Caught by the River

Wandering the River Taff: Dealing with the run-off

Helia Phoenix | 22nd June 2018

Rainwater, sticky trees, and mindful walking: Helia Phoenix traces the edge of the River Taff as it skirts the ward of Grangetown.

If you head north up the Taff Trail from Cardiff Bay, you’ll take a footpath lined with hundred-year-old trees, marking the eastern edge of Grangetown. It’s a large and busy neighbourhood, separated from Cardiff Bay by the River Taff. The last census counted nearly 20,000 people living here, and although there’s only one small park, the river gives a sense of expansiveness and proximity to nature you don’t normally get in inner city neighbourhoods (particularly not usually ones as ethnically mixed as ‘G-town’, as the graffiti has named it).

Despite being so close to the river, until this year, all the rainwater that fell on Grangetown was diverted into the city’s Victorian sewer system rather than flowing into the Taff. The rainwater was then pumped eight miles south, treated with household waste, and released into the Bristol Channel. Over the past two years, the Greener Grangetown project has dug up all the local streets and added gravel levels underground for surface water to flow through before joining the river.

The project is nearing completion. A lot is new. I walk slowly up Taff Embankment, the epicentre of the change, taking in details in preparation for writing this piece. The embankment is about 700 metres long, lined by those old trees, mostly limes, and a low brick wall, keeping people and pets away from the river bank and waters of the Taff.

The last time I walked along this street at such a glacial pace was 18 months ago. I’d been given a compulsory “time out” from life by my GP. I was signed off work, having panic attacks, migraines, IBS. There were huge blanks in my memory. I had to stop driving. At one point, I stood in my kitchen, bamboozled by the task of making a sandwich. Funny, in retrospect, but also a stark warning of the havoc that stress and anxiety can wreak on any functional person.

I gave up a lot during this time, but acquired something too: I started walking, to improve my health. And because, to quote The Clash, I live by the river, (not their river, but still a river), and because I’d been told to practice mindfulness, which stopped the panic attacks and was the only thing that stopped me feeling like I was going to float off into space, I clung to it, like a drowning rat to a raft made from empty fag packets, praying for salvation (or just a quick death). Initially I found seated meditations difficult. I still do – I’m just a fidgety person. So when I discovered mindful walking, it was several hallelujahs, thanks to Karni Mata, and then off to Taff Embankment to practice.

At the time, the street was a working building site: piles of fencing, mounds of gravel everywhere as the streets were excavated. Walkers and cyclists ignored temporary barriers; they shifted cones and moved railings, creating shortcuts through the mess. Everything was in disarray.

Even though root heave had left a slow explosion of tarmac all over the pavements, I found the trees along Taff Embankment to be very comforting at this time. An old tree stays solid and doesn’t move, even when it feels like the ground beneath you might be about to. It’s not just human intuition that tells us that trees are good for our health – a study published in 2015 showed that people who live in neighbourhoods with a higher density of trees on their streets – say an extra 11 or more trees in a city block – on average have fewer medical conditions, comparable to being nearly a year and a half younger.

In case you’ve never tried it, mindful walking is exactly what it sounds like it is. Your aim is to put all your focus and attention into the act of walking. Of course, your mind wanders into thoughts, because that’s just what minds do, but as soon as you realise, you just guide your attention back to the activity. Back into your feet. For me, the alternative was not an option. I was hearing voices that weren’t there, sensing imaginary people sneaking up behind me, breathing in my ears, tugging at my hair. Focusing on my feet was a welcome relief from all of this.

And so, it was along Taff Embankment that I started walking mindfully. Ridiculous as this sounds, I found it hard to do this and breathe at the same time, so my pace got slower, and slower, until I reached a speed where I could manage to walk, maintain focus on my feet, and respirate, all at the same time.

A strange thing happens to my vision every time I try mindful walking. Once I get into the rhythm of it, a dolly zoom effect happens, where life starts unfolding to me through the smallest details, showing me things I have never noticed before.

The doorway with navy blue tiles, next to the doorway with white tiles. Snails copulating (or eating each other, I couldn’t tell exactly what they were doing). A cat batting its paw at a tiny cloud of midges. Tree trunks fighting their way out of the pavement in a torpid bid for freedom. The violence and volume of oars smacking into water as the rowers heave themselves upstream. The residue of trees, sticky deposits all over the paving slabs, like walking through a carpeted nightclub.

One unseasonably hot day, I pass a man and woman down on the bank. He’s just wearing shorts and she appears to be in her underwear, her face bearing the pockmarks of extended crack use. They ask me for a light. I shake my head, can’t even squeak out a sorry, and move forwards, walking, trying to count the trees. I lose count every time, just like when I try to count my steps, or my breath. I walk up the street counting 47 trees, but the way back there are only 32. It changes every time. I imagine small impish creatures sneaking around behind me, moving the trees around, making some disappear and reappear as I lumber past, unable to see their magical play with my mundane human vision.

Over the past year, a lot has changed, both in my life, and along this stretch of the Taff. According to a leaflet someone gives me while I’m sitting next to one of the large trees on the embankment, an additional 1,600 square metres of green space have been created by the project, and 135 new trees have been planted, mostly saplings in planters on the streets that branch off from here. The pavements are wider, and those large roots have been contained underground, for now.

I’m now nine months panic-attack free, and I still use Taff Embankment as a regular mindful walking route. The trees make useful punctuation points, reminding me to stay focused, to not get lost in my mind. Occasionally, when wrangling with thoughts, one of the lime trees will tap me on the shoulder and whisper some Rumi to me:

Be like a tree
and let the dead leaves drop.

If you feel like your daily life might be enriched by some mindful walking, I recommend the following links as a place to start: