It isn’t just the wealth of South Wales that has declined since the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal, the iron works, the coal mines, and most of our railways. There has also been a dramatic turn for the worst in the health of South Wales. The nation as a whole is facing an ever-increasing burden of folks who are overweight and who just aren’t doing enough physical activity to maintain their health as they get older. When coupled with the rising average age of the working population, the UK as a whole is facing extra demand on its state-funded health care services coinciding with less people footing the bill.
The Welsh Assembly Government is trying to plan ahead with the twenty year Climbing Higher national strategy for sport and active recreation. Under this initiative, a number of Welsh councils have been buying the LifeTrail(tm) outdoor activity solution from US company Playworld Systems and installing them in local parks. Comprising of ten separate Wellness Stations, the LifeTrail system is aimed at getting the aging population to perform simple but effective exercises that will contribute towards their overall health.
And there just happens to be a few of these hidden away along an old railway line in Pontypridd …
Thoughts On The Day
This might seem like an odd topic for my Merthyr Road project, which to date has focused on the more historical locations between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, but please indulge me. The LifeTrail(tm) stations have been placed along the route of the former Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway, which opened in 1884 and was taken out of use in 1967. The Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway connected the coal mines at Merthyr with the docks at Newport, running along the Taff Vale Railway to Pontypridd before crossing the River Taff just south of Ynysangharad Park, down the eastern side of the valley to Penhros Junction, and then east through Caerphilly, Machen and Basseleg and so down to the Newport Docks. To the best of my knowledge, some of the P.C. & N. Railway has been converted to form the Taff Trail route between Nantgarw and Glyntaff, whilst some of it has been lost under the A470 along with the Glamorganshire Canal. A third section, between the Treforest Ironworks Bridge over the Taff at Glyntaff and Ynysangharad Park, has recently been turned into a pleasant riverside walk, and it is here that the LifeTrail(tm) stations have appeared.
To be honest, I had no idea that the LifeTrail(tm) stations were there – I was actually heading out of Pontypridd for a walk down to Taffs Well to gather more photos for a second article about Cardiff Railway. The first station can be found at the south-western corner of Ynysangharad War Memorial Park, and I found a total of five more stations along the route of the old railway line to Treforest. It’s difficult to describe what they are; the best thing to do is to look at the photos of the individual stations. Without trying to do them down, they’re basically simple but effective exercise equipment purpose-built for placing outdoors in parks. Online articles I’ve read since I took the photos suggest that they are aimed at the older adult population (by which I mean the over 40’s!), and that’s also backed up by the promotional material available on the manufacturer’s website.
I walked along the set of exercise stations with an adult couple who were probably in their mid-forties (my apologies to you if I’ve gotten that wrong 🙂 ), looking at each of the exercises on offer and talking about the concept. We all expressed surprise at where the stations have been placed, and wondered whether they would have been more accessible and easier to find if they’d been placed in a trail around Ynysangharad War Memorial Park instead. I’m sorry to say that, at Station #2, we couldn’t work out whether the contractors hadn’t finished installing this station yet, or whether someone had already stolen the pedals from the exercise bike built into this station! We also all noticed that these stations are labelled for Tredegar Park and are branded for Newport City Council, an unfortunate oversight on someone’s part that gave me the title of this article 🙂
My overall feelings on these installations are mixed. On the one hand, anything that gets the under-active to do more healthy exercise is a GoodThing(tm). The UK in general, and Wales in particular, is heading towards a health crisis caused in part by folks doing less physical activity, and that’s not going to be fun for anyone – not the folks who will be (or are) suffering, and not for my generation who will also be footing the tax bill for it. On the other, it’s a shame to see Welsh tax money being used to buy an off-the-shelf solution from the US. This could have been a good opportunity for Welsh business and the various Welsh teaching centres, including the Welsh Institute of Chiropractic at the University of Glamorgan (who I’m personally indebted to for excellent treatment following a car accident some years ago).
I’m wondering where the other four LifeTrail(tm) stations will be built. There are six stations at the moment in Pontypridd (one of which is purely informational), leaving four additional stations if RCT are going to take the standard complement of ten stations. Station #6 is at the end of the track; it wasn’t obvious to me where any additional stations could be built. I’ll have to go back out to the site once work has been completed to see where RCT has placed the other four units.
On the day I didn’t know any better, but after researching the LifeTrail(tm) stations, I’m disappointed to find that RCT’s stations don’t appear at first glance to include the panels for disabled people. Just to explain – each station has three sides to it, or three panels. Each panel hosts a single exercise for folks to do. According to Playworld System’s website, normally two of the panels would have exercises for the able-bodied, whilst the third panel would either be used for information / sponsor purposes, or for exercises for folks in wheelchairs. RCT appear to have opted for a different configuration, using all three panels for exercises for able-bodied folks. In this post-DDA world, that might prove to be a bold move on RCT’s part.
(As a footnote, it will be interesting to go down to Tredegar Park one weekend to see how their LifeTrail(tm) stations compare to those installed in Pontypridd).
The main job since taking the photos has been to try and find out more about the LifeTrail stations. Talking to a few locals who regularly use the path between Treforest and Ynysangharad Park, they’re as much a surprise to them as they were to me on the day!
Unfortunately, this has been easier said than done. There’s plenty of information online from other councils in Wales about the Climbing Higher initiative, and how they are spending tax payers’ money – but there’s precious little information available online from Rhondda Cynon Taff Council itself. Unfortunately, the online search on the RCT website appears to have been having a bad day, as even searches for basic terms like ‘Ynysangharad’ produce no results, and searches for ‘Climbing Higher’ list PDFs that don’t mention the WAG initiative at all 🙁
At the time of writing, I’m assuming that RCT is still in the process of installing the LifeTrail(tm) stations. That’s based mainly on the state of the six stations that I came across during this shoot, and that there’s been no launch of the stations to match the work that Newport City Council did when their stations were setup in Tredegar Park.
I’ve found it a little weird writing an article about a modern-day attraction. This is the very first one, and it certainly won’t be the last! Regular readers of my blog might be forgiven for thinking that the route between Cardiff and Merthyr consists of nothing other than a post-industrial wilderness littered with abandoned canals, railways and industrial workings. As well as celebrating what used to be here, I believe that my Merthyr Road project should also be playing a positive role in documenting what has taken the place of the industrial landscape of the 1800’s and 1900’s. There’s so little about this part of the world online, so anything that I or anyone else can do to chip away at that problem can only be a good thing!
Sources / See Also
- Wales top of Britain’s sick list, a news report on the BBC News website.
- Unhealthy Wales gets cash boost for fitness, a news report on the News Wales website.
- LifeTrail walking off with Welsh contracts, a brief news report on LeisureOpportunities.com.
- Lifetrail initiative launched in Tredegar Park, a press release from Newport City Council.
- LifeTrail Wellness Stations for outdoor fitness activities, on the Playword Systems web site.
- Planning a site layout for LifeTrail’s outdoor fitness equipment, on the Playworld Systems web site.
- Playworld Systems Newsletter 02 on the Playworld Systems web site.
- Strategy to get Wales active ‘making progress’, a news article on the NHS Wales website.
- Increasing Physical Activity, a report on the progress of the Climbing Higher initiative on the Wales Audit Office website.
- Climbing Higher – the Welsh Assembly Government strategy for sport and active recreation.
- Climbing Higher – The Next Steps, a report on where 7.8 million will be spent by the Welsh Assembly Government.
- Treforest, University links and connections, a project on the Connect2 proposals website from Sustrans.
- Track Layout Diagrams of the Great Western Railway and B.R. (W.R.) – Section 46B, by R. A. Cooke, published by Lightmoor Press.
- Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway article on Wikipedia.