Caught by the River

Wandering the River Taff: A Detour via the Largest Rubbish Dump in Wales

Helia Phoenix | 20th February 2018

In this month’s column, Helia Phoenix wanders away from the river, opting instead for a visit to Grangemoor Park, aka ‘Asbo Hill’

Although my column is all about the River Taff, for this entry we’re taking a detour, to nearby Grangemoor Park – formerly known as the Ferry Road landfill. Detours are important. And this column wouldn’t be an accurate representation of my experiences along the river if it didn’t stray off the path, climb through a fence and end up accidentally trapped in an industrial estate for an hour.

So come with me, and let’s get lost on Penarth Moors. This area lies between the Taff and a parallel river, the Ely, and is now home to a retail park you’ll visit for your groceries, or shoes, or sportswear, or possibly to get a drive-through Starbucks. Cardiff’s Ikea is here, along with Boots and Poundstretcher. A Home Bargains opened recently, to much fanfare and excitement. You may not be from round here, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of the place.

Rising up beside all this glittering commerce, see the gently undulating peaks of Grangemoor (or as I like to call it, Asbo Hill). It nestles behind the shops, and bears the brunt of littering from people who like to frequent the McDonald’s.

Autumn view through Grangemoor Park towards the Millennium / Principality Stadium

It’s one of my favourite places to walk in all of Cardiff. The top of the park has a number of paths that weave around its two peaks, giving a brilliant view of the city and surrounding areas. It’s the only hill in south Cardiff, so views are unimpeded. For those who like solitary walks, you’ll rarely encounter anyone other than the odd dog walker or runner. There is detritus by the sculpture that suggests people also use this site for imbibing alcopops and smoking a bong or five, but you’ll never see anyone up there doing it.

The artwork at the peak of the park is called Silent Links, created by Ian Randall and installed in the park in 2000

Reach the top, and drink in that view.

The view north, past Ikea, towards the city centre.

And then consider this: the view comes courtesy of Britain’s growing rubbish problem from a boom in commerce through the 60s, 70s and 80s. You’re actually standing on one of the biggest rubbish tips in Britain.

History is so incongruous with the place today. It’s a source of endless fascination for me. There are reeds now, and scrub, and neverending long grasses. In the summer, dragonflies and damsonflies flit about. It’s an incredible vantage point for sunrises and sunsets: on a clear day, you can see north to Castle Coch, and east across the River Severn to Clevedon in England.

On the cold wintery walks I’ve been enjoying around Grangemoor recently, I’ve been trying to imagine what it looked like, pre-park. I couldn’t find any royalty-free images to use here (surprisingly there aren’t many photos of Cardiff’s tips from the 70s on the internet), but I did manage to find a couple if you fancy a look.

I don’t remember the tip as a child. In fairness to my mum, it wasn’t really the sort of place you’d go for a day out with your toddler. Few older locals I speak to remember it either. The past 40 years have seen this area regenerated unrecognisably, trying to improve on the errors of the past. Tipping and unruly industrial works have left numerous areas around the south of Cardiff with contaminated soil. The Leckwith Droves allotments – not far from Asbo Hill – are the least desirable plots in the whole county, labelled as Category C on the council’s website: This site does not have toilets, water or made-up roads, and the land may have traces of arsenic, likely from Cardiff’s industrial past. That final part isn’t on there, but is true nonetheless. Dedicated growers have soldiered on at those allotments, spending the last decade fetching in tonnes of manure and wood mulch to work into the land to improve it.

Back to Asbo Hill. Tipping started here in 1969, when one of the meandering sections of the River Ely was cut off, diverting the river and creating an empty channel as a container for the city’s refuse. Eventually the rubbish outgrew the space, and dumping extended across the whole of the tidal salt marsh area.

Winter view of the sunset, looking west towards Leckwith

During its lifetime, the Ferry Road municipal tip amassed four million cubic metres of household and commercial refuse. Cardiff was long past the glory days of the nineteenth century, when the port was handling more coal than any other in the world. After the First World War, the docks and surrounding areas declined, with the wooden factories and warehouses crumbling like old biscuits into the murky tea of the rivers and the estuary.

And so, Ferry Road tip became the refuse-filled heart of south Cardiff; a wasteland built on used nappies, broken transistor radios, old mattresses. A towering pile of household and commercial waste that loomed like a huge, macabre beacon over the derelict industrial units that had once supported the docklands.

The landfill was finally closed in 1995, when development plans were passed to regenerate the area with a mixture of retail and housing. Initially the rubbish was supposed to be moved by train to Bedford, but the practicalities of chugging millions of cubic metres of waste by rail proved too difficult for the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, who decided to bury their problems instead. They created a container lined with high-density polyethylene, into which they poured 30,000 tonnes of heavily contaminated materials and asbestos, and 5,000 tonnes of Japanese Knotweed infested materials, then topped it all off with 420,000 tonnes of waste from the adjacent former landfill sites of Ely Fields and Ferry Road Retail Park.

On top of all of that, they added clay, then added soil, then added plants. And in 2000, this giant cake, filled with the rubbish of the 1970s, was designated as a city park.

Tasty, right?

There are no signs of the area’s past, apart from the vents you see in amongst all the greenery – their purpose is to let the methane out. That’s right – it’s a park that’s actually letting rip around you, while you walk through it, presumably taking in the “fresh” air. Could you love it more?

One of the park’s many vents, sealed off to the public, designed to release methane from the rubbish buried beneath

There aren’t many visible signs around the various entrance points to the park, which has led to most people just calling it ‘Asda Hill’. And it’s true, you do get a good view of the supermarket from the park’s summit, but I prefer to call it Asbo Hill. It’s a name I learned from a dog walker I met there a decade ago. She was an older lady with some energetic hounds, who told me she had been turfed out of her local Grangetown park because some small dog owners thought her pets were terrorising theirs.

‘That’s why we comes up yur, and that’s why we calls it Asbo Hill,’ she said to me, in the broadest Cardiff accent you’ve ever heard. ‘Cos all the dogs up yur got Asbos!’.

The River Ely running through Grangemoor Park, with the A4232 flyover in the background

My greyhound Zelda enjoying the river view of the Ely, as it skirts through Grangemoor Park


I came across many interesting bits of information during my research for this piece that I wasn’t able to fit in here. I’ve included all of this background here if you’re interested in learning more about the regeneration of the area.