Just as the idea of physical distance has a certain romance, distant shapes can attain an enchanting mystery. That is, until you eventually go and explore them.
Across any town or city there are familiar skyline features: good, bad or indifferent. You will instantly know what some of them are and have little interest in them – an office tower, a block of flats. Others might be less instantly knowable, or have a certain niggling attraction. Like many photographers, I am curious, inquisitive, nosey, and love nothing more than exploring a new place with a camera in hand.
This post is the first in an occasional series about features of the Cardiff skyline.
There’s a hillside visible on the north horizon of Cardiff. Its slab runs flat for a distance before steeply falling away into a valley, through which the A470 carves north (and indeed south) away from (and towards) Cardiff, ultimately spanning the full length of Wales.
From our neighbourhood this prominent ridge sometimes appears partly or wholly obscured by cloud and mist, but it always draws the eye. We saw it for around a year on countless dog walks, without definitively identifying it or exploring further. I vaguely thought it might be Garth Hill, but I wasn’t totally sure.
Only when pondering Google maps did I see that there was a short, straightforward road route from St Fagans under the M4 motorway, albeit comprised partly of narrow country lanes. (How had I not seen or figured this out before?) A ten to fifteen minute drive was all it took. And of course it was Garth Hill, immediately overlooking the pretty suburban village of Pentyrch, as well as a vast swathe of the region. You imagine any local Pentyrch photographer will have spent a serious amount of time up here.
Garth Hill is locally called The Garth, because Garth actually means ‘hill’ in Welsh, or Garth Mountain (but probably not by Swiss people). It’s said to have inspired “Ffynnon Garw”, the fictional peak featured in the book and film, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain by Christopher Monger.
At 1007 feet (307m) tall, Garth Hill just qualifies as a mountain by the UK definition of being over 1,000 feet. Apparently there are five ancient tumuli atop the hill. These are burial mounds for the elite of really really old people, although only two are now visible. It was also a place of significant industry, with coal mining being the main activity around the base. You can find stacks more information and trivia about the place at this dedicated Garth Mountain website.
We first visited Pentyrch several weeks ago. It was the warm sunny summer Sunday of the Velothon, a mass participation cycling event across a section of south east Wales which starts and ends in Cardiff. I hoped there would be an angle from Garth Hill across the valley to Caerphilly Mountain, which I knew the cyclists would descend on their final leg back into the city. Sadly there wasn’t.
Nonetheless, the place was beautiful. The panoramic views there are dreamily expansive. You can see south over the full length of the city, the Bristol Channel and Somerset beyond. Weston Super-Mare appears to be a gentle paddle from Cardiff, although it takes around an hour to drive there. In the other direction you can gaze out over rolling hillsides towards the Brecon Beacons and Pen Y Fan, the tallest peak in south Wales. Fellow walkers and dog walkers seemed notably relaxed and friendly.
Trails and paths are well worn and easily navigable even in high summer, although the piles of fresh dung warn that cows freely roam up here: especially significant with an excitable young Labrador.
The dog and I returned for a sunset wander a few weeks after that first visit. Again the views were warmly hypnotising, the dipping sunlight glowing off the largest structures in the city; the colours explosive after the sun finally sank beyond the horizon. You feel your chest rise a little higher and your lungs expand a little wider when faced with views and terrain like this. Although, perhaps with less physical virtue than a mountain-biker.
Garth Mountain and Pentyrch is well worth a visit for any tourist or Cardiff dweller. And it’s impossible to resist for any photographer.
Late on clear starry nights when letting the hound into the garden for her final business trip, I wonder about heading back to Pentyrch, seeing if I can get any astrophotography joy, or maybe get up extra early for a clear sunrise. Light pollution from the city and small valleys’ towns might make the former challenging. Roaming cows atop the hillside also give pause for thought, especially if venturing up there in the dark. Up to now a fondness for my bed and sleep has won out. Maybe it’ll happen one day.
Day or night, we’ll certainly return again before too long.
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