The Cardiff Bay Barrage Crocodile (in honour of Roald Dahl)

©Luke Waterson

We admit it: a point comes when, as new parents, you start looking at undertaking not just the truly hardcore adventures that were once your raison d’être but also the activities that will be enjoyable and easy to do for the little one(s) in your life. As travellers long accustomed to going so wildly off-piste the piste can no longer be seen, reaching this point was a pretty significant epiphany. The switch to watching out for the pushchair-friendly path or place with run-around space and a playground, the change in perspective from anything goes to only certain things go… many readers will know exactly what we mean. In such a quest the other week, trying to balance the intrepid with the infantile, we came upon a different side to Cardiff Bay: beyond – thankfully – the flashy buildings and big-chain eateries.

The Bay: odd, but oddly appealing

Cardiff Bay might be the oddest, most contentious and locally least-loved of any waterfront development in Britain. Sure, it transformed a rather putrid-smelling area of mudflats surrounded by general neglect into the architectural poster for 21st-century Wales, but it did so swamped in environmental controversy (the waterbirds that once frequented the mudflats no longer do) and the transformation that did happen was not the most sensitive (it regrettably prioritised bland international chains over local, independent Welsh businesses). BUT. It’s certainly a great place to go for a wander in Cardiff if you are in the city with kids.

The space, for one thing. Cardiff Bay does not lack in that regard. You can relax and let your offspring off the leash just a little, here, what with the wide pedestrianised areas. There’s Techniquest, too, a hands-on child-oriented interactive science centre reopening this month with a social distancing-friendly new look. The places to eat in the sea of afore-mentioned bland international chains are spacious too, and little ones do not notice how soulless the vast majority are.

For all that, though, the area is not, for the casual visitor, exactly replete with reasons to linger too long. The architecture is mostly of the ‘stop, briefly stare and stroll on’ variety. We found ourselves moving onward, ever onward, arcing around the bay eastwards and southwards, searching for that ‘something special’ – towards the Cardiff Bay Barrage.

Introducing the Barrage

The Barrage, of course, was the lynchpin in the area’s development: without this vast dam impounding the waters of the rivers Ely and Taff that empty into the sea here, the Bay would have remained very much mud. Would the Senedd or the Wales Millennium Centre or any of those chain restaurants wanted to position themselves along the edge of a giant morass of smelly silt? Uh-uh.

For such a talismanic structure, though, the approach is pretty unspectacular: a tarmac pathway running close to Cardiff Docks hemmed in by high wire fences, and hardly state-of-the-art landscaping. A little stark, to put it nicely. But of course the purpose of the Barrage is not really to have good looks – at least not its own. It’s so far away from the main Bay action that even were it to look dazzlingly beautiful not very many people would notice.

One of the things it does do for the visitor, however, is to show off the looks of other parts of the Bay development. Walking out along the pathways on top of the dam, the showcase vista of the Capital’s waterfront opens up: the ruddy terracotta of the Pierhead Building centre stage, backed by the Wales Millennium Centre in its multicoloured bands of slate, the whitewashed Norwegian Church Arts Centre to the right and the dominant curved roof of Voco St Davids Hotel and Spa off left. All underscored by a gleaming mass of sparkly blue water. Never does the Bay look so beautiful as when viewed with its full array of architecture from afar, and the Barrage gives the best overview (unless you are actually  in the water). The views seaward, out into the Bristol Channel towards the islands of Flatholm and Steepholm, are never better appreciated than from here, either.

The Barrage also serves the very useful function of connecting the Bay with the neighbouring town of Penarth across the River Ely in the Vale of Glamorgan. Cardiff and Penarth were connected by road before, of course, but they were not connected by a pedestrian- and cycle-friendly pathway, which the Barrage now provides, and the Wales Coast Path and Cardiff Bay Trail now run across here. A 45-minute, 2.3-mile walk from the Norwegian Church Arts Centre takes you right over to Penarth and on up and over the hill to Penarth Pier on one of South Wales’ most architecturally interesting urban walks – yet few people seem to know this and few Cardiff itineraries ever feature such an activity.

The Penarth end of the Barrage and not another soul in sight… ©Luke Waterson

One thing that surprised us was how few Cardiffians seem to venture down to the Barrage. They don’t come to the Bay all that much either, actually, and both facts were emphasised by the fact that, on a sunny weekend day on the brink of the latest Cardiff lockdown when outside visitors were at a minimum, the Barrage was near deserted: no more than a dozen other walkers and cyclists all told. The whole thing seemed a contradiction in terms: one of the most obvious structures in the city, yet one of the least explored.

The Barrage’s main feature aside from the water management mechanisms, once you pass the playground and skatepark, are the sails about halfway along. Here, some effort has been made to give the Barrage a deeper historical context beyond its mere 21 years of age, with several displays right underneath pertaining to the ill-fated voyage of Robert Falcon Scott to the Antarctic in 1910, which left from Cardiff (‘We were welcomed by the citizens of the great Welsh seaport with enthusiasm. Free docking, free coal, defects made good for nothing’ remarked expedition member and Scott’s second-in-command Edward Evans). But we were on the Barrage with a little one, remember. Only so long we could peruse legend boards on Antarctic voyages.

Enter the Enormous Crocodile

Help was at hand. Just before the displays was a larger-than-life monument to one of the greatest literary works by Wales’ most famous writer. No, not Dylan Thomas. Roald Dahl. Arguably the best-known children’s writer of all time. And there on the Barrage is a fittingly huge likeness of the Enormous Crocodile, one of his most vivid bestial creations. Just at the perfect height for our little one to pet and clamber on.

She is too young to make the connection with Roald Dahl, but she certainly appreciated the 10-metre long beast with his mouth bared in a rather friendly trademark display of teeth, erected here in 2016 to mark the centennial of Dahl’s birth. A beast which enjoys a perfect situation along the Barrage to take in the full Cardiff cityscape and serves as an added incentive to venture out here with the family. Almost as great as the fearsome creature itself is surely Wales’ most original public bench, alongside: a massive flipped-open likeness of The Enormous Crocodile book!

Roald Dahl Sights in Cardiff

But the croc also acts as one of the hard-to-find focal points of Roald Dahl’s legacy in Cardiff. The legacy is actually glaringly and inexplicably un-championed, in the city where he was born, spent the early part of his life and gleaned a fair bit of inspiration for his books. The Norwegian Church Arts Centre, just back around the Bay from the croc and where Roald Dahl was baptised and where he and his family worshipped, is the most evident reminder of the writer. But Dahl was born up in Llandaff and attended the Cathedral School there. Here, he was once caned with other pupils for secreting a mouse in a jar of gobstoppers, which he had purchased in the nearby sweet shop (spot the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory references). The Sweet Shop, which also inspired parts of Matilda and The Twits, is now an Air B&B. So if beholding a Roald Dahl character come to life (well nearly) on Cardiff Bay is not enough for you, you can step into and stay within a recurrent scene from his books…

And if you’re inspired to do a Roald Dahl reconnoitre of Cardiff, there is no more apt month than this: the writer died thirty years ago this month…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the enormous croc, it’s 2.4 miles north to our favourite city drinking spot, delightfully-decorated, Spanish-themed, Vermouth-specialising Vermut

At a glance

How to get there: Approach from either the main Cardiff Bay side or the Penarth side. From the nearest parking at the former, Mermaid Quay Car Park, proceed to the water’s edge and head east/south (left) around the bay to reach the croc partway along the Barrage after 1 mile. From the nearest parking at the latter, Cardiff Bay Barrage Car Park (which you’ll find by taking the A4232 to the A4055 exit which goes over the River Ely to a roundabout, where you’ll turn left and keep heading all the way along Terranova Way and Penarth Portway to the very end, following ‘Barrage’ signs), you just need to follow the Barrage along to just past the sails (half a mile). Cardiff Bay railway station, just back from Mermaid Quay, has regular trains from Cardiff Queen Street.

Parking: Big car parks at beginning of either access route. Mermaid Quay parking can be hard to come by but there is nearly always space at the Cardiff Bay Barrage car park. Parking either way is £2.50 for up to 2 hours.

Refreshments: Cardiff is amazing for its food; Cardiff Bay is not. There is a small cafe at the Norwegian Church Arts Centre (closed due to Covid-19 right now) and, at the Penarth end of the Barrage, The Old Custom House, a restaurant in the attractive former custom house.

Best time to visit: The colour spectrum is definitely enhanced by the sun. When it’s glimmering on the water you might well be persuaded Cardiff Bay is a beautiful place. In the grey and the cold (and on the Barrage you’ll feel these things before anywhere else in Cardiff!), perhaps not so much. Avoid very windy weather!