I’ll quantify the glory days part of the headline by saying for that for me that time was the early to mid 1980s. Maybe not everyone’s glory days at South East Wales’ premier seaside resort, but they’re definitely mine! This was a time when Barry Island was the place to be for us Cardiff kids, a quick car ride away, the built up arcades and fun fair felt like a different world to us, and one we wanted to visit as often as possible.
The resort had seen much busier periods, earlier in the 20th century it would be so jam-packed there was pretty much standing room only on the beach! It was still busy during my glory days, but it was the last hurrah before its decline through the late 1980s to the present day. The resort is entertaining something of a comeback at present with a new fun fair and investment coming, but the things that made it special to us as kids are long gone.
I loved to visit as a kid, first on the inevitable day trips with the family, then with my friends when we’d jump on the train from Cardiff. As a result of these frequent trips, it’s also been a place that’s featured prominently in my creative life providing material for my art, photography and writing. The Fun House, Ghost Train, Butlins’ chairlift and the arcades crop up time and time again in both paintings and short stories I’ve created over the years – it really does hold a special fascination for me and continues to inspire and engage me.
But why was it so special then? Well, let’s take a look at what a day trip to Barry Island would typically consist of in the late 1970s / early 1980s. We were working class kids from Cardiff’s inner city and didn’t go abroad on holidays. Working parents meant our main break away happened once a year and was always a staycation. Getting out of Cardiff was a big deal for us then, and it went like this…
First there would be the delirious ride in the car, culminating in excited anticipation as the first glimpses of the fair were spotted. This excitement would be stoked by the unbearable requirement to sit in a never-ending traffic queue to get down the main road and into the harbour car-park. Once safely parked we could burst out of the car, buckets and spades and packed lunches held firm.
From the car park it was up the steps by the bridge. The steps were originally sheltered in a presumably Victorian era stone built enclosure which has long since been demolished. Let’s gloss over the fact that the stairwell usually smelt of urine, and instead turn our nostrils to the first smell that hit when you got to the top – good old seaside fish and chips. There were a few small stalls that ran around the corner on the opposite side to the fair, selling chips and doughnuts (also all long demolished) and the smell was heaven, it meant you’d arrived.
You’d come up from the car park by a large derelict looking, corrugated iron clad shed which housed an old arcade. It was like a time capsule in there, they had lots of old mechanical games, shooting galleries, penny drops and the like. I think it once held a carousel a long time previous, the remnants of which adorned the walls of the building. We’ll revisit this place another day, but for now, below is a photo from inside the old shed (taken by Marc Parry) to jog the memory of those who recall it.
Inside the old shed arcade at Barry Island. Circa 1989 – Marc Parry.
But let’s not digress – on a typical day trip for us, the arcades had to wait. The sun was out so the beach awaited and a spot would be required. Those days the beach would be crammed as far as the eye could see, more so if the tide was coming in and space was at a premium. The beach at Whitmore Bay was for many the highlight of the day. For me though, the beach was the starter. Sure, there was lots of fun to be had, be it a go on one of the donkey carriage rides, or a play in the UFO bouncy castle or simply trying to find the family in amongst the throngs on the beach.
Those big numbers on the sea wall came in handy for finding the family, but not all children were so adept at getting back to the folks. The tannoy system on the beach would be going all day long, with the bing-bong announcements of the beach manager trying to reunite lost children with their parents. At peak times it felt like there was an announcement every few minutes, so large were the numbers on the beach and the lost children disunited from their families following a slog to the loos or a trip to the chip shop.
No, for me the highlight came when we’d finally nagged the parents enough to get them out of their sunbathing and into taking us to the fair and arcades. That’s when the real fun began. Every arcade held numerous treats, and the fun fair was so lively and full of terrifying rides for us as kids. Then there was the looming presence of the Butlins Holiday Camp in the background, large white and green buildings that framed the fun fair, beach and headland. Once again, the joys of Barry Butlins is for another time, but the buildings really made the place feel grand and exciting, themselves filled with holiday makers from around the UK on top of the thousands of local day trippers like us.
Barry Island Pleasure Park was where it was for us, that’s where the real excitement lay. The rides in the fair were brilliant. The Ghost Train was genuinely terrifying to our young minds, and the garish artwork entranced me. The Fun House with its vertical slide that I only dared to go down a lot later, its precarious walk ways and the big rotating barrel constantly managed to fill me with joy and the occasional nightmare. The Safari Ride with its awkward and jerky animatronic people and animals filled us with glee and made the long queue to get on it worthwhile.
And then there were the new rides that appeared in this period. The Whacky Goldmine (later The Haunted Mine) was a major new attraction that was such a big deal it featured on Blue Peter. The take on the typical ghost train has some genuinely freaky moments where the train ran down a hill and a big heavy looking slab of rock shot out of the wall, too close for comfort. Then came the Log Flume which was insanely popular when it first appeared, so much so that you’d queue for an age to get on it. Then there was the Pirate Boat and the Traum Boot, both terrifying.
In the early 1980s came the Enterprise, which really was a modern and mean looking ride. Starting off flat, the circular ride had cars which hung at 90 degrees to the main part. But then it started up and the circle itself rose up through 90 degrees so what was once horizontal became vertical, and the cars themselves did the same. It was fast, stomach churning and completely exhilarating. You can get a glimpse of it in this advert from 1980.
And after the fair, whatever money and time we had left would be spent in the multiple arcades on the Island. Over the space of a decade we watched the arcades blossom into video gaming palaces of pure escapism, completely hooked all the while. These were the days when Space Invaders was so new it blew everyone away and turned us all in to instant addicts and perpetual 10p requesters.
Then it was back to the car to return home. Usually sunburnt, usually we’d stop for chips at some point, and usually we were all gutted to have to return to the hum-drum street in Roath we called home. But return we did, and sleep well with dreams of candyfloss coloured rides and harsh electric lighting glowing full blast in the bright sun of the day. That sort of intense experience was bound to leave its mark at some point, and so it did. I consider myself thankful for those experiences and the lasting legacy they have left me.
The whole package was what made it special. The people, the smells, the views, the adventures, the excitement, the colours, the craziness, the danger. It all left its mark, even though the spirit of the place has changed so drastically in the intervening decades where the rot set in.
Photos and Video Of Barry Island Circa 1986 – A Bloody New Year
Other than the advert above, I’d struggled to find much footage of Barry Island during the period that interested me. I was especially keen to do so as I really wanted to find a photo of the Fun House during that period as a kid. I’d painted my own imaginary version of it several times, featuring a huge clown sat above the entrance. I was sure there had been a mechanical clown there at some point, but I couldn’t remember if it actually was or if I had imagined it.
Over the years I’d done image searches for it online, but turned up nothing. The only photos I had were from the period of the early 1990s, by which time many changes had occurred to the Fun House and if there had been a clown, he was long gone. By chance I came across the film Bloody New Year, directed by the UK director Norman J Warren. I was amazed to find about 10 minutes of footage shot around Barry Island Pleasure Park around 1985/86. I’d hit the whacky gold mine, so to speak.
It was full of great shots of the park in its heyday, and most importantly for me, the Fun House. Boy was I pleased to see I hadn’t imagined the clown. Ok, so it’s not huge, but for a five year old boy, that clown and his beckoning arm were monstrous! So below are a number of stills from that footage, as well as an edited down version of the footage that shows loads of great facets of the pleasure beach and will be a nostalgia hit for anyone who loved the Island in this period.
A wide view of the Fun Fair and the imposing Butlins buildings behind circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year
The Flitzer and Caterpillar at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
Traum Boot and The Whacky Goldmine at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
View of the Fun House with Butlins behind at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
View of the Fun House at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
The Log Flume at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
View of the old Ghost Train and Fun Fair at Barry Island circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
View of the Dodgems and Fun Fair at Barry Island circa 1986 – Still from Bloody New Year.
Photos Of Barry Island Circa 1993/94 – The Rot Sets In
I wish I had taken more photos of the Island in the 1980s. I would return in the mid 1990s with a camera to get shots, but by then the rot was setting in. The resort was failing, losing out to the big theme parks over the border in England. Butlins had shut and been bought up and renamed the Majestic and was also failing hard as people took cheap holidays abroad and avoided the cheap thrills the Island had to offer.
This next lot of photos are from 1993 or 1994, I took them mainly to use as material for photo-montages I was making in art college down in Cornwall. You’ll see that things are starting to look tired and flaky. The Fun House is falling apart, the log flume looks tired, and hardly anyone is at the park. Things struggled on for a while, then Butlins was demolished, making the place look empty. Then the park closed and stayed that way till recent attempts to get the resort working again. Boom. The character I loved had suffered a fatal blow.
Too late though. The bustle and memories of the place from my childhood are just that now, memories. It’s nice to step back and remind myself how the place was so formative, and what it was that excited me back then, but for me it will never have the same impact as those days. That said I still love the place and love to visit (and do so often) with my own kids. For now though we’re a long way off the place as it once was, but the fact it’s still there and enjoying a bit of a resurgence can only help to keep me coming back, whether in memories or in real life to photograph its rebirth.
The Dodgems at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1994.
The ‘old shed’ arcade at Barry Island circa 1994
The Fun House at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1994
The Ghost Train at Barry Island Fun Fair circa 1994
The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.