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Seasonal area

December 2015

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Barry Island, or Ynys Y Barri in the local lingo, is a small rocky island off the South Welsh coast by what used to be the small village of Barry. It provided Barry with shelter from harsher weather, resting as it does in a small bay looking across the Severn Estuary and tucked in beside a headland at the end of the rocky Cold Knap beach.

The island was reasonably accessible from the mainland, it being quite a narrow passage between the two, but Barry is pleasingly far from major transport corridors in South Wales. It is towards the bottom of the Vale of Glamorgan and apart from the inevitable little castle let the centuries pass with little fuss. There were passing visits from Vikings and a chapel was built on the island for the remains of the town's saint. St Baruc appears to have been a regrettably incompetent chap who forgot to bring his boss's reading matter with him while travelling over from Flat Holme. He was also unable to navigate a boat across the Bristol Channel once he had collected the books without drowning himself in the process. Barry's exceptional tidal range probably didn't help him in this regard.

The tidal range came in handy in the late 19th century for aiding Barry's expansion. The South Wales Valleys were producing large quantities of coal for export, but this needed to be loaded into ships at ports along the Severn Estuary. Owing to the tidal range, the ports could only accept and release ships for a few hours each day. The only solution was to build more ports, so to this end the Rhondda mine owners set up the Barry Dock and Railway company to link their valley to a new port over the hills (rather than the usual route via a valley). The island provided the outer boundary of the new dock complex, built in the passage between mainland and island that was already usually mud at low water. A causeway sealed off the back of the dock area from waves from the west and ended the Island's status as an actual island.

It is still described as an island, even if it's now merely a peninsular; the railway company saw money in this attractive lump of rock, built a railway across the causeway into a dell up the island's centre and then needed a pretty name for the station (which ironically was partly responsible for it ceasing to be an island but has nonetheless immortalised it as one). Within not very many years, housing was developing on the inland side of the island, the dell consisted of a park and railway infrastructure and the large sandy bay on the coastal side was being decorated with tourist attractions.

In time the railway even burrowed through the island to a quay for cross-Channel ferries, allowing Rhondda miners to spend their days off on the North Devon beaches at Ilfracombe. Then as the coal trade declined after the First World War, the fortunes of the Barry Railway began to turn. A Butlins holiday camp encouraged people to actually stay a few days rather than come day-tripping. Meanwhile the pontoon at the quay sank and the ferries to Ilfracombe ceased. The rail infrastructure shrank to a station with a very large building and one operational platform. The tunnel, usually used as a rifle range, appears in any BBC Wales TV production which requires some form of large and inspiring empty tunnel (which mostly means once every couple of series in Doctor Who). A railway locomotive scrapyard which forgot to scrap most of its stock of steam locomotives resulted in access to the island being past not just derelict docklands but also a mass of mouldering ironwork, buried in brambles and scattered with drifting asbestos boiler cladding. The buildings above the beach took on a dilapidated air and matters eventually rounded off, some years after the scrapyard had sold up its stock, when the holiday camp closed in 1996.

A rail service of three trains per hour into Cardiff has probably done no end of help for recovering the island's economy. New housing on the former Butlin's resort - built before new housing began to consist entirely of tall, thin brick boxes - brings a fresh air to an island which was once a challenge to walk around without treading in something unpleasant. Much effort has been made - and is still being made - to brighten up the Whitmore Bay area and keep it bright against the ravages of the winter weather. The huge collonaded structures at each end of the beach have been repointed and given a lick of paint. The funfair is being modernised from a site where a couple of flagship rides were joined by a lot of features that could have rolled off the back of a lorry (to be a site without flagship rides). It manages to retain a British seaside "kiss me quick hat" cheap-and-fun feel. The current scene is seen in a late December sunset, looking across Whitmore's sandy beach.

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Last modified 04/12/2015

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