I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on your viewpoint) to have attended Willows High School in Tremorfa for the entirety of my secondary schooling education (1983-1990). I have a plethora of both good and bad memories of my time there, and will eventually share a number of them here. It’s fair to say the school has a bit of a bad reputation, so much so that they’ve shot two fly-on-the-wall documentaries there since I left!
Attending as a pupil was challenging at times, and I could reel out many stories that would reinforce just that poor reputation, but that’s not my goal here. As far as I’m concerned, the school and people have left a predominantly positive and lasting mark on me. I have nothing but good things to say about the place, I learnt a lot during my time there, and it shaped many of the interests that still engage and haunt me today. Yeah, there were moments and issues galore, it was far from perfect, but let’s not dwell on those right now. No, I want to celebrate what for me was one of the most enchanting aspects of being there for that period of time, and that was the school’s views.
The steelworks and pylons of a part of Willow’s outlook
From the upper floors of the school, you had some panoramic views across several counties situated in two countries. Now, I’m not saying those views were up there to rival the Bay of Naples or the sweeping vistas of the Alps. No, it was quite a dull, and predominantly industrial outlook. The steelworks clanging away to the one side, the scrubby wasteland and pylons to the other, and the rest the urban sprawl of Cardiff.
Willow’s location on the levels close to the Severn’s foreshore was one of its greatest strengths. I’ve said around here before that it never felt like we were as close to the sea as we actually were, but Willows itself was just a few hundred metres away from the foreshore. I suppose having Seawall Road running alongside it is should have been a significant clue to its maritime location!
The school itself is formed from one main block which had three storeys and 3 lower lying wings which lay around a central square (that none of us ever ventured into). On the one side of the main block, you could see out across Severn to the shores of Somerset, particularly Clevedon and Portishead. On the other side of the block, you could look across Cardiff’s city centre and beyond, up to the beginnings of the Valleys.
The best views were naturally from the top floor classrooms, which were predominantly science lessons (and geography and music if memory serves). A couple of the labs that I had lessons in were on the one side looking out over the Severn. I’d often be sat listening to the teacher, but looking out across the water, that was my favourite view there. You’d see ships travelling up and down the waterway, and on clear days it felt like you could reach out across the water and touch the other side. Other days you couldn’t see the across due to the cloud, and it was all a drab grey smear.
I think that’s where my love of weather and light was formed. Those expanses were ever changing, as well as the ships you could watch the shadows of clouds racing up the grey water. Storm clouds across the Severn would create drama on the horizon, as waves of rainfall fell in the distance, occasionally creating crisp and bright rainbows. On sunny days the water sparkled, and windows on buildings many miles away across the sea would reflect back as they caught the sun. Some days there were white horses on the surface of the muddy channel, and others it was a smooth as glass.
Other labs and the music rooms looked out towards Cardiff’s city centre. One of the labs that we often had lessons in was a corridor and a classroom. There were two of these rooms in that block, lessons and view gazing would often be interrupted by a pupil or teacher sheepishly passing through the integrated corridor. But I digress – we’re here for the views, not the school’s layout!
As well as being close to the sea, the school is also quite close to the city centre. Not as close as it was to the water, but near enough that you could see the tall office blocks of Newport Road and the ever-present town hall clock, and then the hills beyond. I’m pretty sure you could see Castell Coch right across on the outskirts of the other side of town on Caerphilly Mountain, and also the Garth mountain and the start of the Rhondda Cynon Taf valleys.
I enjoyed the views from this side of the of the school, trying to figure out where certain streets were, and tracing the paths of the main roads into the centre. Again there were many different moods and atmospheres, depending on the light and clouds and time of day. In some ways, it was more interesting a view than on the other side, but my preference was always for the Severn side views over the city ones. In the city, I always felt penned in, but looking out across the water and the land beyond it was a whole big horizon that let me breath easier.
Different classes gave different areas of interest. Towards the Seawall Road end of the school you could see more of the steelworks, as well as hearing the scrap-metal dropping from the claw into the melting pots. You can see that building in the photo above. From some of the classes, you could watch the vehicles and machinery moving around there.
At the other end of the school, you could see more of what’s now called Pengam Green, but I think we used to call it the Warrens back then. And like the weather, you didn’t have to wait too long for a new view, when the school bell rang for the end of the lesson, it was a case of throw it all into a bag and on to the next class and its views. It sounds like I spent my whole time staring out the window, but that’s not the case, I was quite studious in lessons, honestly!
If I’d have had my trusty iPhone with me then, I would have no doubt racked up gigabytes of photographs of the variable atmospherics and vistas from up on the third floor. But, they were different times, and sadly I don’t have a single photo of those views from up there. I suspect they wouldn’t have made good pictures given the reasonably flat horizon and scrubland between the school and the water. And the pylons, and the steelworks, and the sprawl of urban Cardiff – none of it’s particularly photogenic. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to go back there, and if I do, you can guarantee I’ll take a camera with me!