These days anyone visiting Cardiff Bay for the first time can be forgiven for thinking it’s always been a beautiful body of water. Those of us with longer memories will remember the days before the Cardiff Bay Barrage, when the tide was free to come and go in its symbiotic relationship with the moon. When the tide was out back then it was a very different view with the miles and miles of thick clogging mud!
Cardiff Bay in the 1990s – before the Barrage stopped the tide.
The tide stopped turning in Cardiff Bay back in 1999, when the barrage was completed and fired into life. Prior to that Cardiff was famed for its high tidal range which was the second largest in the world, and it was that very tidal range that led to the dramatic change as the water receded. The whole of Cardiff Bay was a very different place when the tide was out with its vast mud flats, a dirty but strangely appealing vista of gloopy mess that was both texturally interesting and a danger to life.
It’s also worth remembering that it wasn’t just the bay that was affected by the tide, it was the rivers that fed into it as well. The Taff and the River Ely were both at the behest of the tides and would drain for miles inland at low tide, revealing a whole new look twice a day, every day. So many familiar views where the river was tidal in Cardiff were affected by the time of year and the height of the tide.
I have to admit that I’ve always been fascinated by the tide and maritime culture. Growing up in Roath / Adamsdown, it was easy to forget how close we actually were to the River Severn. On a warm night with the window open one of my favourite noises was the distant fog horns from the river, their ghostly wail was strangely reassuring. But that was a far away and abstract sea, it wasn’t like I could see it from where we were.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I felt that connection more strongly. As a pupil at Willows High School I always enjoyed the lessons on the top two floors of the one side of the school as they gave a commanding view of the River Severn. Truth be told I was probably watching the sea more than I was paying attention in class most of the time. From there the tide was hard to judge, but as I grew older I’d often ride my bike down to Cardiff Maritime Museum was and sit and enjoy the view and the wooden dolphins in the bay. It was always an unknown as to whether the tide was in and out when we I got there, and always something I looked forward to finding out.
Then later a friend of mine moved into a shared house on the grand seafront street Windsor Esplanade where I’d often visit. The first thing I’d do as I entered his street was take a look over the seawall to see where the tide was. I would have loved living there myself, being so close to water’s edge. Instead I had to content myself with visits and stay-overs. Initially in the period he was there the barrage was just a plan, but as the 1990s rushed past, we watched it slowly inch its way out into the mouth of Cardiff Bay.
We’d go out for a wander on the grass and muddy banks when the tide was out, walking around under the A4232 flyover and up the mouth of the Taff. There was lots to see around there rubbish wise, brought in by the tide or washed down the river. Every trip out would bring something different, some of which you’ll see in the photos below. Once the Barrage came into operation, the rough grassland in front of the Esplanade was to be forever dry, turned into the nature reserve it is now. He moved out not long after, so trips down there fell away, which is just as well as always knowing where the tide was took the shine off things.
So after all this time and lack of tides it’s hard to say I miss what was really a big stinking expanse of mud. To be fair as the bay stands now it’s pretty impressive and we often visit with the kids. It’s really is a different place now, a destination and something to be proud of. I think what I miss the most is the not knowing where the tide would be when we get there. It’s not like it’s gone forever though, I can always take a trip out to the barrage itself and see where the tide is, or just go to my local beach…
Below are some photos from the period the bay was still tidal. They were taken during the 1990s, but exact dates escape me. It’s interesting to note that in some the barrage is not even started, in others half completed. Also, as well as the bay there’s some shots from the River Taff, to show what it looked like when the tide was out, and before they put those oxygenating bubble blowers in place. When we’re down the bay I tell the kids it all used to be just mud. They never believe me, but here’s the proof!
Looking across the muddy Bay and the docks.
Close up view of the dolphins in the mud of Cardiff Bay.
Another view of the dolphins in Cardiff Bay with the tide out.
Some of the dolphins out of the water, bottoms clogged by mud.
The dolphins in Cardiff Day, with the tide out.
Boats in the mud and mist of Cardiff Bay with the tide out.
This boat’s not going anywhere for a good few hours, stranded in the mud.
One of the channels running through the mud and another stranded boat.
Looking towards Windsor Esplanade from out on the tidal flat.
Tide’s out on the land in front of Windsor Esplanade
At the mouth of the Taff close to the Windsor Esplanade.
The tide right out underneath the flyover of the A4232 at the mouth of the Taff.
Tide out under the A4323 at the mouth of the Taff.
From the banks of the Taff, looking towards Grangetown and Channel View.
Close up view of the wreck of a ship (Louisiana?) exposed at low tide on the banks of the Taff by the Channel View Centre.
A view towards Penarth Head from Windsor Esplanade, before the barrage was built.