On Garth Hill
April 28, 2013
This week I went up to Garth Hill just outside Cardiff to look at the site of an abandoned iron mine, where I’m setting the final part of my new crime novel. It proved just as atmospheric as I’d hoped. Turning off the main road towards Gwaelod y Garth, the former mining village that sits on a hilltop above the city, there’s a gravel path that leads through the woods to a huge quarry. The sides of the quarry have been blasted off in such a way that peregrine falcons now nest there. Walking through the surrounding trees – at this time of year, full of wood anemones and wild garlic – you can see down into some flooded caverns that form part of a warren of tunnels dug through the hill. From the nineteenth century, a million tons of iron was mined here, and you can still see remains of a tramway that carried the ore to the ironworks. Since then, parts of the tunnels have been flooded, the minerals giving them a strange blue hue, like lagoons. There are also yellow pools, deriving their colour from the ochre that was also extracted here, and used for paint.
Lower down the hill, we found the entrance to one of the tunnels. The heavy iron gates were not locked, so we went in a little way. Inside, it was very eerie, the sound of dripping water echoing around, and shafts of light coming in from holes in the ground above. Horseshoe bats live here, apparently, and blind cave spiders. I noticed that the wooden planks forming the walls were still in immaculate condition, not rotted at all.
This is not a scenic landscape, but it has its own beauty, and curiously, is home to a great deal of animal and plant life – partly because there are very few tourists tramping about the woods. For instance, among these ancient beech woodlands are rare species of coral root orchids and red helleborines. There are also a lot of moles, who seem inspired by the human history of tunnelling here…
Later in the week, I went to see a short film by John Evans, a bird watcher and poet who’d trailed a goshawk for two years, up in rural parts of the valleys. It was quite unlike the usual wildlife film, giving a truly visceral sense of how this fierce, secretive bird lives its life. For example, many small birds live close to the goshawk because it kills larger birds that prey on them (it doesn’t bother with the little ones) – so in this sense, it truly is ‘king’ of the forest. Also, the goshawk’s harsh cry is used in all sorts of films to evoke the loneliness of a rural spot – even when it’s the kind of landscape that a goshawk would never live in. (In that way, its call has become a familiar trope, but one that most of us don’t know the origin of.) Like Garth Hill, the rural parts of the valleys are largely ignored, even though they teem with wildlife, because we don’t ‘read’ them as countryside … just as wilderness.