Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Barry and Barry Island

I lived in South Wales until aged eleven, attending an infant school in Barry until I was seven, and then a junior school on Barry Island until I took my eleven-plus examination in 1963. These were traditional red-brick schools, and they still stand, looking remarkably like they were fifty-five years or so ago. Here are two shots of my junior school on Barry Island, taken in 1973. It looked just the same then as when I'd left it ten years earlier.

I used to clamber on those yellow-painted railings. And I queued for the school bus by those rusty gates. By 2003 this school was still barely changed - just a little more spruce (NB: it's not my own photo):

Last month, in June 2014, it looked like this (that's Fiona, bottom right):

It had become a local childcare centre, as well as just a school; but it was still recognisably my old junior school. And the rest of the immediate neighbourhood was much as it ever was:

Apart from the modernity of the cars, it really looked just like that in 1960. This was my world when young, and it felt strange to see it so little altered, as I walked these streets as Lucy in 2014. Even the pavement slabs and kerb stones were the same, uneven, flaking, and liable to trip you up. And the streets seemed dead, voiceless. Where were all the children? The mothers swapping gossip?

By the way, forget what you may have seen of Barry or Barry Island in the sitcom Gavin and Stacey. In my day (meaning the 1950s and the early 1960s) these places were rather different. They were smarter, livelier, more colourful, full of civic pride and endeavour; much more crowded with local people, and more noisy with cheerful holidaymakers and day-trippers; and not subdued, down-at-heel and humdrum like they are now.

Kids then lived carefree lives, and turned into carefree and ambitious young adults. They did very well at school. Things were on the up. Even so, family models had hardly changed since pre-war times. Grandparents were looked after and respected; parents had full control, absolute say in what happened under their own roof; and teachers were important people with a job that many aspired to do. Headmasters were almost supreme.

And to be a town councillor was the absolute stratospheric pinnacle of social achievement. We had one living next door: Mrs Mitchell. I never found out what Mr Mitchell did, but I noted that their elder son was given a pale green Hillman Minx convertible for his twenty-first birthday, which was the height of cool in Barry in 1963. I longed to grow up, so that I too could have a car like that. I had no idea what else featured in the adult world, but clearly there were some lucky people who at least got a car. Actually Mrs Mitchell's son was very privileged indeed. At that time, Dad himself didn't have a car, and couldn't afford one. Most people were in the same boat.

Nor did we have a telephone, nor a record-player, nor a transistor radio. Mum didn't have a proper washing machine. She had something that agitated the clothes and sheets and whatever else, but it then had to be squeezed through a mangle. But we did have a rented TV set, and a fridge. One bought or rented the devices that really mattered first, and it was a carefully-considered transaction with no credit involved unless you were tied to a hire-purchase contract (regarded by many as infra-dig). There weren't as yet many electronic gadgets you could spend money on, anyway. (A personal mobile phone? Science-fiction)

Socially one's personal life was completely uncomplicated, conventional and pre-ordained. I was a child who observed, even if I didn't fully understand, and I saw that whenever a young man and a young woman became attracted to each other there followed, invariably, inevitably and almost unthinkingly, a well-worn procedure that led to proposal, acceptance, formal engagement and marriage - and then babies and christenings and yet more babies. All abetted and egged-on by the proud parents on both sides, who expected to announce the young wife's first pregnancy within a few months of her marriage.

I watched Mum's friends' daughters go through this precise courtship ritual. It was a smooth path that no young person I knew of questioned or tried to avoid. There seemed to be no possible escape from the boy-meets-girl-and-starts-a-family thing. It was as natural as breathing. And because of its obvious importance in the scheme of things, its centrality, it was a frightening matter for any sensitive child who was secretly unsure of himself or herself. Would one be up to it? What might happen if you weren't? And babies: what did it really mean, 'to have a baby'? What happened? What if you didn't want one? Why did parents look unhappy and ashamed if their safely-married son didn't become a father, or their safely-married daughter a mother?

Plenty of soul-searching must have gone on, but it was all hidden or suppressed, and never talked about. Just as one never mentioned nervous breakdowns, mental illness, cancer, or sexual diseases. So much was never talked about, so much. Life seemed riddled with taboos that nobody ever referred to or explained, but a child was conscious of them all the same. I don't think that you could have made an watchable sitcom, humorous or otherwise, about any of this, because it was never out in the open to be examined and dealt with.

You can perhaps see how children would bow to circumstances, and accept their allotted roles without demur. Who would struggle to develop their own point of view? There was no need to, and no encouragement to do so. Of course there were many childhood embarrassments to suffer, many moments of Things Not Feeling Right. I'm sure I was not the only one to live an inner life that could never be revealed. Life in Barry lulled you into a puzzled but ultimately accepting acquiescence. And when one's pocket money was so small, pennies for sweets mattered much, much more than pondering big questions such as 'Who Am I'.

So my childhood was a world of sandals, sherbet, chocolate bars, candyfloss, Guinness Clocks, and proper fairground rides; long hot days on a packed, noisy beach; the cool meadows of Porthkerry, waving at the train drivers as they steamed over the high viaduct (and they waved back); beautifully-maintained parks and gardens; amazing displays of flowers; fountains that were beautifully lit up at night, with coloured lights; and red Western Welsh buses. There was nothing threatening or fearful about it, nothing to suggest dark things like chronic unemployment, drunkenness, child abuse, and crime. If there was behind-the-scenes extortion and thuggery going on at the Barry Island fairground, or in the arcades - a protection racket perhaps - it went unremarked.

I noticed on my recent visit to Barry and Barry Island that the narrow lanes that ran behind the terraced houses had mostly acquired gates, as a barrier to casual intruders. Not that they would deter a determined thief. I thought this was sad, though. Those lanes had once been safe shortcuts for children, so that they could cross the town without risking the traffic on the main roads. Not that the traffic was heavy: it was still possible to see a horse-drawn rag-and-bone man's cart in 1960; and if the coal merchant parked his lorry carelessly in the middle of the road, it was hardly going to cause a big traffic queue.

So what did I see last month on my afternoon in Barry Island? I've mentioned the school and the streets of terraced houses. The school overlooked the docks, in my day a busy scene full of railway lines, coal wagons, and banana boats tied up at the quayside. I decided to go and see it. I found the little building where Mr Conway the barber gave boys a short back and sides, or a crewcut, or a Tony Curtis, while their mothers shopped nearby. It's the yellowish one in the picture. It was now used for storage.

Behind it a road descended sharply into the docks. It was one of the ways to them. Mothers with prams and heedless children who couldn't swim would use roads like this to walk directly between the upper part of Barry and the Island, to avoid a roundabout journey via the causeway. Nobody was worried about deep water or security or health-and-safety in those days. It was very different now. All was fenced off. The dock installations and ships had vanished. There were just the basins. And so much was overgrown with bushes. I recognised very little.

As expected, the road led me around to the Harbour. This was still the centre for boaty things. But the days of the steamers, and holiday voyages across the Bristol Channel to Ilfracombe and elsewhere, had long gone. So had the lifeboat station. How many times had the distress signal been heard all over Barry Island in the 1950s! And we had raced over to the Harbour on little legs, just to see the lifeboat launched down its ramp and splash with a whoosh into the water! The old lifeboat house was still there, and the remains of the ramp; but there was no reason to run now.

At this point I found myself stuck: the whole area was fenced in. The sands of Jackson's Bay, and the path up to the top, could be reached through a gate, but it was padlocked. I'd find a way, though. I saw a man nearby, and simply walked over to him, and I asked him if he knew how I could get through the fence. Just like that. We chatted. He did indeed have a key to the padlock: he was a member of the boat club. But I must understand that he wasn't supposed to let people through. They had a lot of trouble with theft and vandalism. He sighed: Barry Island had changed. I told him about my connection with the Island, and how far it went back. He seemed surprised that it went back quite so far, but it softened him, as my nice smile might have as well. The upshot was that he let me through on condition that I didn't make a habit of it. I promised. Once released, I ignored Jackson's Bay (there was a belligerent-looking young family down there) and simply took the path up from the Harbour.

At the top, I was back into the familiar. But it wasn't the same. It was all so tatty and tired. I was mildly shocked to see the old Marine Hotel being pulled down. They'd left the brick front, but clearly the site was to become apartments. My only real memory of the hotel was of attending a children's event there late one winter's afternoon (it was dark outside), which involved ducking for apples and similar things. I wondered why I couldn't remember more about it, or indeed more about my childhood generally. Why just some things, and not all of it? Had I floated about in a daze? Or just blanked out a lot of it?

I walked down Plymouth Road. There was Auntie Betty's former home, at number 35. Betty and her husband Harold eventually moved to Barry, and ended up in the North, near Blackpool. They are both dead now. There was the recreation ground at the bottom of the hill, but the tall slide, so scary, had gone. Auntie Betty's son Trevor, who feared nothing, regularly put me to shame because I hated to climb the steps to the top, and was afraid of falling. I was actually afraid of many things then. But the slide had been taken down at some point - modern judgements on what children could safely play on clearly agreed with my own.

I reached the station, and looked back. In 1973 I saw this. None too salubrious even then. (I had been able to borrow the family's Ford Cortina, bottom centre)

By 1986 it was like this (with the chalets of Butlins holiday camp on the right skyline):

And now, in 2014, the rebuilt railway bridge straddled a decaying wasteland of superwide railway platforms (once necessary for thousands of daytrippers and excursionists). The austere chalets of Butlins had been replaced by rather boring housing:

On to the seafront, passing what used to be the main entrance of Butlin's. Another wasteland, only partly redeveloped as a housing estate. I could remember when all this upland was breezy turf, with commanding views in every direction. Most of it had now become an underused, scruffy car park, waiting in vain for some visionary developer. No chance.

When it opened in 1966, Butlin's was a controversial but commercially welcome extra attraction for a resort that had already left its glory days long behind. It totally dominated any view over to the Island. It was a blot on the landscape. And yet the turf was sacrificed in vain. Holiday camps were already past their heyday, and it wasn't the success that Sir Billy Butlin had hoped it would be. Mum and Dad took myself and my brother Wayne there on holiday in 1966 and 1968, when it was new and pristine and all that Sir Billy had intended for the latest (and last) of his camps. Mum, Dad and Wayne loved it. I did not: I was too young to enjoy the more adult facilities (apart from bingo), and yet too old for the kids' stuff (except riding on the waltzer until I was sick). The chalets were way too basic. The mealtimes were like a vast works canteen, serving nothing special. The evening shows were clearly good, but I cringed at them. Just outside the gates, the real world beckoned, but I wasn't allowed to go out on my own. I was stuck for things to do, and felt trapped. I suppose it represented a cheap holiday, with everything included, if you were the sort whose holiday ambitions were easily satisfied. So different from the camping holiday in France we had tried in 1965 - an uncomfortable tenting holiday, with strange toilets everywhere we went, but at least a touring holiday full of genuine novelty.

Butlin's changed hands in 1986, and continued, hardly altered, under new management. In 1986 I saw this, presumably around the time of the switchover:

But the holiday camp lasted only another ten years before the costs of maintaining its ageing fabric made the whole thing uneconomic. A limited facelift wasn't enough. Here it is in 2001 (not my photo), with rusting railings:

And in 2005 (not my photo), with demolition in progress:

I can't feel sentimental about the erasure of Butlin's - good riddance! But nothing nice has replaced it. The site remains a scar, an ugly empty space, full of weeds, that drags Barry Island down. It wasn't the only thing on the Island to fall into ruin. The once-magnificent Scenic Railway (a roller-coaster ride disguised as a mountain) has long gone. Its best modern equivalent is the odd-looking Log Flume, still there last month:

Rather like a menacing cat, waiting for victims, isn't it? Nearby there were sleazy amusement dens, offering the use of (very expensive) cash machines, and I dare say there were idiots who made use of them. Otherwise, all was closed up (and yet this was June!).

The greensward between the funfair and the beach bore all the signs of a cash-strapped local council. It was once a magic fairyland at night. Where had all the flower beds gone? The fountains? I really didn't think a twee and pointless 'Victorian' bandstand was any kind of substitute:

At least sandy Whitmore Bay was largely as I once experienced it:

An extraordinarily high proportion of the people about looked overweight and flabby. It made me feel quite fit and healthy!

Feeling ever more an outsider, I walked on to Friars Point, where you could at least get an overview, a panorama, and an escape from the tat on the promenade. In the late afternoon sunshine, with everything distant, it all looked fine, almost wholesome:

The bottom shot looks over to Barry proper, specifically Cold Knap Point.

As you might imagine, I didn't find this visit to Barry Island uplifting. Next time, whenever that is, I'll stick to Barry. Although it's not an especially attractive town, I get drawn to it from time to time because I grew up there, so it's special to me. It's a place I'd never now want to live in, and not one that I would urge anyone to go to; but it's the source of my oldest memories, and going to see it is a way of unlocking things I still don't understand about myself. There's nobody alive now, nobody at all, who knew me from day to day as a child, except I suppose a few schoolchildren who might vaguely recall me. But they never saw me at home. No, only the place itself can help.

1 comment:

  1. Very eloquent. I especially relished: By the way, forget what you may have seen of Barry or Barry Island in the sitcom Gavin and Stacey. In my day (meaning the 1950s and the early 1960s) these places were rather different. They were smarter, livelier, more colourful, full of civic pride and endeavour; much more crowded with local people, and more noisy with cheerful holidaymakers and day-trippers; and not subdued, down-at-heel and humdrum like they are now
    - sums up the town in words I haven't been able to find.

    Thank you.


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