Caught by the River

Wandering the River Taff: Hamadryad Park

Helia Phoenix | 18th April 2018

In this month’s column Helia Phoenix sings the praises of Hamadryad Park, and laments the development of flats on the biodiverse land next door to it

The park takes its name from the HMS Hamadryad, the old hospital ship that was moored about a hundred yards from the park. Today, you’ll find a playground in this spot. I wrote about the ship in my first column about the Taff: This Is Rat Island. The ship was replaced by the bricks and mortar Royal Hamadryad Hospital in 1905. Most of this building has now been demolished, although a portion of it remains, housing a local community mental health service.

All of Butetown – the ward that the park lies in – was laid out and built on reclaimed marshland in the mid-1800s, when Cardiff was entering super-boom-time, thanks to its docklands and coal exports. Cardiff’s fortunes were reversed in the 1920s, and south Cardiff’s docklands became derelict throughout the 20th century.

In 1987, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up to develop and transform this area. Most of the major works started in 1993 and wound up around 2000. It’s the same enormous civil engineering project that saw the creation of Grangemoor Park, and shaped much of what you see around Cardiff Bay today. Hamadryad Park was one of the last pieces of land to be moulded, manicured, and mowed into shape by the Corporation, and opened its gates in the early 2000s.

A view of Hamadryad Park today

When I was younger, between the ages of six to eleven, I lived in Exeter, in an estate right on the edge of Mincinglake Valley Park. Some of my earliest memories are of traipsing around the woods there, accompanied by a merry band of kids from my street. We stared in awe at bluebells, poked slow worms with sticks, and saved tadpoles that had been laid in puddles, delivering them to nearby ponds using buckets and bowls sneaked out of our kitchens.

Those woods didn’t feel separate from my house or garden. I spent so much time wandering around in them that they felt like my home had just expanded into them. The world felt more open then; boundaries and borders like fences or streams were just obstacles to be vaulted over or waded through. There’s only been one other occasion in my life I was in an outdoors space so much it felt like an extension of my house, and that space is Hamadryad Park.

The map of Cardiff below was published in 1949. You can see the area that would become the park labelled (unceremoniously) as ‘Mud’, just south of the hospital.

Glamorgan XLVII.NE (includes: Cardiff; Penarth.), Revised: 1947, Published: ca. 1949. From

Hamadryad Park and the adjacent Cardiff Bay Wetlands (that sit sneakily on the other side of the A4232 flyover) were finally designated as a local nature reserve in 2010, despite having been open for nearly a decade by this point. I found the park in 2009, initially as a source of sloes for gin. It then became a running route, and then finally, when I moved, my local dog walking circuit. I spend around an hour in this green space everyday. The park’s human population also helps it feel like a private place – it’s usually deserted, and even in the height of summer there are rarely more than two barbecues on the go at any one time.

It’s a strange thing, for a public place to become more like your backyard than your actual backyard, if you have one. I do, although it’s only about five metres squared, so barbecuing there isn’t much of an option. The park has two fields of manicured grass in the centre, with rusted goal posts on both that are used by youth teams early in the morning on weekends – the busiest the park ever gets. Around the edges, the land is left mostly wilding, although occasionally the council will appear to hack down some trees, leaving empty voids where there had been impenetrable shrubbery. These seemingly random invasions disturb me more than they have any right too. They may manage the park…but then, as a citizen, it is my park. My space.

The south-western edge of Hamadryad Park where it meets the River Taff – random tree clearance. Photo taken in April 2018.

Worse than the haphazard maintenance has been the development on land next to the park. This “wasteland” (which is what developers tend to call biodiverse spaces when they’re inconveniently positioned where someone wants to stick a bunch of flats) had been where parts of the old hospital had stood before being demolished. The land was replete with mature oak trees, most of which had been there since the hospital was built in 1905, where you could find foxes and bats and voles, amongst other things. Despite endless complaints and campaigning from local residents and conservation campaigners, the land was eventually sold on for flats and a Welsh primary school (which is in the process of being built – to be opened in September 2018).

I never thought to take pictures of this fenced off area before it was developed. It was just brambles, just bushes, just nothing…which is to say, nothing man-made. It was green space, with shrubs and trees, trapped behind a large fence. It was home to countless birds and animals and insects. It was wild nature, beyond the manicured, managed body of the park. I managed to find a picture of it, on a news story about the opening of the school (which is actually being built on the other side of the hospital). This photo was taken in 2014.

Hamadryad Park, looking towards the Hamadryad Seaman’s Hospital. Photo from 2014 by Grange Cardiff.

The same view now, unfortunately, looks like this …

Hamadryad Park flats, view looking towards the Hamadryad Seaman’s Hospital – taken in April 2018.

I wondered if I would ever get over losing those trees. I still don’t feel like I have. Before they redeveloped the land you would often see bats flying around at dusk in the summertime. During a particularly hot period in the summer of 2015, I went to the park for a picnic and stayed long into the evening, preferring the outdoor air to the stifling heat of the house. I was getting ready to go home when huge swarms of insects emerged from the trees. They moved like smoke, almost in waves: huge columns of them spiralled up and then descended, as if they were rising and falling with the breath of the trees.

I sat and watched until it was dark, as the bats shook loose and darted through the swarm, picking off what they could of the kamikaze insects. There were thousands of tiny gnats here, assembled into this airborne swarm over the trees, which had become their swarm marker. In the air above this wasteland, they performed their mating dance – not living long enough to feed, just long enough to mate, lay eggs in the nearby marshy greenery, and die.

The air was thick and humid, my skin clammy. I got a sudden shiver. For a second, watching the wildlife on display in front of me, I completely forgot where I was. I was transported to a forest in Malaysia, or the borders of southern American swampland.

In our manicured parkland, there’s a definite place for these areas, that remain off the map, messy, where you can go to escape the world. To hide, and remain hidden. The untamed and clandestine parts of our parks can often be the best bits.

There is still some wildlife here now, of course. I’ve seen two dead rats in the park over the past three months, as well as stumbling in on many early morning seagull conventions, where thousands of the squawking white birds do that weird stampy thing on the ground, pretending to be rain, trying to persuade worms to stick their heads out. Watching them swarm and fly off as you approach is quite the sight.

Early morning flight – image by Heather_Patterson on Instagram.

But on every walk around the park now, I still look at that space where we lost the hundred-year old trees. I hope some of those creatures decide to come back here in the future.

To rewild it.

To rebuild it.

The walled circular pond in Hamadryad Park, home to cormorants, ducks, waders, frogs and lizards.