Windsor Esplanade, Lecuna, and the A4232 across the River Taff

View this set of photos as part of my Merthyr Road project on Flickr.

For most of its life, the Glamorganshire Canal reached the Bristol Channel via a Sea Lock built at Lower Layer, part of the tidal estuary formed by the mouth of the River Taff. Authorised by a second Act of Parliament (the Glamorganshire Canal Act, which passed through the Lords on 26th April 1796, a year which included such notable company as the Duty on Hats Act), this Sea Lock replaced an earlier lock (also known as Sea Lock) which had been operating since the 29th of June, 1793. (The earlier lock had stood on the river bend to the north of where Clarence Road now crosses the Taff). The new lock opened on 27th June, 1798.

Between the new Sea Lock and the southern end of St Mary’s Street was the stretch of canal known as Sea Lock Pond. Here, the wharves were built to transfer iron and coal, from the canal boats to the larger, ocean-going vessels that came into the Pond through the Sea Lock. Some of the land for these wharves fell under the compulsory purchase provisions of the Act, but most of it did not, guaranteeing local landowners (principly the Marquess of Bute) good incomes on what had previously been open moorland.

The northern end of Sea Lock Pond terminated at Cardiff’s South Gate. (Cardiff was a small walled town of little importance before the Canal and docks arrived). In 1802, permission was given to remove the Gate, and connect St Mary’s Street with the canal wharves beyond.

Trade down the Canal was to transform both Cardiff itself and the moorland south of the town. Bute Street was laid down in around 1830, forming the eastern edge of Butetown (work on which began in 1846). The new TVR railway (which still exists today as the rail link between Cardiff Bay and Cardiff Queen Street Station) made its way directly to the east of Bute Street. This, in combination with the two huge docks built by the Bute Estate to the east of the Canal, was eventually able to ship millions of tonnes of materials and goods from Cardiff Docks, as opposed to just hundreds of thousands of tonnes through the Canal.

Although the Canal gradually fell into disuse from the late 1800’s as both iron and coal began to run out, it was the aquisition by the Cardiff Corporation on 1st January 1944 which spelt the end of Sea Lock, and hence the Canal as a whole. The City of Cardiff looked on the Sea Lock Pond as prime land for redevelopment. By now much of the Canal was unpassable, effectively leaving Sea Lock Pond (or Sea Lock Pound as it was now known) as just another harbour in the Cardiff docklands, but wartime decree forced the Corporation to continue to run Sea Lock Pond until the early 1950’s.

Late at night on 5th December 1951, the sand dredger Catherine Ethel collided with the lock gates at Sea Lock. With the lock gates destroyed in this unfortunate accident, the Canal waters (which, by this time, appear to have only been the water left in the Sea Lock Pond) emptied out into the Taff in a tidal wave.

The Canal’s 158 years of operation had finally come to an end. Within 50 years, the rest of the Cardiff Dock area too would close, leaving Cardiff – a small town that became a capital city on the back of its links between the industrial valleys and the sea – to once again revert back to being a market town.

(As always, I’m indebted to the historical research published in the excellent Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals – Volume 2, by Stephen Rowson and Ian L. Wright. If you want to know a lot more about Sea Lock, or any other aspect of the Canal, I can’t recommend their award-winning books highly enough).

The Photos

Windsor Esplanade, Lecuna, and the A4232 across the River Taff

The search for the location of Sea Lock starts to the south, in the newly-created Cardiff Bay Wetlands. Like Hamadryad Park further up the river, this area is largely land reclaimed after the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barriage.

One of my personal disappointments about Cardiff Bay is the complete lack of effort to make the new development blend in with existing housing. I don’t think anywhere shows this as well as Windsor Esplanade, with its row of older housing, and the modern Lecuna development tacked on the end like an afterthought.

Looking Towards Sea Lock

This is the view of Sea Lock today, standing at the southern end of what is now Canal Park. I’m looking at the eastern end of the A4232 road bridge across the River Taff. Sea Lock would have been where the bridge now touches down.

Because the whole area has been redeveloped, there’s nothing left today of Sea Lock itself, nor the channel that went out from Sea Lock into the tidal estuary formed by the River Taff and Bristol Channel. This is my best guess, based on comparing photos published in GaAC Volume 2 (especially the very last photo in the book) with modern day views from Google Earth.

In Sea Lock

This is the underside of the A4232 road bridge across the River Taff, looking west towards Grangetown.

Sea Lock itself would probably have been a little ways behind me, with the channel cut from the lock to the River Taff roughly following the line of the modern bridge.

Murial at Canal Park

This murial stands at the southern end of Canal Park – at the southern end of what would have been Sea Lock Pond during the days of the Glamorganshire Canal.

I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what the different scenes on the murial mean. To me, it looks like a telling of the history of the Cardiff Docks, and doesn’t seem to mention the Canal at all. That’d be a bit odd if so, given where it’s located!

Canal Park North to James Street

Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.

This is a view of Canal Park, looking north towards James Street.

Canal Park North to James Street

Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.

This is a view of Canal Park, looking north towards James Street.

Royal Stuart Warehouses and Douglas Buildings

Most of the buildings that used to flank the canal are gone, swept away in a frenzy of regeneration. Two of the surviving buildings are the Royal Stuart Warehouses and the Douglas Buildings.

Canal Park South To Sea Lock

Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.

This is a view of Canal Park, looking south from James Street.

The James Street Swing Bridge

Today, there’s nothing left, but back when the Glamorganshire Canal still existed, James Street had to cross the Canal over a swing bridge.

Canal Park Entrance, South of James Street

This is the entrance to the length of Canal Park that stands to the south of James Street.

The words in the murial on the ground are "Glamorganshire Canal 1794 – 1951".

1794 is an odd choice of date. From surviving records mentioned in GaAC Volume 2, we know that the original Sea Lock opened in 1793. Back then, the canal didn’t come this far south; the original Sea Lock opened up onto the River Taff further upstream, at the site of the new Century Wharf housing development. The Glamorganshire Canal Act of 1796 authorised the canal company to extend Sea Lock Pond south, through the point in this photo, to a new Sea Lock. The new Sea Lock didn’t open until 1798.

Can anyone else explain why the date chosen for this murial is 1794?

Canal Park Entrance, North of James Street

This is the entrance to Canal Park on the north side of James Street.

The murial says "Sea Lock 1798".

Canal Park Entrance, North of James Street

This is what the Canal Park entrance on the north side of James Street looks like, if you stand in the Canal Park entrance on the south side of James Street.

When the Canal still operated, there would have been a swing bridge where the road now stands.

Canal Park, North of James Street

Taken just inside the entrance, this shot shows the first section of Canal Park heading north from James Street towards Cardiff City Centre.

Canal Park stands on ground reclaimed when the Glamorganshire Canal was filled in during the 1950’s. This section of the canal was known as Sea Lock Pond, and later as Sea Lock Pound. Essentially, it was a large dock, with Cardiff Town at its northern end, and Sea Lock itself at the southern end.

Play Area, Canal Park

This play area in Canal Park provides a memory of the Glamorganshire Canal – albeit not a very realistic one! The four capsterns are placed to represent the old towpath, whilst in the gray paving, the outline of a narrow boat can just be made out.

In reality, this section of the canal – known as Sea Lock Pond – was the widest section of the Canal. This area was, from the beginning, built to support the transfer of iron and coal onto the ocean-going vessels of the day.

Canal Park

A view of some of the play areas in Canal Park today. Looking south towards James Street.

Canal Park

Looking north, the play areas in Canal Park give way to playing fields. There were plenty of soccer posts, but I don’t remember seeing any rugby posts up.

Canal Pier Crane Post and Base, Canal Park

If the four capsterns and narrow boat outline are the most obvious reminder of the canal’s days preserved in Canal Park, this must surely be at the other end of the scale as the most obscure!

This is a crane post and base, used on the wharves of Sea Lock Pond for loading and unloading boats. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only one that survives today. I believe that there would have been many more, but the old photos published in GaAC Volume 2 only show one at any one time.

Canal Park and Butetown

Here, I’ve used the telephoto end of my Nikon 18-135mm lens to flatten this shot of Canal Park and Butetown at the end of the park.

Old Buildings Beside The Sea Lock Pond

Redevelopment has swept away most of the old buildings that used to stand on the canal wharves at Sea Lock Pond. These two look like they might be survivors from an earlier time.

Northern End of Canal Park

Canal Park finally comes to an end quite a bit shy of where Sea Lock Pond would have ended. The housing at this end is modern, modern enough that a lot of it doesn’t show up on Google Earth yet.

In the distance are the buildings of Callahan Square, and the Mariott Hotel on Mill Lane. The hotel also stands on land reclaimed from the Glamorganshire Canal, as it made its way through Cardiff City Centre.

Looking South Down Canal Park

This is a shot of Canal Park, taken from its northern end. From here, there’s nothing at all that I can see to indicate that this was once a thriving sea port!

Canal Parade

We may have run out of Canal Park, but the journey north towards the northern end of Sea Lock Pond continues along Canal Parade.

Canal Parade

Taken from the northern end of Canal Parade, looking south towards Canal Park.

The Northern End of Sea Lock Pond

We know that Sea Lock Pond’s northern end was at Custom House, which stands at the other side of the railway bridge in the middle of this shot. The Swansea to London railway came to Cardiff in 1850, and ever since Cardiff has been divided in two.

Cardiff was originally a walled town. The southern wall would have stood a little to the north of the railway bridge, at the end of St Mary’s Street. It was removed at the request of the Glamorganshire Canal Company to allow easier access between Cardiff town and the wharves of Sea Lock Pond.

The Northern End of Sea Lock Pond

This bridge is where Sea Lock Pond’s northern end would have been. Note the distinctive way in which the road dips under the bridge. This appears to be a common feature of roads that run under surviving railway bridges along the old canal route, although it’s by no means unique to railway bridges over the canal!

Behind the bridge, on the right, is the York Hotel and Customs House, marking the end of the journey up from Sea Lock.

Thoughts on the Day

It will come as no surprise to hear that Sea Lock itself, and the whole Sea Lock Pond are no more. Sea Lock, the Pond, and Butetown have suffered that most terrible of fates – they have been redeveloped. Despite numerous efforts – including such extreme lengths as siting the Welsh Assembly down in the Cardiff Docks when it should have been sited somewhere like Aberwyswyth) – the whole area south of Cardiff’s old town wall continues to feel disconnected from the rest of the city. I’ll look at the regeneration of Cardiff Docks in a later article in this series.

Sea Lock itself probably lies underneath the bridge that carries the A4232 across the river estuary. That matches up with the last photo published in GaAC Volume 2, on page 352. To the south of the bridge lies the Cardiff Yacht Club and the new wetlands created as part of the official vandalism that created the Cardiff Bay Barriage, whilst the river bank immediately north of the bridge has been redeveloped into Hamadryad Park. It’s actually possible to get from the wetlands to the park by walking under the bridge, and I highly recommend it; the park is a very peaceful place indeed.

Trying to trace the route of the Sea Lock Pond by the surviving buildings is very difficult indeed. Unlike in Taff Vale, where many of the original buildings that were built along the side of the Canal still exist, down here redevelopment and regeneration has swept most of the history away.

The majority of the length of Sea Lock Pond has been turned into an open space called Canal Park. You won’t find this space listed on Cardiff City Council’s website, but it’s there. From Sea Lock at the southern end up to the back of St Mary’s Church in Butetown in the north, Canal Park runs along the route of the old Canal and its wharves, and if you look closely enough, there are memories of the former canal hidden away in plain sight.

Sadly, I couldn’t find a single sign to commemorate the canal. What signs there are are notice boards for the local community. The kids growing up in the area today, and playing in the park itself, have nothing to read to remind them of the past. All that’s left to stimulate an interest in the history of the Canal is the name of the park itself, the names ‘Sea Lock’ and ‘Glamorganshire Canal’ laid out in brick at the point where James Street crosses the Park (the sight of a former swing bridge across the Canal, although to look at it today I think anyone would be amazed to learn that there was once a bridge at that spot), and not much else.

Heading north through the park towards Cardiff city centre, I found a few things to remember the canal by, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. At the obvious end of things is this play area flanked by mooring capsterns. If you look closely at the paving, the outline of a narrow boat has been incorporated into the design. About half-way between obvious and obscure are some of the old buildings that border onto the park. There aren’t many left, but there are just enough to show where the wharves might have originally been. My favourite item, though, is this obscure post set into a concrete base. This is the base and crown post from one of the canalside cranes (see GaAC p. 293), although how anyone growing up in the area is supposed to know that isn’t immediately obvious.

I’m not sure what the merit is of preserving a piece of history whilst at the same time not leaving a message to tell the next generation what has been preserved. It’s a maddingly frustrating story that’s repeated all along the route of the canal, and one that the folks I meet on each of these trips wish would come to an end.

Cardiff should be proud of what the Canal (and the railways that came afterwards) did for the place.

Three Lessons From The Shoot

  • It often pays to go back to the same place two or three times before doing a shoot. I’m not someone who can just look at a location in a book, and then head straight there to get everything in one go. I’d been down to Sea Lock a couple of times before, and matched up what I’d seen for myself with what I’d read in GaAC Volume 2 before heading down for the final shoot. I’m glad I did – I wouldn’t have thought to include the shots of the A4232 bridge (which stands on the old Sea Lock location) otherwise.
  • Google Earth is a real gift for projects like this. It was instrumental in matching up photos published in GaAC with the street layout today to help me find Sea Lock itself.
  • During a shoot, take as many photos as you can. Don’t ignore something just because you don’t know what it is at the time. I didn’t find out what the canal crane post was until leafing through GaAC Volume 2 several days after the shoot. It would have been very easy for me to have not photographed it.

Post Production

It was a cheery sunny morning, and I wanted these photos to reflect that. Butetown is one of those parts of Cardiff that has a certain reputation, and I was very worried that another black and white set would do nothing to show a different side to the place. Canal Park is the major open space in Butetown, and for that I think it’s fantastic.

Looking at the photos a week or so after processing them, I’m not happy with the colour. It’s too eye-popping, and doesn’t sit well with all the black and white shots from other sets in the Merthyr Road series. Time for a re-think before I publish my next article!

Found On Flickr

Whilst there are plenty of photos on Flickr about Cardiff Bay, I had no luck in finding many modern pictures of Canal Park. But I did manage to find a photo of the Sea Lock area taken from a kite, plus two older photos that also appear in GaAC Volume 2.

If you’re reading this in the RSS feed, my original blog post also includes a Google map showing where this photo was taken. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to get the map to appear yet in the RSS feed, so for now you’ll have to click through to my blog if you want to see the map. Sorry.


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