Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"A bleak, edgy beauty"

Despite being a lover of coastal walks and seaside vistas, I've never set foot on Splott Beach, and indeed have never had any inclination to do so. Like many Cardiffians, I imagine, I've always found the whole concept of Splott even having a beach laughable.

But that started to change a couple of days ago, when I came across this Twitter thread by Andy Williams. His images captured it and the surrounding environs in a good light, bearing out the truth of his comment about the area's "bleak, edgy beauty". I was reminded both of the very similar and curiously striking landscape in and around the Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve (reclaimed industrial land and mudflats, over which buzzing pylons and the Severn Power Station tower) and of Ann Drysdale's book Real Newport, in which she achieves the considerable feat of making the muddy banks of the city's tidal river seem aesthetically attractive.

Stepping onto the beach itself, Williams took pictures of some of the "half-buried old bricks" that litter the sand, "stamped with the names of long-gone Welsh industrial ghosts". As he readily acknowledged, though, he isn't the first to be fascinated by the shoreline detritus - local photographer Jon Pountney began his Beachcombing project on "this hinterland" in 2015.

Pountney's pictures immediately put me in mind of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's series The Coal Coast, which I had the good fortune to see at the Baltic in Gateshead back in 2003. The gallery referred to Konttinen's work as "a kind of post-industrial fossil hunt", so it's no surprise that Pountney - a self-confessed enthusiast of what he calls "horizontal archaeology" - might have been drawn to the same subject matter. That images from Beachcombing were exhibited in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay last year is somewhat ironic - reminders of the coastline's industrial past put on display at the heart of an area where urban planners have sought to efface all such traces.

Pountney and Williams' pictures, like those of Konttinen, vividly underscore the impact of human activity on the natural environment - but imply that such post-industrial landscapes needn't be merely seen in negative terms as "spoilt". Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps, and Splott Beach won't win any prizes - but it's suddenly leapt up my list of places to visit post-lockdown.

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