Documenting one of the forgotten corners of Porthcawl
Porthcawl is a South Wales coastal town full of contradictions. As Bridgend Borough’s only seaside town, Porthcawl is the tourist jewel that’s almost forgotten. I say almost because things are on the change. Porthcawl is a jewel that’s dusty and in need of re-seating in its mount but, in expert hands, and done right, its former beauty is easily restored.
For a small seaside town, and most likely because it’s a small seaside town, wealth and poverty are uncomfortable neighbours with million pound houses and bedsits in converted Victorian villas. Urban decay holds guard over forgotten land.
Although, the land isn’t really forgotten. It’s land held in the hope that, one day, fortunes will return to this once thriving coal port town, and beachfront land will reveal its hidden pot of potential development gold at the end of a neon rainbow. Scrub land and multi-million pound investments, wealth and poverty, all make uncomfortable bedfellows. It’s the modern enigma of once thriving seaside resorts around Britain, run down but full to the brim with summer tourists. Not as many tourists as in the towns heyday but, still the summer tourists come.
The summer migration/invasion is a battle on three fronts. In the first wave, Pensioners arrive in Porthcawl by bus, seeking the seaside town and experience of yore. It’s still there if you look through squinted eyes or have cataracts. Young families arriving by car make up the second wave. These families stay at the caravan parks and spend their time at the ever shrinking funfair where they point with sticky, candy floss covered fingers to a spot of empty concrete and say, “Wasn’t there a ride there last year?”. The third wave arrives at the very end of the summer season when thousands flood into Porthcawl for three days of tribute acts, karaoke and dress-up at the Elvis festival (which warrants a whole photographic documentary series all to itself).
Sun cream days and chip supper nights, all rounded off with cheap beer in the clubhouse, or in the pubs locals flee during the long summer months. Pensioners and young alike go to bed wobbly and tired. Lots of forgotten moments for different reasons. Whilst tourists choke the roads out of Porthcawl like fat deposits block arteries, locals take the long way around via country lane capillaries, making sure to give way to each other with a knowing wave as they go…yep, that time of year again. There’s a love hate relationship between locals, tourists and the Elvis Festival goers. It’s not a unique relationship to Porthcawl. Every town, city and even country has the same wary relationship between locals and tourists.
Yes, Porthcawl has many contradictions. For this series I’ve chosen to focus on one contradiction and call it the Barrens.
Known to locals as The Bowl, due to a large semicircle depression in the middle of this strip of beach front land, if the Barrens existence is known at all to people outside of Porthcawl then it’s likely remembered as the old Sandy Bay Touring Site.
Run by the local authority, the Sandy Bay Touring site closed in 2000 in a cloud of controversy. The site was profitable but, to a local authority in the midst of government spending cuts and a recession, it was all too tempting to close down, asset strip and sell the land to the highest bidder. Even in a recession there’s money to be made if you know how. Who wouldn’t want to develop prime beach front property? Well, as it turned out, no one. Not a soul. The cloud of controversy grew. Open, the site brought tourist money to Porthcawl. Closed, the land lay derelict and the dereliction spread. Like plants shrivel and die during a dry spell, parts of a town shrivel and die when the money pot empties.
For a long time Porthcawl found itself caught in the general economic decline in sync with another boom and bust cycle. Then, like any town relying on a seasonal tourist trade, package holidays and a favourable exchange rate formed the blade that was not only thrust into the towns side but also twisted. Porthcawl had a mortal wound.
Bridgend County Borough isn’t the wealthiest county in Wales. Neither is it the poorest but, it has it’s share of poverty and unemployment in enough abundance to warrant a large amount of funding from a plethora of EU economic schemes. Schemes to improve infrastructure, to entice manufacturing to the area, to increase job prospects and social mobility, and boost commerce. As a direct result of these initiatives, Porthcawl began to receive its much needed dust down and the re-seating work began when the rejuvenation bandwagon rolled into town on EU coffers. Porthcawl is on the up. It’s a slow up but, an up nevertheless.
Town centre rejuvenation. Beach front rejuvenation. Footpaths and bike-paths. A marina that’s currently in it’s second phase of development. There’s a feeling of renewed hope and prosperity in the town. A feeling of town pride. This feeling doesn’t extend to the Barrens as they’re best forgotten. Okay, not forgotten, simply not mentioned.
The Barrens is a place that you walk through on the coastal path and ignore. It’s empty. It’s derelict. It’s neglected. If you must, then it’s simply a place you have to walk through in order to reach your destination. Local dog walkers, cyclists and joggers may venture off the coastal path to work their way around the maze of old campsite roads that still exist. However, it’s rare for a tourist to venture off the coastal path. The Barrens aren’t that inviting.
It’s a small piece of land, approximately a mile and a half walk if you make your way around the perimeter and include the small peninsula that separates Sandy Bay beach from Trecco Bay beach. The Barrens sits as a wedge separating the High Tide Inn complex (that includes the Harbour Lights Bar and its amusement arcades) from the Trecco Bay caravan park. The 400 yards of coastal path running as a scar across the Barrens is simply a summertime thoroughfare for the daily migration from Trecco Bay to the Harbour Lights Bar, to the funfair and Porthcawl town beyond. Hoards of Trecco Bayers migrate out of the caravan park during daylight hours to reverse migrate back to Trecco Bay in the darkness of night after a day of fun and revelry. It’s doubtful whether any of the holidaymakers take much notice during their march through The Barrens. They may complain that someone should really clear the path of sand as the dunes try to reclaim the land for themselves. Let’s face it, no one likes sand in their flipflops. Then, they may get to the path and think to themselves, ah, nearly back at the caravan.
If only they looked closer, maybe wandered off the thoroughfare just a little, then they may find that the Barrens holds a beauty in its forgotten dereliction. Nature wants to take over but, the sand is difficult for all but the hardiest of plants. It doesn’t help that the dunes try their best to march inland during the lonely winter months.
Council Bulldozers and rollers flattened the Barrens in 1952 to create this area for camping and caravanning. They formed the land into a smooth plane that rises gently as you move towards the sea. It’s this flatness, along with the receding parallel lines of the disused roads, that creates a wonderful optical illusion with a false horizon. Because of the rising land, if you stand in the Barrens you can’t actually see the sea. Instead, on a clear day, sitting across the Bristol Channel, you see the hazy shape of England in the distance. The false horizon gives the impression that the Barrens stretches on for miles. You could walk to England. Instead it’s a three hundred yard walk to the sea.
For this series, as I document this seemingly forgotten corner of Porthcawl, I’m keeping within the perimeter of The Barrens. This includes photographing from inside out, and outside in. I want to capture the derelict, decaying and barren beauty of this small piece of land as our urban legacy crumbles and nature fights to reclaim her rightful place with the help of the ever encroaching dunes. There are only two buildings, or structures, inside this perimeter. The first sits at the end of the peninsula and was built as a lifeguard lookout tower. It’s pretty much defunct now. You may not agree but, I think it has quite an interesting character about it.
The second structure is the newer lifeguard station and lookout platform. It’s an imposing structure built from shipping containers that brings an industrial look to the Barrens. The bright yellow upper storey of the lifeguard station very nearly convinced me to run this entire series in colour but, as you can see, black and white prevailed. You’ll have to trust me when I say the upper storey is yellow.
As a word of warning, you may notice two toilet doors in the picture but, be warned, if you are nearby and thinking they’re handy in an emergency then you need to know only the lifeguards can use them.
As I continue working on this series and documenting the Barrens, the sand, the decay and dereliction, the people using the land for leisure, and the people simply crossing the Barrens to reach some destination that only they know, I’ll add images to this project page. I’ll also post individual images to social media through my Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Please follow along if you’re on any of these platforms.
These are a few select images from the hundred and fifty images in the series to date. I’ll post regular updates as the series continues to develop.
These are the Barrens. They’re derelict. They’re abandoned. They have a strange, silent and still beauty where movement exists in the seasons, the sand, shadows and sky.
Thanks for reading.