle green was first designed by the famous landscape architect, Capability Brown, in the late 18th century under instructions from the 2nd Marquess. But it was his son who expanded the design of the estate, recruiting Andrew Pettigrew to create the elaborate ornamental gardens, plant all manner of exotic trees and shape intricate pathways that still make the park so appealing today and such a focal point of outdoor life in the city.

Just like with Insole Court, as I walked through Bute Park I couldn’t help but consider the irony of how such a beautiful and varied homage to trees and nature had been financed by the Bute’s coal wealth. Back then nobody gave this a second thought. Today, I suspect, it might be greeted with the same sense of greenwashing disdain that many people view tobacco and oil companies sponsoring museums and art galleries.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

Introducing Return To My Trees

Llandaff Fields in Cardiff

At the height of the Covid 19 pandemic, when we were all in lockdown, I, like so many people, found myself at a loss. My work as a writer had dried up and the only alternative to mooching around the house all day was to get out and walk.

Walking became my coping mechanism – it helped me relax and forget for a while about the situation we all found ourselves caught up in.

To begin with I explored the local parks in my home city of Cardiff. Soon though, I started to venture further afield into the woodlands on the fringes of the city. The more I walked the more I came to appreciate the amazing beauty and complexity of the natural world around me – particularly the trees which, to my shame, I’d never really paid that much attention to before.

Each day I grew more fascinated with the trees around me. I wondered how long they’d been standing, watching over us, and how had they got there in the first place. As I wandered through the woods I couldn’t help wondering: if the trees could think, what would they make of the mess we humans had made of the land we share?

Walking through Pentrebane woods to St. Fagans

The media was full of stories about how we needed to make a fresh start and reboot that relationship if we wanted to prevent further pandemics as well as devastating climate change. The question that no-one seemed to be able to answer was: How do we rebalance our relationship and make peace with nature?

It seemed like we were trapped at present in a liminal state – on the threshold of embracing a better, more sustainable way of living but not able to leave behind our old destructive ways. I felt like I was in a similar liminal state – what I needed was an adventure to shake me out of the fog I found myself.

That’s when I read about a plan to create the National Forest for Wales – an ambitious project that would fight climate change, protect biodiversity and help people get out and experience nature. That gave me an idea. What if I mapped out and walked a potential route for this new National Forest?

Then and there, I decided to embark on a nearly 300-mile walking trip through the forests, woodlands, hillsides and mountains of Wales.

Walking became my coping mechanism. It helped me relax and forget about the situation we all found ourselves in.

So, one Sunday morning, I sat down at my desk with a cup of coffee and started studying a map of Wales so that I could plot a series of walks connecting the forests and woodlands.

I soon found myself diving into the history of the woodlands in Wales and I quickly discovered how deep our relationship with nature once was and how, over the centuries, we had lost that connection.

I learned about the history and causes of deforestation and how centuries of industrialisation had destroyed our relationship to the forests.

I discovered how crucial a role the woodlands and nature played in our folklore and legends – the woodlands of Wales lie at the heart of the stories of King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, the magical kingdoms of the Mabinogi and the mysterious powers of the Physicians of Myddfai.

And I also saw how the celebration of nature in art and culture by the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and JMW Turner helped create not just Victorian tourism but also the modern environmental movement.

Importantly, I also realised how walking through Wales could shine a light on the global issues we need to solve if we truly are to make peace with nature. Systemic issues like affording nature the same legal rights as humans; restructuring our global food system; planting trees in ways that help not hurt the planet; and building the economic value of nature into our financial and economic systems.

Finally, and importantly, I began to realise how important walking in nature is for all our physical and mental well-being and how this journey could help me repair my spirit and shape a new more positive future.

This is the story of my journey through Wales.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be telling you more about individual walks and experience through these posts and this newsletter.

Come join me on the Liminal Forest adventure by signing up to the newsletter