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Down Memory Lane again…

Well it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and seeing as you good folk seem to like them…

I was clicking through the Fail, as you do, when I came across this. Like Paul Smith, I too learnt to swim in Penarth Baths. I can’t say that I am a great admirer of his taste in interior design, and like one commenter I’d have liked him to have put an indoor pool in just to keep up the continuity, especially if you are spending that kind of bread, but at least he’s saved the building, that contains many memories for both of us I’m sure.

So why did I learn to swim there? After all I was born in Caerphilly, a good 15 miles away, but Caerphilly had no indoor swimming pool in the 50s and 60s, and when I was 8, in 1960, we moved to Heath in Cardiff.

Dad had been a master butcher in Caerphilly with his own abattoir, but the business was physically and financially killing him. Physically because he worked all the hours god sent. He would be gone before I got up for school and back long after I had been put to bed. I barely knew what he looked like. The only time I would see him was at weekends.

On Saturdays my mum and I would go down Mountain road into the town and visit dad in our shop around the corner from the castle. Then we would go and have tea with my Grandmother in Bradford Street. She was a widow by then; ramrod straight, and an upright citizen, she hadn’t lavished much love on her own five children (when my dad came home from WW2, after 4 years away, she looked up from ironing and said “ Oh it’s you. I’ll put the kettle on shall I?"No hugs rejoicing, nothing.) but seemed to have saved it all up for me. So I got the full works, a lovely cream tea with jam and scones and a glass of orange cordial with soda water. My sensory tastebuds can still savour it now. Orange pop, as we called it in the 50s was local made and delivered, but you had to have a good imagination to relate it to actual oranges. It wasn’t Kool Aid tasteless but almost. Ah but the cordial with soda water was the business! Then I was allowed to watch the Lone Ranger on her telly and then we went home. Gran still had gaslight in the kitchen too. She was a fairly rich old bird and had electric throughout the house, but she liked the quality of the light, as she was a big reader.

Dad would follow on later when he’d shut the shop, bringing with him the meat for the weekend, sweets from the Mailins sisters sweet shop next to ours (coconut mushrooms… raspberry Ruffles etc) and our treat of the week, fish and chips! Still the best fish and chips I ever ate. Beef fat, none of your namby pamby vegetable oil nonsense!

Then on Sunday he played Golf. No wonder I’d have been hard pressed to pick him out at a Police line-up!

Financially the Govt were pushing more and more rules and regulations onto the business, especially the abattoir, so he finally said… bugger this for a game of soldiers! sold up and bought Heath Park Stores in Cardiff instead.

Frankly I hated the move. The house and garden was so much smaller, we lived above and behind the shop and I’d lost all my old friends and had to make new ones. Oh well that’s life eh? but you don’t see it quite that way when you’re small do you?

But Heath turned out to be a very agreeable place to be after all. I got into the A stream of a good local school (Ton yr Ywen) and my parents were prevailed upon to join the Heath Citizens Association.

Which is why every Tuesday evening between 1960 and 1963, you would find me and a few of my chums, learning to swim at Penarth baths. The advantage of Penarth baths was that it used sea water which is more buoyant to potential drowning novice swimmers than the Chlorine infested waters of other baths that would make WW1 veterans nostalgic, drawn in from the Bristol Channel as it is smack on the seafront across from the pier.

For the parents there were Whist drives and dances at the old Heath House (still just about usable till it got burnt down in 1965, as long as you didn’t try to go upstairs, or you may have found yourself downstairs rather sharpish! so dilapidated was the place) and for us kids, table tennis evenings and yes free access to Penarth Baths .

So what used to happen was my long suffering dad used to pick us up from school and ferry us to Penarth (about five miles away from Cardiff) in the Shooting-brake (we were the corner shop and we delivered, it made sense to have what is now called a hatchback) In the winter he used to watch us splash about, but in the summer he used to go and have a coffee in one of the seafront cafes (all Italian) and when the session had finished he’d pick us up.

The routine never changed. Us kids would rush out of the Baths and spend our pocket money on sweets in the booth attached to the Pier. Now we sold sweets in our shop, but the more upmarket varieties, like Cadbury’s chocolate (sic) Callard and Bowsers toffees, Murray mints etc, not the sort of tasty dangerous stuff chock full of E numbers that us kids craved. So we loaded up on Blackjacks, Fruit Salad, Sherbet Flying Saucers, Love Hearts and Refreshers. Then we went down onto the beach to skim stones. Penarth beach, what there is of it, is pebbles and we even used to stare in awe at the new Hovercraft link between Penarth and Weston S Mare boarding and skimming off across the Bristol Channel. My generation expected so much of the future that come the moon landings we were almost bored. But where is that future now?

Back then there were 4 ways to get to S Wales: Train via the Severn Tunnel, that great piece of Victorian engineering. Boat, though these were only pleasure paddle steamers, and I went on holiday to WSM many a time on them, the Aust Ferry (even Bob Dylan used it) or go round Gloucester which adds friggin miles and hours. Now, with the two Severn Bridges, just stand and stare at the volume of traffic using them, the increase in commerce and communication exponential, and marvel!  

Finally we all got back in the car to Cardiff and home to tea of beans on toast and maybe the Avengers or No Hiding Place on TV. A cup of milky coffee and so to bed.

My life and times folks. Hope you enjoyed my little recollections.


  1. JuliaM says:

    “Still the best fish and chips I ever ate. Beef fat, none of your namby pamby vegetable oil nonsense!”

    *heartily approves*

  2. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    It may not be the same one, but a few years back a public baths in Penarth was converted to a pub called “Inn at the deep end” or some such. I seem to recall going there in the 1980′s but my youthful self was more interested in the charms of a young lady by the name of Nicola then much of the internal detail. If you are passing, possibly worth a pint.

    I learned in Guildford Crescent, now a Thai restaurant I believe. Now that was chlorine central and on really, really sunny days, in the Lido at Llandaff Fields, also long since gone.

  3. RAB says:

    Yes it is the same one Single Acts. We went to Guilford Crescent from my junior school, Ton Yr Ywen, and then in Cathays we went to the Empire Pool. All of them gone now. Is there one decent swimming pool left in Cardiff? I have no idea.

    Cathays also got the use of Maindy Stadium for our sports day too. That seems logical because the school was only 500 yards away, but why we also got the use of The Readon Smith Lecture theatre for our Eisteddfod, I never did figure out. Surely Cardiff High should have had the prestige of that.

  4. Lynne says:

    Callard & Bowser’s nougat – sadly, like Peanut Treats, no longer available.


  5. Thornavis says:

    Hell RAB this is really bringing on the nostalgia. We used to have a holiday in Cardiff every year at this time, visiting my Mum’s sister and family in Whitchurch – trolley bus to the Gabalfa an abiding memory – and the family were very keen swimmers and seemed to spend half their lives at the Empire Pool. As for Sherbert Flying Saucers and the like, food of the Gods, thanks for painting such a vivid picture.

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