One area I have a strong fondness for, but is now completely gone was a derelict part on the banks of the River Ely close to its outlet into Cardiff Bay. In the mid 1990s and later in the early 2000s my friend and I went down there with our cameras to explore and photograph. The river was still tidal back then, and whilst the development at Cardiff Bay was going on at a pace, that side was still relatively untouched. Below I’ve shared some of my photos from that first visit we made down that way, which I think was around 1993.
The area of interest to us was behind the old Grangetown tip. The tip has now been transformed into a park on the edge of the Ferry Road Retail Park, and the larger area we explored run along the bank of the River Ely towards its outlet into the mudflats of Cardiff Bay. A large chunk of it lay between the flyovers for the A4232 and A4055, and was familiar site to those travelling into Cardiff from Barry and Penarth by the train line that runs on the opposite bank of the river. Today it has been flattened and is home to several large residential blocks, a prime example of the luxury riverside living that’s shot up in Cardiff the last couple of decades.
Back then though, it was the home to old River Ely Tidal Harbour and home to a number of warehouses and industrial units. Its most recognisable feature was a striking array of wooden dock moorings and tidal dolphins. They were in a sorry state the first time we visited there, long since left to rot. The area around it was a scrubby wasteland full of broken glass and rubble. The first time we found our way there, we came from the opposite bank of the river, via an entrance from Penarth Road under the railway line. We walked across the expanse of old industrial wasteland from that entrance, and wound our way around onto the old bridge that crossed the River Ely. These first three photos show this side of the river accessed from Penarth Road.
The entrance to the wasteland from Penarth Road, under the A4232.
Wasteland on the banks of the River Ely, just off Penarth Road.
A view towards the old rickety bridge across the River Ely.
Crossing the River Ely to the side of the warehouse was a precarious affair. The bridge across the river was on its last legs and showing signs of decay (it has long since been demolished.) I think it was just an old access bridge, but it was starting to feel very rickety when we crossed it that first time. It brought you to the edge of the Grangetown rubbish tip, which at that point was still in use.
At the very end of the bridge, built in between the structure of the bridge and the side of the bank there was also a small shelter / dwelling. It was lived in by an elderly fellow who was making a living from the refuse being dumped at the tip. In fact, the homebuilt shack he was in was built from waste materials salvaged from the tip. I think we said hello as we passed, but took no photographs not wanting to invade his privacy.
We carried on along the side of the tip, then around a small ox-bowed area and across a small embankment which led us to the start of the warehouse. There were home-made looking make-shift moorings and piers along that side of the river. The tide was right out at that point leaving them stranded on the mud banks.
Walking across the embankment towards the River Ely Tidal Harbour.
Makeshift mooring on the bank of the River Ely close to the tidal harbour.
The approach to the old warehouse and tidal harbour moorings.
Eventually, we got to the warehouse and moorings. Large thick pieces of rotting structure punctuated the ground around the black warehouse, stuck with rusty pieces of metal and swaying remnants of ropes. The main quay itself stood up out of the mud, and ran the length of the black corrugated iron building, the bulk of which stood raised at the top of the bank. There was no way along the bank from there but to go under the building itself, a partially collapsed passageway ran the length of the quay to the other side of the building.
Underneath the building there was lots of debris and hints at possible industrial uses in the past. There floorway was made of thick beams of wood, but along the back side parts of it had collapsed into the bank, but were still passable. There’s a photo below of both the top of the walkway, and the view from below that level, that I suppose was often at water level with the tide. At the back of this under area were the remains of a large bellows, around four to five foot across, it was huge, as well as more rusting and deteriorating materials.
Rotting mooring posts on the one side of the River Ely Tidal Harbour.
The collapsing pathway underneath the black corrugated iron warehouse.
The view up from the river bank.
The underneath of the collapsing walkway.
Continuing on out of the other end of the building took you to another area of wasteland. At the back there were a number of large stone built industrial units / warehouses which at that time were all still in use. One of them nestled directly under the solid concrete of the flyover, as if playing leap frog with the road. There was lots of bramble and broken ground, and a lot more rotting pillars and moorings, no one working there paid any attention to us as we carried on looking around.
The structures on this side of the warehouse were the most impressive. I’m not sure how you’d class them, be it moorings, docks, dolphins or wooden quays. Whatever they were they had a beauty all of their own. Weathered, rotting, festooned with rusting metal and scraggy rope, they were imposing and in the right light, highly photogenic.
More of the moorings and dolphins from the further side of the old tidal harbour.
The imposing timbers from the old dolphins and quays of the River Ely Tidal Harbour.
The view to the back of the land and the workshops straddled by the flyover. The storage area is visible to the right.
Across the rough ground there was an area that held old train carriages and bits of machinary, alongside large pillars of concrete construction. I only recently discovered that those old carriages were actually in storage, the ones removed from the old Maritime Museum in Cardiff Bay that was demolished to make way for Mermaid Quay. I say stored, looking at the state of the carriages at this point compared to when they were at the museum, I think dumped is probably more apt a description. The last couple of photos here show these carriages and the concrete.
‘Stored’ carriage from the old Cardiff Maritme Museum.
Items from the old Maritime Museum left on the banks of the River Ely.
Them being the days were film and photos were extremely finite, and cost money to process, that was the last I shot on that day and we headed off home. It would be a while before I’d return again, and the second time things had gotten a lot worse. I will post those pictures another day though. It had been a good day wandering around and taking a more in-depth look at an area we had only ever glimpsed from the train or the motorway fly-over. At the point I took these photos I was doing a fine art degree down in Cornwall and these photos were used as the basis for a number of artworks I made in my final year of the course. There’s something about those rotting wooden remains (like the dolphins in Cardiff Bay) that have always appealed to me and still do to this day. I’m sure they’ll all pop up again in my work at some point, but for now all that’s left of the River Ely ones is these photos and some great memories of the days we spent exploring and shooting them.