Childhood in the UK today is a very different beast to the childhood many of us older folk had. Certainly for myself, growing up in the 1970s was at times a health and safety nightmare (and I have no doubt that older people than me would say it was the same for them). Our playgrounds were very different to the shiny, bump proofed adventures our kids and grandkids enjoy today. No such luxury for us, we’d play in the road, we’d play down the back lanes, we’d play on waste ground and in derelict buildings, kicked out in the morning and told to come back when it got dark.
For me, one of my fondest earliest memories was playing on the railway lines down the back of my great grand dad’s house in Grangetown. Between the back of South Clive Street and Ferry Road was a strip of embankment that held two railway lines. At the top of the embankment was a line that was still in use, and at the bottom, practically on Ferry Road was an old disused line. The lines are long gone today, and the strip of land has become home to houses and multi-level accommodation, but back in the mid 1970s it was my favourite place to explore.
In a sharp contrast to today’s health and safety concious parenting, my parents would happily send me out to play on the train line at the back of the house. Make of that what you will! As dangerous as that sounds, my great grampy Westacott would reassure me, the trains only run in the early morning but keep an eye out just in case. Yup. Send your kids out to play on a railway today and you’d be all across the Daily Mail and probably in jail.
The back of the house in South Clive Street, looking over Ferry Road
From here I’ll take you back to that time and location via the medium of family photograph. That’s me in the summer of 1972, at the back of my great grand dad’s house, held up by the man himself, Grampy Westacott. I’m guessing it’s the summer of 1972 by my size and by the flowering roses in the garden. You’ll note the gas storage tanks over on the site of what’s now Ikea, a familiar view to Cardiffians in the 1970s.
I share this photo because of the back gate. I recall it now, you’d go out through the gate where there was a gravel path, and then push through a few metres of bracken and bush to the first of the railway tracks that I used to play on. It may not look like much, but that gate has cropped up time and time again in my memories and dreams, as does the big old buoy that hung up at the back of my great grand dad’s house, but that’s another story.
So, through the gate, through the bracken and out on to the first of the railway lines on the embankment. This was the top railway line, which was shiny and in good condition, obviously still in regular use. I used to sit on the track and play with the rocks between the sleepers. For my imagination, the top track was quite dull, the stones between the sleepers was grey and fairly uniform in their consistency. However, I was told to stay up there as it was closer to the house. For me though, the bottom track was the place to go to. Things were way more interesting down there.
As I got older I was allowed to venture down to the bottom track. As a small child this seemed like a massive trek, down the embankment, when in reality it was probably only about 20 metres away. That bottom track was a different world, one that felt safe and welcoming. The tracks were rusted and obviously out of commission. The thing that fascinated my about it was the rocks between the rails and sleepers. Unlike the grey boring stones up the top, the rocks here were like at treasure trove. Flint, granite, sparkles and more, the make-up was very different and varied.
I can still smell the flint now, when you strike two pieces of it together to make sparks and you’d get that lovely smell of rocks burning. As for the railway, the wooden sleepers were rotting and the rails rusting, but between them the rocks gleamed like jewels. I spent many a happy Saturday morning down there, searching the stones and admiring the activity at the junk yard on the other side of Ferry Road. Happy days.
This sounds awful, but every week before I went back to the house after my playing, I would leave a couple of rocks on the live rail on the top line. In my mind these would cause the trains to jump the rails. I was convinced one week I would come back and find a wrecked train where I normally played. In reality though, the small rocks I left on the rails would have been pulverised to dust when a train went past. Unsurprisingly, every week when I returned there was no sign of the wreck or the rocks I left there the week before. Hey, I was five, things worked differently in my head back then and it all made sense.
I happened across the below photo recently, which shows my old domain from the air. The bottom right of the photo shows the two railway lines and the back of the houses of South Clive Street. I’m not sure if my great grand dad’s house is there, but it feels like it should be. The road after the embankment is the one that today runs at the back of the Asda and Argos. I don’t know who took the photo, but I hope they don’t mind me using it to illustrate this bit of personal history.
Ferry Road and the back of South Clive Street from the air – Photographer unknown
And in a circular way I bring us back to the health and safety that I mentioned at the start of this post. One of the things that has featured in the art I’ve made in days past was the perils of childhood. I love the idea of the crazy, deadly shit we got up to as kids in the 1970s and 1980s. I’d often work that into my images and compositions as a part of the narrative. That many of us actually survived to adulthood is a miracle given the nonsense we got up to as small kids.
I recently found this drawing I made that was very heavily based on the Ferry Road embankment I used to play on. I made this around 1998, and it was thought lost until a couple of weeks ago when I chanced upon it in an unexpected place. You’ll see several of the features I’ve already mentioned in this post, and whilst it’s in no way an accurate depiction of the area as it was, it’s one that satisfies my imagination and aesthetic preferences and for me captures those times. Playing on railway lines, just imagine…
Tiger Bay Playground – (Collecting Stones) – 1998